Some Laughing Matters

Posted on March 10, 2014

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Stand-up comedian Vivek Mahbubani has a thing or two to say about comedy as a career, Indians at McDonalds, and offending people. By Reena Karim

Two-time winner of Hong Kong’s annual comedy competition—in Cantonese in 2007 and English in 2008—Hong Kong–bred Sindhi Vivek Mahbubani credits his international sense of humour to his mixed upbringing.

When I first heard of Vivek Mahbubani, I was sceptical. An Indian stand-up comedian who was not Russell Peters but was tickling the funny out of Hong Kongers? But after watching several of his YouTube videos, I could see what the fuss was about. His incisive observational humour is shocking without being unkind or smutty, and his command of Cantonese makes him a hit with a mixed crowd.

Vivek is also an award-wining new-media artist and a drummer for a heavy metal band. He has even hosted a local TV series called Hong Kong Stories on Radio Television Hong Kong, been in a Samsung commercial, and had a cameo in a 1992 Hong Kong cult classic All’s Well, Ends Well.

Ahead of his first performance in Bangkok next month, Vivek gives Masala a sneak peek into his life and talks about how his mom influences his comedy routine.

What is the stand-up comedy scene in Hong Kong like?
Hong Kong’s stand-up comedy scene has grown a lot. There are regular English shows every weekend with open mics at various venues. Cantonese shows are once a month with a handful of comedians. Things are picking up as more and more people are getting exposed to this style of comedy and giving it a shot.

As an Indian, was it hard for you to break into the scene?
My being Indian didn’t make things hard. It was a matter of finding your own voice. I do rely on the “being Indian” identity in my act, but it isn’t my whole set. It did, however, give me many unique pathways, like having an “all-Indian show” with only Indian comedians. My ability to speak fluent Cantonese has helped me build a good following with locals in both English and Cantonese.

In Hong Kong, how open are the audience, and are there things you can’t talk about?
In an English show, people are open to any type of content. Of course, too much of anything isn’t funny. I like to keep things clean, so personally I avoid politics and sex. I’m OK with mocking religion a bit, and it’s very rare for someone to get offended. But there have been a few times when someone did come up to me and say they didn’t appreciate a certain joke. On the other hand, in Cantonese shows, there are more restrictions. It has nothing to do with political policies, but instead, it’s about what the general public feels uncomfortable about. Most audience don’t like dirty jokes, so it’s best to avoid those topics.

Are you comfortable with telling jokes that may offend people?
I’m comfortable with that, however, it’s not my style. I don’t enjoy telling jokes that are intended to offend. Some of my jokes may not be politically correct, and 99.9 percent of the time they’re OK, but there are some that have people coming up to me saying they didn’t like my joke because it was of bad taste. The worst was when someone waited for me outside the comedy club, took me aside, and tried to give me a lecture about how just because I think something’s funny doesn’t make it funny.

Audiences sometimes treat comedy shows like sporting events. Do you feel this art form gets the respect it deserves?
The first question a comedian always gets asked is, “Can you tell me a joke?” And we often get challenged by the people on the streets [who say], “Jokes? I know many jokes.” But it’s kind of a weird art form where it looks easy, but the moment you have to do it, it’s a whole different world. I feel stand-up comedy often gets disregarded as an art form because it doesn’t seem to fit  “art”. Just going up there and talking in hopes that it will make people laugh? What’s so arty about that? At the same time, as Jerry Seinfeld once put it, a comedian is constantly being judged by an audience who absolutely cannot do what a comedian is doing, yet they hold all the power.

How do you handle hecklers?
Usually you have to analyse the situation to see if they’re worth responding to. You have to use your best judgement—if responding to them will help or ruin your flow and rhythm because ultimately, the rest of the room doesn’t want to interrupt you. On the other hand, if someone is heckling too much, they’re not just affecting you, they’re affecting the whole show and in turn affecting the rest of the audience, which means if you call them out, the rest of the audience will probably be on your side.

You deal with cultural ignorance in Hong Kong and being an Indian there. How do you come up with your material?
I usually just start by taking notice of the environment around me and try to notice things that I find interesting—not funny, only interesting. Then I take all those ideas and then stare at them until I can package them in a way that makes them funny. For example, it’s not funny to say that Indian people are the cheapest people on the planet, but it is funny if we tell you that all Indians go to McDonald’s not for the food but the free condiments that they can take home to refill their stocks.

Aside from comedy, you are also a graphic designer and have your own firm. Does this make comedy a hobby?
Comedy is my full-time job. I have two full-time jobs because I feel they complement each other. One requires me to stare at a computer screen and design and programme, while the other allows me to stare at human beings and interact with them. For my comedy career, I am open to taking it as far as I can. I’ve already been travelling around the region, doing shows and have collaborated with other comedians and promoters to perform in various places and events.

What do your parents make of your stand-up material?
They like it a lot. I always write my material and have one quality standard that all my material must be funny to my mother. If I write something I feel she wouldn’t want to listen to, it usually doesn’t go into my set because it wouldn’t fit with my own style.

What do you expect from Bangkok?
I’m expecting an awesome audience. I’ve been to Bangkok before, but as a tourist, and people know how to play hard. I know one of the comedians there, and he’s a great guy, so I’m looking forward to tag-teaming with the rest of the comedians there to bring a night of awesome laughs for everyone and maybe learn a thing or two myself.

For videos of Vivek’s stand-up acts, visit funnyvivek.com

Published in Masala Lite, February 2012

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