A law student, a Hanoian and a group hawking something called “chicken beer” walk into a bar.
No, it’s not the set up to a joke. It’s a real encounter: a standup comedy contest at Yoko Bar in November.
It was not only the place for local entertainers to prove themselves as Saigon’s best comics. It was also the culmination of years of work by Ben Betterby and others who’ve worked closely with Saigon’s comedy scene creating what is today a blossoming segment in the local arts scene.
Image source: i2.wp.com
Class Clown to Trained Performer
Trang Hoàng Phúc started his set at Yoko as he’s started many previous sets: introducing himself by name, “Berk Mark, but that’s a fake name,” and inviting the audience to make fun of him for wearing what he unashamedly reports are his dad’s clothes.
Trang boasts about his 8.0 IELTS score on stage—“which is the Asian way of saying I’m better than you”—and has the breezy cleverness of the casually brilliant.
“I was kind of a class clown already,” Trang said, recounting his first foray into comedy in late 2016. He messaged Adam Palmeter, an established Saigon comic, for more information about the comedy scene.
“And he said…there’s a comedy open mic happening that night.”
The fact that Trang had no formal training as a comic and no apparent raison d'être in the craft beyond just wanting to try it, is evidence of how big the tent of comedy is, Palmeter said.
“The cool thing about the expat comedy scene is that people from all walks of life end up here,” he said.
Palmeter, an entertainer who has in the past taken roles as a beatboxer in New York and a comic in Korea, hosts many of the city’s open mic events where comics perform. He said the city’s willing and able talent combined with a generally welcoming stage make for fertile grounds in which to grow Ho Chi Minh City’s comic talent.
“I think it’s unique because there is a… revolving door” of personnel from people coming as audience members and eventually coming on board as performers," Palmeter said. “That kind of creates a... 'loose’ isn’t a best word.”
For performers honing their craft, “It’s a fantasy setting. It’s almost like a sleepaway camp."
Unprepared though Trang was, he went and did eight minutes—for comparison, new comics who complete months of training in Comedy Saigon’s workshop get five minutes—of jokes about his family killing a rat.
“[Attendees] were obviously horrified by it,” Trang said.
One year later, he’s moved to his first compensated comedy show. Before the Yoko show, Trang had opened for travelling Scottish comic Phil Kay at Game On Saigon Sports Pub, his first paid show.
“It was very overwhelming” being paid, Trang said, adding, “It was like 10 bucks.”
Even wearing his dad’s flannel and a ruthlessly bored expression—or maybe because of it—Trang said he’s been told his work is unique, that “there’s not a lot of people out there that are doing what I’m doing right now.”
Image source: City Pass Guide
Saigon’s Comedy Scene Is…Big?
If there’s anything wrong with Saigon’s comedy scene, it’s that it can be a little stagnant.
“There’s not a lot of shows to do,” Trang said. “So you have the same kind of audience…over and over again.”
Trang said since the audience is the same, I have to bring new jokes to keep them entertained.
But “by doing that you kind of fall into the trap” of presenting unrefined, half-formed ideas created out of necessity to keep things interesting.
Trang said his mentors told him “you should work on your old material.”
Small though the local comedy scene may be, new Saigon comic Vu Minh Tu—who performs as “Tu”—said it’s still venue-rich compared to Hanoi.
Image source: i0.wp.com
“In Saigon, we definitely have more open mic and more opportunities for comedians to sharpen their skills,” she said.
After performing at Game On Saigon Sports Pub, Kay flew to Hanoi to perform with Tu as his opening act.
Overall, Hanoi doesn’t compare to the number of Saigon’s open mics—“maybe once a month” in the capital, she said—nor does the sister city have nearly as many working comics.
New Talent Proving Itself Early
Tu began telling jokes after she took the Comedy Saigon workshops in August. The training courses culminate in a comedy showcase. Tu and other graduates got to step on stage for the first time then and, “I just never stopped.”
Since August, Tu has been on stage 16 times, the last being her appearance at the Yoko comedy contest where she tied for first.
