YOU are all alone. There are no props and no co-stars, just you and your monologue. The crowd will be merciless. Stand-up comedy is no joke.
That’s what I realised on February 22 at the inaugural Nah Hoss That Real Funny, a stand-up comedy open-mic show at the Student Activity Centre, UWI, St Augustine. I had responded to a Facebook ad by Caricomedy, a burgeoning group that wants to revolutionise comedy in TT. I was one of four first-timers on stage that night in a field of 14 comics.
Rachel Price, Donna Hadad and Errol Fabien are among the few who do American-style stand-up comedy on the TT comedy circuit. The style is not about telling jokes; it has more in common with Trini ole talk than the costumed skits for which Caribbean comedy may be better known.
One of the first things I learned that night is that sketch comedy is passé to this crowd, even among comedians who have performed it themselves. Stand-up comedy does not get its kick from costumes. It’s not the same as humorous storytelling, such as Paul Keens-Douglas has mastered.
Instead, some stand-up comics succeed by finding the most outrageously un-funny things about themselves and turning them into laughs. US comic Trevor Noah joked that because his black South African mother beat him when he was small, he got flashbacks while watching the women in Black Panther kicking ass. Hadad jokes in a bit posted online that she’s a “ketch-ass Syrian” and not worthy of being kidnapped – which, when you break it down, isn’t funny at all. Kidnapping? Poverty? Racial stereotyping? Yet it flies. Maybe delivery is everything?
I’m 44 and I guessed the UWI audience would be in their early to mid-20s, so I wrote a monologue about being old. I practised it a few times for my family and pets. The pets didn’t find it funny.
That night on stage a more experienced comedian joked that the rising cost of living meant he had to choose between taxi fare and food. When you write it out like that, it’s not at all funny – yet the audience of over 100 people, mostly students, cracked up. I had been wrong: delivery isn’t everything; context is quite a lot too.
“If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you keep figuring things out as you do it more and more,” said Anil Kumar Bandhakavi in an e-mail interview in early March. A 34-year-old out-of-work engineer, he has been doing stand-up regularly since 2013. (His unemployed status made it into his set at the February 22 Caricomedy show.)
TT-born, and previously resident in the US and India, he’s done stand-up in India, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis. Audience matters, he’s found.
“Definitely, while in the US, my material had a lot to do with my experiences there,” said Bandhakavi, who uses Anil Kumar as his stage name. “Some of the jokes I did in the US are practically useless here – the ones that allude to cultural experiences and dilemmas that I faced in the US. However, material that more generally connected with the people regardless of where they’re from, I use here. I am also trying to write more stuff that has to do with my time here, and my past with this country. Of course, in the US too, there is a difference between playing to white versus black audiences, urban versus rural audiences, etc. You never know what you’ll get until you get on stage.”
Trini audiences, he noted, add to the fun. “Trinis have a witty way about themselves, so I think there is a little bit of a challenge of outdoing the crowd when you do comedy.” In Trinidad Creole, we call that fatigue, and yes, audiences love to give it. To survive the TT stage a comic has to learn how to take it and to give it back.
Kwame Boatswain, 25, a first-timer who talked about being ugly, got his share.
Boatswain wrote his monologue in his head and practised it a few times just prior to going on stage, he said in an interview via Facebook. “I tried stand up because comedy has always been my favourite genre and for a while, any time I was sad, it was all I watched on Netflix, YouTube and any video streaming site to try and lift my spirits.
“I eventually acquired a taste for stand-up comedy and decided that one day I’d do it so when the opportunity randomly arose I took it.”
He earned audience laughter throughout and applause at the end of his set. Part of his success was how comfortable he appeared on stage. Even the audience’s fatigue didn’t appear to faze him. He’s going back to do another show, he said.
After my bit, one audience member came up and told me I was funny. Caricomedy has asked me to come back to their next open mic at UWI on March 22. The only other woman in the show, Rhea-Simone Auguste, who performs as Simmy the Trini, has asked me to consider performing at her open-mic show Haul Yuh Mic on March 23 at Kaiso Blues Café, Newtown, Port-of-Spain.
Kwame Weekes, a Caricomedy founder and one of the headline acts at the open mic, told me via Facebook, “I think about these things on a kind of macro level. So it is really important to me for more female voices to use the stage. So I hope you keep coming back if it is something still interesting to you.”
I guess I wasn’t funny.
But I’m still interested in exploring Caribbean humour and how stand-up comedy works. I’m hoping to integrate traditional TT comedic styles – the Midnight Robber, the Tobago Speech Band, extempo calypso – into my next set. I’m also going to practise it really well, no matter how my dog feels about it. See you in the audience. Bring your best fatigue.