Standing up in Cambodia

I have done stand up comedy all over the world.  Occasionally in strange places- a tent, a kebab shop, a public toilet. Other times in precarious places – a cave in Kosovo, the Middle East amid huge censorship and Pakistan amid speculation the Taliban were arriving. The day after I performed in Pakistan a suicide bomber blew up the venue in which I had played, and it wasn’t because he’d seen my act.

So when I was asked to perform a well-known tour of the Far East covering Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Bali I immediately said yes. It would be like performing in The Cotswold’s compared to my previous encounters and I could stock up on fake Calvin Klein underwear while was I was at it.  Then I had an email from the compere of the shows, who said, “On this tour you’ll be doing an extra gig. Cambodia. There has never been International stand up comedy in the country, this will be the first time. Is that ok?”

I shouted down the phone, “Pol Pott and Gary Glitter?”

He said, “Yes that’s the country. And don’t worry they won’t be coming”

I couldn’t imagine it. Comedy in Cambodia? That’s like doing burlesque in Afghanistan.

The extreme poverty, corruption, appalling history, crime, exploitation of women and children, why wouldn’t I want to perform there?  Maybe they are desperate to laugh and who better to perform at this first trailblazing show than an American, a Muslim and an Australian.

I flew into Phnom Penh with the US comic.

Being American, he had never travelled outside of North America before, but with Cambodia boasting more guns per capita than any country in the world I knew he would feel at home.

We were picked up in a rickshaw with all our suitcases and transported to The Lux Hotel in Phnom Penh located on a street full of bars; food stalls and middle aged white men who looked like they’d just landed in paradise with 72 virgins.

I had just one day and one night before the show, to get a perspective and an experience of Cambodia that I might be able to turn into some material and use the following night.

Being on tour with two male comics and two male promoters I got to see Cambodia from a very male perspective. First we stopped at a place called Candy bar. We walked in and a group Cambodian girls who looked like they should be at home doing their homework, pounced on all the men I was with. Giggling and behaving in an over familiar way, trying to communicate with broken English, then invited themselves to come and sit with us but didn’t say a word, just stared at the men. The attention turned to me; they all looked confused, ‘Why was there one woman with 4 men?’ One of them turned to me and said, “Are you man too?”

Next we were taken to Sharkys, popular with westerners. I sat on a stool at the bar where an English man put his hand on my knee, smiled and said, “Drink?” Shocked I said “No Thanks! I’m not a hooker”. He looked doubtful. I said, “I’m a comedian and I’m doing a show here tomorrow night ” he looked even more doubtful and responded by running his hand further up my leg. I said, “Do I like look like I work for Sky Sports?” He burst out laughing and said,  “You are a comedian, I’m coming to the show.”

Later that night we payed a visit to the venue where we’d be performing. The Pontoon Club formerly on a pontoon in the Mekong River is now a chi chi club. Owned by a Glaswegian man it is a big glamorous nightclub with nice décor a bar in the center of the room and we were relived to see a proper stage, not one made out of haystacks or egg cartons. I began to get nervous. This was a groundbreaking piece of history and I kept being reminded of it.  Every time one of the organizers looked me in the eye and said, “This is history we’re making” I interpreted that as a euphemism for “You’d better not die”.

The next day one of the promoter’s said, “What would you like to do today?” I immediately said, “I want to go to the killing fields”. I had to go, this place is such an important part of Cambodia’s history.

First he took us to Tuol Sleng also known as S-21. I thought this would be interesting as previously the building had been one of the secondary schools in the capital, and being a former teacher I thought I could drum up some comedy material here, and come up with a few gags.

Evidence still remains of the atrocities of Pol Pot and The Khmer Rouge: Cells, instruments of torture, dossiers and document lists of prisoners’. Fascinating, depressing, not at all funny.

On my way out I pass number 3- part of the building that houses the tombs of the last 14 victims. I was no longer in the comedy zone.

And all too much for my fellow comedian, who had totally disappeared.

As we sat in silence in the car nauseated by the impact of the atrocities we’d just seen the promoter said, “Right off to the killing fields.”

All three of us entered the eerie grounds. Then all of a sudden there was silence. Every person walking round quietly faces blank with disbelief.  After about twenty minutes once again I lost my fellow comedian and continued the walk by myself.

