As the saying goes – laughter is the best medicine when you feel sad, down or angry and that really is the purpose of comedy in all styles and genres. But for many of us Australians of colour and more specifically to this article, Asian Australians, comedy is a way to tell authentic and personal stories without the onus of it being confrontational, or overly serious. The majority of comedians who are Australians of colour use their skills of being a comedian to talk about social issues such as racism, Asian cultural norms, childhood growing up Asian Australian, political, and a host of other issues. In many ways, it is a way to raise a voice to speak out, but at the same time make everyone around you laugh as they absorb the messages put forward in the comedy.
In terms of Asian Australian comedians, there are definitely many challenges facing them in Australia in pursuing comedy as a passion and a career. Firstly, one must remember how the scene still centres around whiteness, themes and stories, and for those of us who are not white/Anglo, there is an expectation that we assimilate to this standard. This is why as an Asian Australian and more broadly as Australians of colour, it is extremely important that we support, advocate and promote those who are doing the hard yards in any creative art, in this case Asian Australian comedians.
In saying that, featuring Asian Australian comedians will be an article series, with a number of articles coming out talking about their work, why they chose comedy as a creative art and what is it like being an Asian Australian comedian – after all it is not necessarily a career our Asian parents would really understand. So let’s kick things off and it is so awesome to start with featuring these three awesome Vietnamese Australian comedians – DIANA NGUYEN, LEE TON and KIM LE. All are doing awesome things including webseries, speaking events and stand up comedy events in pursuing their passion and their labour of love – comedy.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what interested you in being a comedian, creating content and doing stand up?
DIANA NGUYEN: I am Diana Nguyen, and I am an actor, comedian, MC and co-creator of the first ever Australian Vietnamese family comedy webseries in the world www.phiandme.tv – not joking. I am also a LinkedIn content creator with over 30k followers, and 100k views a week.
I am a trained actor (14 years in the business), and for the first 9 years I worked hard seeking every opportunity to be an actor. I did bit parts on tv, even an extra role on neighbours (made it) and created 7 theatre shows of my own work. And then I realised no matter what I did, the tv industry would never have enough work for Asian actor, so I thought, who is on TV? Who are hosting tv shows or have their tv show commissioned. Which Live platform can Asians talk without being pulled off. It was standup. 50 minutes of just me, and screen loves comedians.
So I jumped in. In 2016 I performed my first ever stand up show Naked. Naked was about being vulnerable. Stories of vulnerability, of standing up as an Asian Australian woman, my funny stories being a woman in my 30’s loving my mum, and Naked…when my email was hacked, and they downloaded all of my naked photos. I used this artistry to tell my story of being violated, and for 50 minutes the audience was with me. No one could pull me off. I got hooked.
LEE TON: I am a 36 Year old Vietnamese Australian born husband and father of two. I was drawn to doing comedy and being creative as growing up I was that cheeky kid that drove my parents crazy. Further from that, my parents worked all the time trying to establish ourselves having migrated to this country following the Vietnam War. So essentially I was raised in front of a television screen and my favourite show as a kid was Saved by the Bell. My idol was Zack Morris as he was the cool kid who everyone loved and adored.
I was never the super good looking sporty guy, I was kind of chubby and quite frankly in high school I never thought I was particularly attractive in general. So the only other way that I thought I could fit in was by standing out and being the funny guy. I then got involved in doing drama at high school and found myself really enjoying furthering my “funny guy” persona and got a lot out of “performing” with the intention of making people laugh. After High School I signed up with an agency where I got a few extra roles here and there but of course the notion of Asian representation was near non-existent I didn’t really book much work beyond that. I continued my love of comedy and gravitated toward watching stand up comedy.
KIM LE: My name is Dr Kim Le and I am a child and adolescent psychiatrist from Adelaide and I became interested in stand-up comedy last year after watching a comedy show at Adelaide fringe. I saw a Vietnamese comic Nicholas Huntley tell a joke about the Vietnamese people. His punch line was not to expect Vietnamese people in the audience as we would be busy studying in the library! I laughed, because I could relate (I love libraries) but it was interesting, because by me sitting in the audience, I was proof that his stereotyped punch line was wrong and that Vietnamese people do come out to enjoy live comedy!
At the time, I was preparing for a national public speaking competition with Toastmasters and watching Nicholas inspired me to try my very first open mic night here in Adelaide and after that, I was hooked. I am more addicted to comedy than a 13 year old boy who has won a Fortnite Battle Royale on his first go.
I was never really interested in public speaking until 2015 when I felt compelled to give a TEDx talk in front of 600 people at Adelaide Townhall. I was so nervous, not even Amy Cuddy’s power poses could save me. On that day, even my own mother pointed out, that my lips were blue because I was hyperventilating.
As a Vietnamese Australian do you see representation of yourselves on the Australian comedy scene? How about in the audiences?
DIANA NGUYEN: From what I know, I am the only Vietnamese Australian female comedian in Australia. Ali Wong is half Vietnamese – so I feel her power.
