Asian parents meet the teacher of their son who scored 99 on a class test. The teacher, sensing their child seemed worried, asks them, “Is your son OK? He did great but still looks upset.” The dad looks the teacher straight in the eyes and replies, “What son?”
In an industry largely dominated by Westerners, it seems like the only way for Asian comedians to stand out is to use their own ethnicity as punchlines. As if navigating strict media censors isn’t difficult enough, they still need to pander to the typical Asian stereotype people have of them. Not only that, there’s still a largely disproportionate number of Asian comedians in the stand-up scene. Outside of Ali Wong or Anziz Ansari, can you even name three other Asian stand-ups?
It’s tough, but that’s what makes comedians like Hannan Azlan and Sam See even tougher. They’re part of a burgeoning pool of Asian comedians looking to break out of the mould the world has set for them and guess what? They don’t even need to rely on their ethnicity to do so.
Straight out of the gate, Hannan Azlan strikes me as someone who’s been in the stand-up scene for years even though she’s only 25. She’s articulate, she’s young, she’s bold and definitely naughty. Armed with her signature ukelele, Hannan broke into a random song as I was taking her picture. The lyrics went something along the lines of: Hello Nick from NYLON, where is your strap-on? Couldn’t even keep the camera steady after hearing that.
Powered by her background in theatre, she’s the youngest
female, correction, youngest ever (she made sure I wrote that down) to win the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition in 2016 when she was 22. Now all the hard work’s paid off, and she’s appeared in various shows including ABC’s Comedy Up Late.
Then of course, there’s Mr Sam See. If you find him familiar, that’s because he was on Singapore’s first-ever comedy panel show, OK Chope! on Channel 5 alongside the likes of Vernetta Lopez and Najip Ali.
Working the scene for over half a decade, he’s headlined shows in cities like Melbourne, Tokyo, London and more. He’s been on MTV, The Jim Jefferies Show and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and picked as the top 50 Unmissable show of the Fringe. It’s an impressive list of accolades and achievements for sure but Sam’s never impressed and continues to stay hungry.
These two comedians are part of the lineup on Comedy Central, Stand Up Asia! Season 4 premiering in November! We sit down with these stand-ups to find out what makes them tick, and their take on the comedy scene in Asia.
When did you realise you’d make a good comedian?
HANNAN: “I didn’t. I’ve seen some stand-ups, but I’ve never thought I was going to do it, never thought about trying it, it was never on my mind… I would write music, songs and I would sing the songs and then I did a song competition and backstage I met a comedian who’s doing stand-up. He became one of my best friends and became extremely close – Harresh A.U. He told me, “Hannan I think you’re funny, you have to do stand-up.”
I just said OK, it wasn’t planned or anything. I did my first set straight stand-up, like traditional stand-up. My second set was the same. My third set, I brought in my songs and ukulele and got my first paid spot on my fourth show. And one year later, I won the competition and went full time after that.”
SAM: “I don’t think I’ve realised that yet. I’m still figuring that out. It’s very easy to say if you do well or you don’t do well but it’s very hard to keep doing it all the time. Because anyone can do a routine, anyone can go up for jokes and do well. The trick is doing it for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. It’s about consistency, it’s about longevity. Ask me in ten years time and I still won’t have an answer. “
How would you describe your comedic style? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
HANNAN: “A bit naughty, musical of course, whacky, often censored. I get a lot of censorship issues. A lot of jokes and my songs are improvised and from the improvisation, I’d record it then I edit and write it. So my inspiration is… I guess from my childhood, my relationship with my family, my relationship with people, people that I’ve dated. I’m not an observational comic, so it’s not exactly the experience that I joke about. I have this experience, then I add some fantasy elements into it. So my stand-up comedy is really me shaping this story, but I don’t just do stand-up.
I’ve had solo shows where it’s a mixture of some comedy, some serious stuff, some confessions, true stories, music and from personal experiences. You know, I suffer from depression and dysthymia specifically and I think a lot of my work is fuelled by this? ‘Cause I’ve been dealing with it for 10 years, it’s a big part of my life yet doesn’t define who I am. I think a lot of people can relate to that. A lot of people have demons they’re battling and I’m just lucky enough to be able to be given a platform where I can express myself.”
