April 1, 2020
To survive the unprecedented circumstances of this time, it’s obviously imperative that we continue to care for our physical health. What may not be so obvious is the need to keep a sense of humor throughout. Yes the news is often douer but to save a plunge into the depths of despair, a sense of humor is required now more than ever. Heralding these sentiments in a burgeoning stand-up comedy scene are a few good Saigonese men. – Tung BT, Uy Le, Ben Betterby, among other luminaries.
Today the Vietnamese Stand Up Comedy (SUC) scene is notably budding, thanks largely to these comedians’ passion and drive. Hind Korraa for Bliss Saigon met with ‘Tung BT’, a 33 year old entrepreneur, at the coffee shop that he owns – Monkey in Black, to hear about his vision for comedy.
For BT, his inspiration to dabble with SUC was born after watching Sam See, a Singaporean stand-up comedian, perform last year in Vietnam. The event was organized by an American stand-up comedian, Ben Betterby, who is widely considered to be the ‘Godfather of Stand-up Comedy’ in Vietnam.
BT approached Betterby after his show where Betterby encouraged him to attend a SUC workshop that he conducts where he coaches amateur stand-up comedians on public speaking and performance skills.
Later, BT started performing in his mother tongue of Vietnamese using his unique raw sense of humor and quick wit. He quickly grew passionate about comedy and realized that if he was to succeed, he would need focus and drive. Soon after BT decided to shift his role from a stage performer to an event coordinator and host, a far cry from his computer-science major days. He wanted to encourage other potential comics by giving them a ‘playground’ using his coffee shop as a platform to host gigs and conduct weekly workshops for up-and-coming comics to share constructive criticism in order to develop their acts and hone their skills.
BT believes “the best comedic material can be written by gaining insight on your target audience”, mainly the 20s to mid-30s age group. According to him, SUC is still bizarre to the older Vietnamese generation. His advice to newbies: “Don’t quit your day job.” It’s not yet at a stage where a comic can make a living from it “.
Vietnam’s Stand-up comedy scene has come a long way since Betterby, an English language teacher, essentially launched the SUC scene here nine years ago. At a time when he was performing at open mics and at karaoke bars, before deciding to set up his own show with a partner, so as to attract more comedian participation.
Betterby also had a hand in the start of – 27 year old Uy Le, who won 1st place for Vietnam Comedy Competition in 2018 and the second place at the Bangkok International Comedy Competition in 2019. Uy Le mainly performs in English, but also in Vietnamese. He says “Vietnamese has a lot of puns when you play on tones and pronunciation”.
Uy Le recalls being unemployed five years ago and looking to enhance his CV. That’s when he came across a Facebook ad for a SUC Workshop, placed by Betterby, and decided to sign up. In the early days, he would tell jokes that he ‘thought’ people would laugh at, jokes he didn’t necessarily believe in. With experience, he learned to share his own personal views and experiences.
He found being authentic liberating; “You can never forget your joke when it’s about your own life.” His advice to new comics is to learn to master rhythm and timing of the joke delivery. Uy Le recollects Betterby’s sage advice: “Don’t expect laughter, be surprised by it.”
Betterby, is an intellectual, who integrates concepts from great philosophers on human behavior into his workshops. He won the 1st place For Vietnam Comedy Competition 2019. For his workshops, Betterby has developed what he calls the ‘Harmony Theory’; he explains that “You want to be in harmony with your audience by first creating a sense of harmony, then you can disrupt that with a joke. Next, you have to restore harmony again.”
Betterby advises newbies to “Do artistically, whatever you are drawn to do, as long as it is authentic” and to “record performances and note what people laughed at and what they didn’t.” He believes “everyone has five minutes of comedy in them. If you can get past that, you can make it!” He says it is all in the “pitch and volume, as well as timing and pausing. Pauses punctuate the joke.” Therein lies the art.
Tung BT also collaborates with UY LE to promote SUC to the Vietnamese audience, as more people are willing to experiment. There is a lot of potential and raw talent joining the scene.
In a vibrant city, such as Saigon where people have big hearts and big smiles, Stand-up comedy has nowhere to go but up!