In my audience is the biggest multicultural party. Women and Men of all different ages and cultural backgrounds. I feel power when I can make people laugh from all over the place, because the word niche is BS. However niche is great for marketing.
There are not many Australian Vietnamese comedians – Less than a handful I know – Hung Le, the first generation of comedians, Anh Do, the Happiest refugee and Lee Ton.
LEE TON: The Australian comedy scene is incredibly small when it comes to Asian representation. The most prominent asian names either are: Hung Le (who doesn’t perform much anymore) & Anh Do (who also doesn’t perform stand up anymore, I believe generally paints and writes as far as i know) and that’s it. Given that Vietnamese representation is quite small we latch onto the likes of Ronny Chieng, (who is Malaysian born and has now move to America) and Dilruk Jayasinha.
There are up and coming comedians on the scene now by the likes of Diana Nguyen, Annie Louey, Suren Jayamenne, Lizzy Hoo and others but still rather few and far between. The audiences are generally also predominantly Australian generally, and hence quite rare you’d get a good amount of asian audiences let alone Vietnamese.
KIM LE: Of course! Every week Anh Do is on the ABC we are being represented. Anh is a TV personality but Australians remember him first and foremost is a stand-up comedian. I am hoping that if he ever decides to make “The Happiest Refugee” movie that he considers me for the role of his father! There is also Hung KIM LE , who is still active on the comedy cruise circuit who has definitely contributed to paving a path for the next generation.
There are some great Vietnamese Australian comics who are active at the moment. Diana Nguyen is the creator of the web series “Phi and Me”, the first sitcom about the second generation Vietnamese experience released this year. There is also my good friend Lee Ton a Vietnamese actor and comic from Melbourne who recently did his first solo stand-up show at Melbourne Fringe.
I definitely see the odd Vietnamese person in the audience which I guess is proportionate to the general population of Vietnamese Australians. Last year, I created a show specifically targeted to a Vietnamese audience here in Adelaide by having a themed night with a Vietnamese line-up called “Pho Real”.
Tell us about your upcoming projects, what are you up to? Is being a comedian a lucrative career path? If not what keeps you going?
DIANA NGUYEN: The Melbourne International Comedy Festival show is the folio for the possible lucrative deal. If you are funny you will get work. If you are consistent you will have work. If you have drive you will have work. I have been doing stand-up for 4 years now, and the opportunities have double since I started playing with stand-up.
This year has been an amazing year for my career. I will have worked on 3 tv shows – 5 bedrooms, Fat Pizza and Peter Hellier’s show. I got this gig after sitting with Peter Hellier on The Project talking about Phi and Me, and I am so fortunate that our comic timing was popping!
I am marketing Phi and Me TV for a network to buy and be responsible for actually diversity. One Chinese family TV show does not represent all Asian cultures, and I have just traveled to North American spreading the #PhiandMeTV love with our fans!
LEE TON: I’ve been doing stand up now for around 2.5 years and am learning and loving the process. My next challenge was performing and producing my very first solo show. I registered for this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival from the 17th to the 21st of September at StoryVille with a show called “Where are you from from?” derived from what us asians get asked all the time. Every time I’ve told anyone about the show title to another asian person it’s met with a response like “Story of my life!” which I hope to bring to the Melbourne Comedy Festival and around the country.
KIM LE: I am currently preparing for my first solo stand-up comedy show for Sydney Fringe “not medical advice”. I used to work in Sydney and did my psychiatry training there, so I am getting much love and support. One of my shows is almost sold out. My Thursday 19th of September show is almost half sold so it will be a great night! I also run a weekly comedy room in Adelaide called “Brickroom Comedy” at HQ Complex. It is a beautiful room and I am always looking for up and coming interstate acts to perform there. We are also going to turn that venue into an Adelaide Fringe venue.
Whether comedy is lucrative or not, stand-up comedy is like the pro Tennis circuit. There are plenty of great tennis players but only the top athletes make a living from it and more. For me, I am more suited to the corporate speaking circuit. I am quite busy and getting monthly bookings to give specialist talks on video game and social media addiction to companies and schools. This type of speaking work pays well and I do throw the odd bit of humour in there. At this stage, comedy for me is an energy source and makes my clinical and speaking work much more effective. Having worked as a specialist now for 3 years, I am financially comfortable, but I can understand the cliché that “money can’t buy happiness”.
To end, these proud Vietnamese Australian comedians are doing their thing and representing us! It is important that we look past Asian representation as just having an East Asian person on screen or on stage because that is not representation. Voices from East, South East, South and Central Asian Australians need to be heard and it is so awesome to hear from these talents. Please take note of their shows – DIANA NGUYEN’S #PHIANDME and her work with LinkedIn, LEE TON’S upcoming show at the Melbourne Fringe Festival and KIM LE’S upcoming show at the Sydney Fringe Festival!
Images provided or via Facebook (public images) and School of Hardknocksknocks