SAM: “Day-to-day life. My style has always been about my experiences. I’m not really one for “here’s my opinion on things at the moment”. I’m very much “this happens in my life, isn’t this mad, isn’t this strange? How weird is this.”
It’s also people I work with. I see other comics doing it, both newcomers, whether it’s your first time or people who’ve been at it for 20 years and still hustling, I think it’s nice to see that. There are times where I will feel like maybe I should have done this or done that, or have a day job and not disappoint my parents. But then I see other people also disappointing their parents and I’m like OK, well, we’re in it together.”
How did your ukulele become part of your routine?
HANNAN: “My cousin is a multi-instrumentalist who plays almost everything, and he picked up the ukulele and I just copied him la. How did I bring it into my set? So after I picked up the ukulele, I would just make up my own songs, just something I would do to entertain my friends. My first set of stand-up went really well. I killed. I was very lucky ’cause it can be 50-50. My second set was just OK, so comparing it to my first set, I felt very unsatisfied. I wanted to do something different, so I brought in my uke on my third set. It is now my signature thing.”
You’ve both toured and performed in front of different audiences, do you feel you know what people will find funny?
HANNAN: “For me, it doesn’t work like that. I don’t write material because I think people will find it funny. I write material cause I find it funny. Or it’s something I’m passionate about, or something I’m interested in. Of course, I have an inkling of different cultures, context, references, cultural nuances, so I have jokes I can only tell in Malaysia. I have jokes that work better in Singapore, I have jokes I can only tell in Australia. So it’s quite nice la, it’s like surprising yourself.”
SAM: “Comedy has always been a very subjective thing, just like whether you like or hate somebody. I think it’s partially like music… I don’t like metal and it’s not my cup of tea, but there are still fans. Comedy is the only art form where someone can see a comedian on stage a thousand times and still go ‘they’re shit and should still go die.’ But uhh, I don’t know. When I go on stage and start performing, I don’t know if they’re going to like me or not. I have to try to work it out. You have to figure it out and they’re also figuring you out. It’s kind of like a blind date, but with 100 people at one time.”
Do you feel people in the West stereotype Asian comedians and stand-ups? Why do you think that happens?
HANNAN: “Yes, but I don’t think it’s just Western people who stereotype Asian people. I think Asian people also stereotype Asian people… A select group of people do that. They assume you’re going to be docile, submissive, quiet, good at math, and I think that’s an issue caused by lack of exposure, a lack of worldliness, and I don’t think TV helps because it does play into these stereotypes. And I hope that with me — ’cause my material isn’t necessarily political, but the fact that I am who I am, I am mixed race, I am Generation Y, I am this, I am that — is a political statement.”
SAM: “They can’t because they haven’t seen that many Asian comedians. I mean even now, if I were to ask an average Asian to name five Asian comedians, it’s hard. Let’s not even put Kumar in the situation, you’ll say someone like Ali Wong, and then you start thinking of someone else. If you say someone like Fakkah Fuzz, they’re local. It’s hard to find a male/female Asian comedian that’s a big name in the West. There are stereotypes that people have of Asians of course, I’m still figuring this out as well. I’m slowly being introduced to what the West thinks of Asian people. It’s a fascinating insight — “Oh, you think of us like this. I have no idea”.”
What are some misconceptions you’d like to address about Asian comedy?
HANNAN: “Asian comedians are no different than any other comedians and we shouldn’t be treated differently. We shouldn’t be expected to come up with “Asian” jokes or anything. It’s very individual, very personal. I don’t think race covers all of it. Especially if it’s someone who’s mixed race. To Asian people, I look kinda Western. To Western people, I look Asian. To Malay, I don’t look Malay. To Chinese people, I don’t look Chinese. To Indian people, I don’t look Indian. So I guess I’ve kind of had this issue of being rejected by all sides of my ethnic identities that I don’t care anymore. I think with a lot of people, it’s about how you look. You look Asian but it doesn’t matter. I am Asian, I grew up in Malaysia and that’s who I am. I am Malaysian.”
SAM: “The biggest misconception is “Oh my god, your English is so good”. On the one hand, I’m like how dare you. We can all speak English. But I’m also like yeah I’ve seen a lot of Singaporeans that can’t speak English. And I’m like fair point, fair fucking point.”
