When I tell them that “Asian” is not a language, they reply with, “Oh, my bad. Do you speak Chinese?” It’s a good question, though still incorrect in that Chinese isn’t a language either. But I get what they want to know.
Come on, it’s been a really long time since all of humanity was scattered across the globe, their languages confounded by an angry god. (By the way, if you believe that sort of thing, the language disruption thing happened at a place called Babel which was ruled by a king named Nimrod. You see what I did there?
Since then, people across the globe have learned to speak English, and English speakers have also moved out to places where the non-English-speaking heathens live. And that’s good news for someone like me, whose livelihood depends on the people, to whom I’m speaking, understanding the only language that I know. And it is extremely good news, considering I do a bunch of shows outside the rather porous borders of these United States.
The people who ask if I perform in foreign languages are missing the point. I’m an American stand-up comic. What I do is American-style stand-up comedy. In English. When Busta Rhymes performs in Tokyo, do people ask him if he will be rapping in Japanese? (To tell the truth, I can’t really tell if he’s rapping in English most of the time. Anyway, the point is moot since he’s not allowed into other countries due to his “legal issues.”)
Also, stand-up comedy is an original American art form, like the blues, jazz and rock and roll. So, while there are comedians performing in other languages around the world, the standard is still the original. Want to know what I’m talking about? Check out The Parrots, a Japanese band that performs songs by The Beatles. In English.
My audiences at the shows I do in Asia are there to enjoy English-language comedy. Language isn’t the problem, the subtleties are. The references are. At the TakeOut Comedy Club in Hong Kong, the crowds are like a meeting of the United Nations. There are people from the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Germany, Russia, Slovenia, Holland. They’ll get a joke about Sarah Palin, who has considerable international notoriety, but they may not get a joke about Meg Whitman, who was largely forgotten even during her own campaign here in California.
Due to the fact that Hong Kong was a British colony for a minute, most of the people in town speak either English, but the crowds at The Comedy Club Asia in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Indonesia are a bit different. At these venues, you’ll run into folks who speak English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil or all of the above. At the Beerfest shows in Singapore last month, I worked once again with Jonathan Atherton, a brilliant stand-up comic and one of the proprietors of The Comedy Club Asia. Atherton is more than multi-lingual, he’s mega-lingual. Able to speak 14 languages fluently, he can have the crowd laughing with his act in English, then without blinking do a couple of asides in Malay, which incites the Bahasa Melayu speakers into greater fits of laughter. Then he’ll do the same to the Indians in the crowd. Amazing. This guy makes C-3PO seem like Jodie Foster in Nell.
I guess my point is that you don’t have to know other languages to do shows in Asia. But it can’t hurt.
In the meantime, comics, get out on the road. We all know that one guy who never leaves his home town and can kill with all of the inside jokes and references of the area. But take that guy and put him on a stage in another state or, angry god forbid, someplace where people “speak European” and he’ll fall apart. So grow a little, step out of your comfort zone. It’s a big world after all, and you want to be able to do well everywhere.