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The Rise of Saigon’s Stand-Up Scene

 

Ahead of Saigon’s first major international comedy festival later this month, Saigoneer talks to members of the local stand-up community, from veterans to relative newcomers, to find out where the jokes are headed.

Much like craft beer and single-origin pour-over coffee, up until a couple of years ago there wasn’t a very visible stand-up comedy scene in Saigon. What could be considered the community’s early genesis moment came in 2011 when Nick Ross, who runs Saigon International Comedy, helped organize the city’s first stand-up show at Hard Rock Café.

“A friend of mine in Phnom Penh had started messaging me about a comedy show he’d been to there, and he was raving about it,” Ross tells Saigoneer in an email. “He put me in touch with one of the promoters, Andre Chalson, who flew out to Saigon…and then put me in touch with Jonathan Atherton.” At the time Atherton was part of the team behind Comedy Club Asia, and he worked with Ross to help put on the Hard Rock show.

Fast forward to 2017, and Saigon International Comedy is hosting monthly shows at Game On, while the Magners International Comedy Festival will come to town from March 20 - 22. A combination of professional comedians and hard-working amateurs has helped stand-up reach this point in Saigon.

Saigon-based comedian Diana Bailey.

Virgin Jokes

Two years ago Diana Bailey, a Canadian amateur comedian, moved to Saigon with Brian Armstrong, who had been involved in comedy shows in Texas. It didn’t take long for them to make their mark on the city’s young comedy scene.

“Our first show we did here was just insane,” Bailey says. “We wanted to do something really different for Saigon comedy, so we decided to do a Jimmy Fallon-style late-night show called Late Night with Brian and Diana.”

The duo received sponsorship from Jameson and found a venue at Saigon Ranger. “We had interviews, a punk band, a dog fashion show and a dog wedding,” Bailey shares. “We had scheduled a quail egg-eating competition but we ran out of time so at the end there was just a huge bag of quail eggs sitting in the back. I also thought it would be funny if we had a bunch of American BBQ and chose two random people to have a first date on the stage and eat BBQ with no utensils or napkins. They ended up making out, which was great, and the show was legendary for what a mess it was.”

Bailey then created Virgin Jokes, a platform intended to encourage people who have never performed stand-up to give it a try. “When we first came here there were maybe eight comedians,” Bailey says. “You need comedians to be able to do shows regularly, and there were also really no female comedians, which is really important to me.”

The series began at DeciBel before the multi-purpose restaurant closed last year, and each show had a set format. “Everyone is doing it for the first time and everyone invites their friends and they only have to do three minutes, so they can just tell a story about pooping themselves as a kid and that will be enough and they’ll have a fun time,” Bailey explains. “It’s meant to be friendly and supportive and get them doing it again.”

She has struggled to find an appropriate venue to continue Virgin Jokes since DeciBel shut its doors, but Bailey believes it was a success. “There are now 20-25 comedians here,” she says. “When we started we’d book open mics and have no idea how long they would be, and now I don’t have to beg people to show up and put on an hour performance, so it worked as a concept.”

 

The Performers

Uy Le is one of the few Vietnamese comedians performing in English. A finalist in last year’s comedy competition, Le has been doing shows for about a year. “I stumbled upon a comedy workshop, where I learned some basics and discovered there was a growing scene here in Vietnam,” he shares via email.

As a native Saigoneer, Le brings a unique perspective to the comedy community. “More and more Vietnamese people show up (to performances) these days…but stand-up is a relatively new concept to Vietnamese people,” he shares. “I guess Vietnam’s still in a different phase of humor. Mostly comedy sketches and more slapstick material.”

When performing in English, Le favors edgy material. He prefers “jokes that can make you question your reality, or sense of morality. It provokes people to think for themselves, and not to be dictated by stereotypes, social norms, religions, races or other bounding boxes.”

However, this doesn’t always work well in his native tongue. “Performing the same material…to a fellow Vietnamese crowd is definitely a different experience,” Le says. “Jokes don’t translate well, and puns become obsolete, and most taboo subjects don’t ring well with Vietnamese…political correctness and subtlety are more favored.”

Adam Palmeter arrived in Saigon in late October 2015 with seven years’ worth of comedy experience, and he got involved in the community immediately. “(Comedy) was already in a good place when I arrived, but since hosting for Saigon International Comedy and the Magners Comedy Festival, as well as my own shows and open mics, it’s really something special to see the growth and so many people coming out and getting involved,” he says by email.

Palmeter believes Saigon’s scene is starting to get noticed beyond the borders of Vietnam. “There’s a consistent flow of international acts coming through, and with the revolving door of expat audience members and comedians, it’s inspiring to watch and be a part of,” he shares. “I think a lot more people are catching on that something is happening here in Saigon.”

Saigon-based comedian Adam Palmeter.

The Future

The International Comedy Festival later this month is the most immediate priority for Saigon’s comedy community, but local comics are looking forward to a big year. “Within the next year I’d expect Saigon to keep having larger shows, more talent and an even more alternative comedy scene,” Palmeter says.

According to Bailey, “the good-to-bad ratio in Saigon is very good, and you really never see a set that’s just terrible. The quality here is really good for how new the scene is.” However, a lack of supporting infrastructure is a problem. “The biggest challenge right now is finding venues that support comedy and are committed to that,” she says. “It’s hard to build a scene if you don’t have that kind of backing.”

Bailey would also like to see both more diverse performers and audiences, as well. “It would be nice to see a 50/50 split in the crowd, and diversity in general always makes for better shows,” she shares. “The more women you have, the more people from different backgrounds you have – I’ve seen a lot of shows where it’s 25 white guys talking about their balls, which isn’t a great show.”

As one of the founding members of Saigon’s comedy scene, Ross simply wants to see the community continue to grow. “If the scene gets bigger, if more people come and watch comedy, then it’s good for comedy – the local comedians, the promoters and the audience,” he shares. “Hopefully the festival will help us achieve this.”

The Magners International Comedy Festival, including the Vietnam amateur final, will take place at 9pm on March 20 at La Fenetre Soleil. Find out more about the festival at the event website.

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