Image source: pictures.ozy.com
The Saigon comedy scene seems to draw an overwhelming number of men. The balance is better in Westerners to Vietnamese, but still skews to foreigners.
Tu’s an uncommon figure demographically, but “I need to make it clear that I’m not very local,” the Hanoi-born, Singapore-educated comic said. And “I’m not a typical female.”
Tu’s candour translates to a searing openness on stage. Her jokes deal with her dating failures, making fun of men’s facial hair and various onanism-related accounts. Tu tends to eschew the contemporaneous and the political. “I try to write jokes that are universal,” she said. “I write about myself.”
Palmeter observed that “[c]omedy is always going to be a heavily straight, white industry,” but that Tu has “been stealing the show lately.”
He said seeing more successful Vietnamese comics like Tu will be critical to deepening its presence in the city’s art scene. Tu’s work is important because audiences and would-be performers need to “see people like her on stage.”
“She’s not just a funny girl, but a really funny comedian,” he said. “I think it’s an inspiration.”
A Little Startup
When Comedy Saigon owner Betterby was approached by Rooster Beer — or “Bia Ga” in Vietnamese, which is “chicken beer” in English — the similarity of his project to theirs was what seemed the most germane to him.
Like the craft brewer, “we’re like a little startup too,” he said.
Saigon comedy has come a long way from its comics practising material in karaoke bars.
When Betterby was doing standup comedy in 2012, he said you could count the number of comics on one hand.
Betterby said the open mic shows during those years were rough because “the audiences didn’t know what we were doing. We were going up between singers. They just wanted to hear songs.”
Video source: Saigon Comedy
So Betterby and other comics started organising dedicated shows, some of which he describes as “pretty bad” because of a lack of performers and original material.
In 2014, Betterby started meeting comics at karaoke bars around Saigon to try out their material, the first iteration of what would become the Comedy Saigon courses.
Over 200 individuals have graduated from Betterby’s workshops.
Where You Can Find Funny People
As Vu said, Saigon’s comics have a wealth of places to try their stuff around town. Here’s a roundup of a few places that host comedy shows. Look for events there via Facebook or give them a call.
58 Vo Thi Sau, D1
09 4568 5295
Pingoling is home base for Betterby’s Comedy Saigon artist community. Located in the rear of Lucas Cafe, this small theatre doubles as a workspace for the standup class that are held there regularly. In addition to hosting the graduates of the standup workshop during their seminal performances, Pingoling is also a host for other standup work, open mics and improv shows.
Heart of Darkness
31D Ly Tu Trong, D1
09 0301 7596
This District 1 brewery is one of the most centrally located venues where you can catch comedy. The craft beer vendor’s second floor is an event venue with a bar on side and a wall of glass on the other looking out over Ly Tu Trong street. A stage hosts an open mic known to draw out the city’s performers.
43 Nguyen Van Giai, D1
0165 658 1648
The DIY feel of Indika extends to its stage. Surrounded by tagged and stickered walls is a stage rising a seat’s height from the floor. Sometimes, they put a comedian on it.
97 Hai Ba Trung, D1
0163 603 3222
Centrally located, Piu Piu is part of a network of venues that regularly host comedians. The vibe is a little like Indika, although the place is quite a bit smaller. Be nice to the performers, you’re seated close so they can probably hear you breathing.
341 Cao Dat, D5
0163 603 3222
This curiously named bar is sometimes known to host a comedy night. Maybe because they’re more infrequent than others — and maybe because it’s out in the hinterlands of District 5 — these tend to draw more seasoned comics.
22A Nguyen Thi Dieu, D3
028 3933 0577
Maybe it’s Yoko’s polished charm or it’s larger seating area, but this tends to be the place that attracts the biggest crowds and the strongest comedians. The bar was recently the site of a comedy contest finale, but often hosts Comedy Saigon’s standup workshop graduates to give them a taste of the big time. This isn’t the most frequent site of comedy shows, but the ones that do appear there are not to be missed.