Do you feel the pressure to include racial jokes in your routine?
HANNAN: “I don’t feel pressured to make jokes — I am Asian, this is this, because I am Asian. So the fact that I am making jokes about whatever I’m making of, is already me saying something. Comedy is very personal and I do talk a little bit about being mixed race and that sort of thing, but I don’t feel a need to. I think it’s unnecessary. Your identity is your identity and your craft is your craft. It’s a separate thing but at the same time, the fact that you are who you are, already says enough. That’s my opinion at least.”
SAM: “Not at all. I have some jokes that make fun of race, but it’s like 10% or even 5%. I’m not a race-based comedian. It has shown in my comedy and also the lack of bookings in Asia and Singapore. I feel there is a way if you sort of want to make it, and I have made it without doing any of that. I have made it without having to do like Indians, Malays and Chinese are like this. It’s like if I do it in the West, it’s one joke at the start to let them know I know what the joke is. I’m in it. But here are my actual jokes. I’m not a performing monkey for anyone. Unless they pay me enough, then I’ll do whatever you want me to do!”
What do your parents think about the work you’ve been doing?
HANNAN: “When I first started doing stand-up, my parents were a bit worried. My parents are Asian, they wanted me to go university, and because I didn’t go, they were a bit worried. But after I won the competition, I was getting so many jobs and opportunities that they realised that I’m not bumming around, I’m actually working and I’m taking this very seriously.”
SAM: “My parents are very merit-based. It’s like living with an internal achievement system. When I had a TV show and all that, they were really proud of me. I was the favourite son. And when I didn’t have the TV show, the last I checked, my mum had a picture on her phone of her brother and not me. I don’t know what that says. Maybe I’m on the lock screen? I don’t know, I didn’t see my motherfucking face on there.
But they’re open. They’re Asian and Western at the same time. They’re like, do what you want in life. My dad told me, “if you want to be the chicken rice seller, be a chicken rice seller, but you better be the best”. It’s like West and East combined into a horrific tiger family situation.”
What sort of weird questions do you get a lot?
HANNAN: “I don’t get weird questions, but I used to get backhanded compliments. People used to come up to me, “Oh you’re very funny for a girl.” And I remember this one person said to me, “Oh you’re a girl with an instrument, an ukulele. I knew you weren’t going to be funny, but you surprised me. You were actually funny.” So he was complimenting me, but also saying I was going to be shit. It’s a bit fucked up la.”
SAM: “Not really. I’ve never found a question weird. I find any question fine because questions people ask gives me insight into them as well. If you ask a question to a performer, you want to understand them better, and it also lets me know them better. It lets me know what your goals are or what your idea is of me. So I won’t find anything too weird. A lot of paedophiles though, lots of paedophiles. Lots of creepy old men.”
Have you ever gotten feedback from your fans/audience that really stuck?
HANNAN: “The negative stuff is funny to think about. I’ve only gotten negative comments five to ten times, but I’ve gotten so much positive feedback of course. Once, a few people, a few gay guys, a few queer people have come up to me and said “I’m their spirit animal”. Ya, I don’t really know what that means, but it’s a huge compliment… Definitely more positive than negative. But it’s easy to focus on the negative than the positive, you know what I mean?
Oh, one time, an open mic-er came up to me, “Oh great set, I love your set, but I have to say the ukulele, it’s very annoying. Maybe you should do a set without the ukulele.” I can’t remember his name, just some white guy. It was here in Singapore actually. It was quite rude. I was just OK, cool. And I watched his set, he sucked. So he was in no position to comment.”
SAM: “I did the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year. Two girls cried. They were touched because we did some serious sharing, and it’s so hard to find Singaporeans with a voice outside of, not even outside of Singapore, just, in general. So they were touched and they cried and I was like yessss. I was like yes this is good, I’m worth something. I can make people cry for once in a good way.”
Catch Hannan Azlan, Sam See, and all your favourite stand-ups on Comedy Central Stand-Up, Asia! Season 4, premiering 12 November 2019, Tuesday, 8.30pm (SG/PH/MAL). In Singapore, you can also catch the show on the Comedy Central Play app.