Lots of good things come out of a scowl.
It’s 2015 and I’m scowling at the world. The world is the southern suburbs of Perth.
Things here are slow and begrudgingly gorgeous, and slow, like they always have been. Though I’ve lived in this city for a near decade, since I was a trash tween, hardly anyone looks like me.
Or maybe I should be more generous. Hardly anyone in the circles I’m in looks like me. It’s the Perth arts and comedy scene, but it’s also most scenes across the country, really. And most scenes on TV. And most scenes behind the scenes. And most scenes in my imagination. But I think I want to change that last bit for myself – even if I can’t change the world.
And so I’m scowling.
There’s an Asian at this improv jam I’m at (and I’m not looking in the mirror).
His name is Shannan. He says he’s from the southern suburbs, too. Shannan knows the words to most SNL sketches. Gradually, I notice he’s scowling too.
A scowl is a smile turned upside down.
There’s a terrible #posvibes quote that goes something like that, right?
No, wait the phrase is: a smile is a frown turned upside down.
But that’s not as fun.
I don’t think there ever has to be anything remotely inspirational about good comedy.
But I do think that much of the time, comedy that works begins with a scowl, the itch to react against something.
Something’s not right in the world. Something’s bothersome and irritating. Something’s hurtful. Can we grab it and get laughing? Can we kill it for some fun? Can we put its carcass on and dance?
We are in Chicago at The iO Theater over summer.
It’s the home of American comedy and theatre greats. In our class, there is one more Asian than us. There’s a Ferris wheel outside our apartment that tourists ride, squealing, and on weekends we do, too.
The rest of the time, we pack into a small and sweaty black room for the day. Each morning, we begin with truthful stories about ourselves.
Here’s the theory: the more bullshit you drop from yourself, the more bullshit you can get away with on stage. You have to know what troubles you.
Equidistant between our houses in Perth is the Chinese restaurant Jack van Tongeren vandalised with a swastika, though that was before our time.
Our schools were some of the best public schools in the state, full of new migrants, yet many of our memories of those years are blanched with unease.
At university, “woke” hasn’t made it to West Australian shores yet, so it’s deeply uncool to care about or really voice your culture. There’s clearly one way to belong. We find ourselves constantly translating who we are into characters that the people around us can understand.
The stories we tell take on canonically approved arcs. We’ve read them, they’re in our bones. But we suspect they’re not really ours.
It’s not that you can’t talk about being Asian. Sometimes, you can. Actually, sometimes it’s all they want us to talk about.
But it’s always a particular way, you know?
The BORING way.
The good migrant story. The long-suffering migrant. Poor, sad multicultural migrant. Grandma survived the war and opened a grocery store. Her children, how they flourish! Her grandchildren, how they rebel!
Fuck off grandma. Your story’s valid grandma, but we’re trapped within it.
I’m so sick of tragi-porn, I declare.
Shannan nods. I just wanna be allowed to be sexy, he says.
Yeah, I say, and you know, just, bad?
In comedy, you want a character to be able to be bad. Flawed. Idiotic. Acting from shameful impulses.
The worst of a character prompts not just the biggest laughs, but I think, the most truthful ones. In our terribleness, we can see the world as it is.
It’s not the only way to build comic character, of course.
Comedy comes in many stripes, etc, etc. But it is the kind I love. And it’s the kind, crucially, that has often felt withheld from “minorities”.
To enjoy the freedom of being a shithead after all, requires that you’re viewed first as wholly human and not “other”. That your behaviour isn’t being scanned for undesirable traits that will then be extrapolated to anyone who looks like you.
The good migrant is no jerk. The good Asian ennobles themself and in doing so, teaches others about themselves.
While there are valuable stories in this mould, there is nothing valuable in continuing to serve them up again and again. Women in comedy, and in media, have been rebelling against goodness for a while and the tide is turning there, yielding richer, funnier and socially insightful work.
But I think it’s only just begun for us in the “CALD” box [Culturally and Linguistically Diverse].
Much of our impetus in this show was to give ourselves over to being bad, to turn away from the didactic demands of our histories, and to ask what it would look like if we inhabited the things we weren’t supposed to.
And so the show follows two narcissistic artists. Real delusional chumps who, swollen with hubris, give themselves over to believing they can make work that turns away from the didactic demands of their histories. Instead, they make work that…
The shrug emoji isn’t just there because of spoilers. Though, no, we don’t want to give anything away. In a way, the shrug emoji is the gleeful point.
What kind of work do we make when we say, “fuck it”? When we don’t wait for mono-cultural approval? When we go bad?
In his recent article for Audrey, Declan Greene talks of a growing movement he terms “new camp”, a movement that often embodies the thing it was told not to, that finds joy in the uncomfortable.
It describes work that may seem ironic, but is actually restlessly and deeply engaged with the personal and the political.
It feels weird to ever label yourself as part of something like that, but both Shannan and I find a kinship in that definition, at least, or especially, with this show.
The show trafficks in the ridiculous, but we think it cares deeply about how narratives shape us, and how imagining new Asian-Australian representations in art are inextricable from how we imagine society.
By being the worst versions of ourselves, shithead migrants rather than model minorities, we try and get at some truth about the questions and processes we need to ask to get to this newer place.
Also, we talk about dicks heaps.