Comedy in Vietnam

COMEDY IN VIETNAM ~ I have been puzzled by the lack of Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American or Vietnamese-anything comedians in the world. While there are many Asian comedians, some quite well known (e.g. Margaret Cho, who is Chinese-American, whose parents are from China, and Ali Wong, half Vietnamese and half Chinese, but grew up in the U.S.), Vietnam is largely not a player in this field of endeavor. I’ve watched sitcoms on Vietnamese television, and although I don’t understand much of the language, the body language they use seems relatively slapstick, with exaggerated facial expressions and gestures. I’ve also picked up some translated Vietnamese joke books, with the same impression of the humor.

So, of course, I wonder about this in my efforts to understand a very different culture from my own. One day, having just arrived back in Hanoi, we were talking to our housemate, Ha. She inquired about our trip, and Larry explained that he had not gotten one of his suitcases yet, and in fact it had mistakenly been sent to Saigon. I remarked that his suitcase traveled more than we did, a not uncommon joke in the West, but it still elicited a surprised laugh from Ha, who speaks excellent English. She probably hadn’t heard this joke before; but I was pleased and  curious that she recognized the humor in it.

So that gave me an idea; start using different kinds of humor around my Vietnamese friends and acquaintances, using a Western standard of what’s funny, and see if they get it. I’ve had some pretty satisfying results, as they typically not only understand, but they want to emulate and spread the joke around. I love telling them anecdotes that have humor, because Vietnamese really love to laugh.

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Our Vietnamese friends enjoying Chicago’s Millenium Park for the first time

For instance, when I was visiting my son Aubrey in Los Angeles several years ago, he wanted to get some Pho, so we went to a restaurant called Pho King. After the soup, I asked him if he knew of any other Pho restaurants, and he said he did, but that he liked Pho King best (which I’m certain he was waiting the whole meal to say), which of course sounds like a sexual activity, and is therefore funny. We speculated about the owners, and if they knew they were emulating the F-word when they named their establishment, and concluded that they probably thought it was a selling point. I tell many of my Vietnamese friends about this restaurant and its compromised name, and they not only get it, they love it! That restaurant keeps coming up in conversation, accompanied by giggling and eye rolling. Admittedly not high art, but still, it’s wordplay humor and more subtle than hitting each other to conjure laughs.

So, why is comedy comparatively nascent here, to my Western way of thinking? The U.S. was in a comparable stage during the Vaudeville days, where much of the comedy was slapstick, but it quickly evolved to a much more sophisticated form with the help and advent of television and movies. But television and movies have been around Vietnam for a long time too. True, government censorship is still a thing here. When Facebook first emerged, the government tried to shut it down, but the Vietnamese citizenry came up again and again with work-arounds, so they eventually gave up. They obviously have more control over what gets onto the mostly government-controlled television airwaves, and which movies are shown, since that probably has to go through the Ministry of Culture. But plenty of Vietnamese get streaming services like HBO, so exposure is becoming less of an issue.  

There are no comedy clubs in Vietnam that I’m aware of. For perspective, jazz clubs are just becoming known in the larger cities, and some of that activity is by foreigners. I asked my (very Americanized) friend Huong about it, and she said, “We don’t have time to notice things about each other and turn it into something funny. We’re just trying to get through the day.” And she’s right, a lot of American humor is based on making fun of ourselves and each other, even if that borders on racism and other -isms.

Perhaps with being an emerging economy, there will be lots of laughs coming down the road. Maybe Huong is right, a culture that is struggling to get on its economic feet has little inclination to think about funny.

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Author: Pamela Foard

Teaching and playing professionally since the age of 19, Pamela Foard was appointed a teaching assistant position at her alma mater, Indiana University, while earning a Master’s Degree in Violin Performance. Once graduated, she further honed her teaching skills at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee, and opened her private violin and viola studio in 1978 in Brookfield, Wisconsin, which was active until her move to Los Angeles in 2014. While at IU, Pamela studied with Italian violinist Franco Gulli and Polish violinist Tadeusz Wronski. She has also studied with Gerald Horner of The Fine Arts Quartet, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Dr. Gerald Fischbach, Edward Mumm, former Concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Piotr Janowski of the New Arts Trio in Milwaukee, and Vartan Menoogian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A transplant from the East coast to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Pamela was barely out of her teens, when her talents as a freelance musician led rapidly to positions as assistant-concertmaster of the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, the Wisconsin Philharmonic, and concertmaster of the Green Lake Festival Orchestra (Sir David Willcocks conducting), violinist with Skylight Opera Theater, and under Music Directors Kenneth Schermerhorn and Lukas Foss, the number one substitute violinist and violist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 1970 to 1986. Pamela founded an all string, unconducted orchestra, Sinfonia Concertante, in Milwaukee in 1979, and was the Artistic Director and Administrative Director for four years, where she also served on the board of directors. She was also the Managing Director for Milwaukee’s contemporary music ensemble, Present Music, from 1996-99. In 2006, she and her husband were invited to be artists-in-residence in Hanoi, Vietnam for a three month program, where they collaborated with Vietnamese artists. She commissioned a tuba concerto for her son Aubrey (currently a professional musician in the Charlotte Symphony and head of the low brass department at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music) in 2008 from Wisconsin composer Mark Petering. In a series of fundraisers for various levels of sponsorship of the concerto, she solicited from donors over $20,000. Pamela has published two books: "Wedding Music Essentials" and " In Concert: The Freelance Musician's Keys to Financial Success”. Presently, Pamela continues to freelance and resides in Marina del Rey, California with her husband, the fine art photographer Lawrence D’Attilio, and their cat Dasher.

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