We met up at the end, I said, “Any material?” he said, “Not unless I’m going to die as well”.

We then went off for a quick lunch of fried tarantulas, worms and other ghastly dishes that tasted wonderful. I wondered if the audience would want to hear our take on the macabre surroundings that they already knew about or did they just want us to make them laugh about men, women, sex and cake?

A man I’d bumped into on the street that day who was coming to the show, told me Cambodia recently got it’s first escalator in a shopping centre and people had gone wild for it. They were jumping all over it like a toy and  didn’t know how to use it. The excitement was unbelievable. It must have been how drunks felt when Boris Johnson first introduced bikes to London.

He said the excitement about the first ever comedy show in Cambodia was the same. People had been talking about it for weeks

It was the event of the year.

I don’t usually get nervous before a show, unless it’s very big or I think my parents are going to show up and drag me off the stage.

I entered the Pontoon Club, where there was a buzz, an atmosphere, everybody laughing, chatting, drinking. It felt warm.

People coming in, in groups even Cambodian celebrities had come to witness the event.

Cambodia’s most famous comedian Prom Manh had his own little section where people would be brought over and introduced to him like a king. He has been a comedian for over twenty years, which is a big deal in a country like Cambodia. His routines involve singing and banter with another person as his sidekick- usually female. He once performed to around 40, 000 people at a concert in Siem Reap and has made regular trips to the US to perform for Cambodians there. However not many western people knew who this man was, so not being recognized made him very uncomfortable.

Me and the other comedians were introduced to him, and when I put my hand out to shake hands he looked me up and down then swiped his hand past mine, like he was swiping his credit card through the till at Tesco. I became even more nervous and paranoid.. “Is it because I’m a woman? Do they not like female comics?

I went and sat outside the venue on a cracked bit of pavement, I

Saw people arriving in rickshaws and I wondered what material to do.

When I walked back into the club there were now about 300 people most sitting some standing around the sides. Majority of the audience were ex-pats. Some were locals and some were returnees. The main demographic was western professionals such as office workers and teachers.

The show was about to start when the owner of the club an affable Glaswegian turned to me and said, Thank you so much for doing this, It’s a piece of history and I’m so grateful. I can’t believe there are 300 people in my club to watch comedy. Five years ago I used to make $200 a month and tonight I’ve been able to charge 300 people $10 each- that’s amazing in Cambodia. We’ve only been able to do that twice before when the musicians Goldie and Leroy from the Prodigy were here and only then were we able to charge $10. We’d never be able to charge more as people don’t have the money here.

It’s strange but I’d heard the same thing a few weeks earlier in Wolverhampton.

The show begins and the compere bursts onto the stage, normally when this happens there is a round of applause or at least some kind of reaction, but the audience seem passive.

He starts talking, warming up the crowd for about 15minutes before bringing on the American comic. We had been touring together for 2 weeks, and it had always gone well so we were sure the pattern would continue and it would go well again. I asked him if he was nervous, he said, “No, I’m really excited”.

He arrives on stage. The audience are quiet, some looked like they were watching Panorama, others carried on talking, Including Cambodia’s most famous comedian. I sat at the side; I thought at least they’re facing in the right direction.  It took about 20 minutes for the audience to get the notion of what was going on. IE Comedian tells the jokes, you laugh, then we all go home.

As he came off stage I said  “Well done” he replied, “That was rough. I got the feeling some of them didn’t like me because I’m American

I think they should stick to just having Europeans do this gig.”

I don’t think an audience would inadvertently blame a comedian for the US bombing of Cambodia but there could be some anti- American sentiment. I became really nervous; this gig wasn’t as easy at it looked.

I went on stage and felt at home with the audience. A row of gay men from Brighton to my right, a bunch of rowdy women from Scotland at the back, a group of American men to my left and two former drug dealers from Liverpool now teaching English in Cambodia right under my nose. I belted out some jokes about how the rickshaws corruption and old men with young women reminded me of Birmingham. The men from Liverpool kept telling me how well I was doing, like I’d never done it before.  I began to feel more relaxed and even began to enjoy it slightly but I knew it had gone really well when one of the former drug dealers shouted “I haven’t laughed this much since Felltham!”