THE NEW FUNNY
Meet Vancouver’s current wave of comedians — diverse, nuanced and fearless
Andrea Jin had just talked about peeing her pants in a clothing store. And about getting a bikini wax.
From somewhere within the Revelstoke, B.C. bar, she could hear a few faint chuckles from female voices; but what Jin mostly saw from her stage were the blank, underwhelmed stares of a blue-collar crowd.
This is the life of a standup comedian — some days it works and some days it doesn’t.
But Jin couldn’t help but think that part of her disconnect with the crowd this night was that it just wasn’t accustomed to hearing from a female Asian comedian.
Jin says she doesn’t think it was racism. It was just a reaction to the kind of performer smalltown crowds see less frequently — someone who isn’t a white man.
“Once you go into a blue-collar area, they don’t really want anything different,” says the 23-yearold, whose family immigrated from Shanghai, China, a decade ago.
“When they see someone like me, they will assume that I’m not going to be as funny as, like, a white, male comic that they’re used to seeing.
“Back in the day, different races were made fun of. They were the punch line of jokes instead of me being able to tell the joke myself now. Me being the person in control.”
For now, she knows her reach may be strongest in metropolitan areas, such as Vancouver, where there’s a growing appetite for diverse comedians and the perspectives they bring to the stage.
It’s an age when audiences are seeing an array of complex identities in artists who bring nuance to challenging topics, says rookie comedian An-te Chu, who also performs with Andrea Jin and Alistair Ogden in their show “Lil Comedy.”
Chu points to comedians such as Ali Wong, who is able to talk about racism with a dose of humour while raising awareness of issues that can go unnoticed by some.
“This is what she says, ‘The fancy Asians are the Chinese, the Japanese, that do fancy things like host the Olympics,’” recalls Chu.
“She was making fun of the whole idea (of racism between cultures). Because I heard about it in that special, I talked to my Filipino friends about it, and they were like ‘Yeah, it totally exists.’”
Chu, a first-generation Taiwanese-canadian, says that he has also made an effort to incorporate nuance in his own material.
He is critical, for instance, of
jokes that perpetuate the notion that all Chinese-canadians are to blame for the skyrocketing real-estate prices in Vancouver.
In turn, he makes the point of differentiating between the Chinese government and its citizens in his standup.
Dino Archie, a veteran standup comedian in Vancouver, said diverse performers have always been working in and around the Lower Mainland, but the lineup of is increasingly starting to reflect the demographics of the city.
“Vancouver is a diverse city, but the majority of the comics would be white. That wasn’t on purpose … that wasn’t a discriminatory bias, from my experience. Something shifted in the last few years, where people started breaking the norms, breaking the tradition of a culture,” said Archie.
Several comedians have also acknowledged that the tide of change has been accelerated by shows such as “Millennial Line” and “Fox Hole Comedy” that feature performers who are queer and people of colour.
Comedy clubs and venues that book comedy shows are also asserting “top-down” pressure from management to showcase diverse lineups fuelled by pressure from the public, says Abdul Aziz, comedian and operations manager at Little Mountain Gallery, one of only two comedy clubs in Vancouver.
Although strides have been made in the industry, for some comedians of colour, the battle starts at home.
When Jin told her parents she was pursuing comedy as a career — something, she pointed out, that doesn’t require a formal education and offers no assurances of moving up the career ladder — they were bewildered.
But she found in standup what she felt she lacked growing up in a home that didn’t encourage one to be opinionated, funny or overly artistic, she said.
“If I said how I felt, they would just say ‘Go eat your food and go to sleep,’” Jin said. “They don’t understand a job where you don’t need a formal education and there’s no guarantee (of success) ever.”
To Chu, cultural differences are what makes artists such as Jin and himself “memorable.”
His unusual upbringing has wound up surfacing in his performances, often to thunderous laughter. He’s talked about being forced to wash his laundry on a washboard by hand or listening to baseball on the radio because his “no nonsense” immigrant mother didn’t allow him to use the internet or watch TV.
“Our stories right now are not heard as much. … It’s a lot more personal versus traditional standup of, like, Jerry Seinfeld, (which) is very much … observational comedy,” Chu said.
Comedian Alistair Ogden also wants to change the culture of standup comedy that has historically been perceived as an “exclusive” art form spoken mostly by “straight, white guys.”
“There definitely have been a lot of racist and sexist comedians in the past. You look at comedy, you look at the history of the people who have been made fun of … even just going back 10 years, the stuff people were saying back then was not stuff anybody would get away with today.”
He said he follows a simple rule when it comes to being funny respectfully: If it’s a joke that he would not want to tell in front of the people he’s talking about then it’s not a joke he should tell at all.
Stand-up comics Dino Archie (left), Alistair Ogden and An-te Chu are among a roster of Vancouver comedians that is growing to better reflect this city’s demographics.
“Back in the day, different races were made fun of. They were the punchline of jokes instead of me being able to tell the joke myself now. Me being the person in control,” says comedian Andrea Jin.
Several local comedians say that the tide of change in comedy demographics has been accelerated by shows such as “Millennial Line” and “Fox Hole Comedy” that feature performers who are queer and people of colour.