The double-edged sword of being a comedian of color: Correspondents 2022: Chortle: The UK Comedy Guide

From Filipino kiwi comic James Roque

Being a black comedian in a predominantly white industry is a wild experience. For starters, you’re almost guaranteed to have at least one post-show interaction once a month with a well-meaning punter who begins with “You know my brother’s wife is (insert your ethnicity here)”.

Then there’s the specific kind of imposter syndrome you get when you look around the green room at the mostly white cast you’re part of and think, “Am I hired to spice up this show?”. Not to mention the downside to that of course; seeing a poster for an all-white line-up and quietly saying to himself, “It’s 2022, how the hell do we still get those Coldplay concert vanilla mayonnaise shows?”

But perhaps one of the biggest things that encapsulates my personal experience as a Filipino migrant comedian to emerge on the New Zealand comedy scene is the internal conflict of whether or not to lean on the “Filipino” or “Filipino” label. asian comedian. It’s something that, much like the sound of my Filipino mother’s voice telling me I could have been a doctor, has been swirling in my ear throughout my 13-year career. It’s also something I’ve discussed in the past with other comedians of color, some of whom didn’t feel that pressure at all, and others who, like me, were in the trenches.

I remember when I first got started in stand-up as a young lanky 18-year-old kid, an established local comedian I shared a green room with made a casual comment about thinking Russell Peters was a hoe , because “everything he talked about being Indian” and it’s so tricky to “point out the differences between cultures”.

I remember as a young, impressionable kid thinking, “Well, this guy clearly knows what he’s talking about,” and I embraced that idea. It was a sentiment only to be picked up by more (mostly white) comics when I emerged on the scene, though many of them were just more than happy to get on stage and do material about how different men and Women are.

I had this idea in my head that it was a hack to center your race or culture on stage. That it was a crutch. Well, I’m not here to argue about whether or not it is, or what “hack” even means (for what it’s worth, I think everything is “hack” if you look hard enough or showing it to the wrong audience. Prop comedians are ‘hack’ until they get in front of an audience that loves prop comedy), but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid.

For years I had this idea in my head. It still scratches me today. I didn’t want to be just another ethnic comedian talking about ethnic things. Why? I do not know exactly.

Looking back, I’m guessing it was because the older white comics said that? But apart from wanting my colleagues and contemporaries to like my work, it was mainly because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an “Asian comedian”. I didn’t want people booking me just so they could drive me out to speak for them about Asian things, and I didn’t want white audiences to expect me to only talk about race. Something I realized much later in my career was going to happen to me anyway, no matter how hard I tried to fight it.

I wanted to be in control of what I’m doing creatively to come up with fresh new ideas. I’d always heard that “ethnic comedy” had been done before, and I should look outside the box for inspiration.

The idea itself isn’t problematic, actually it’s advice I’d give to new comedians right now, but then it got to the point that it was pretty crippling. By the way, side note new comedians, if you don’t want to use the mic stand, KEEP IT OUT OF THE WAY. Don’t stand behind it for your entire set and try to hide. It’s literally two inches thick, it doesn’t do anything, I promise.

On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said being the “Asian comedian” on the circuit doesn’t have its own pros. Standing out in comedy can be difficult. How do you stand out from the 12 other people in the lineup show you’re doing? How do you make sure the audience remembers you?

Being a Filipino comedian gave me an instant difference in a lineup. As the audience watched 12 comedians talk about how awkward they are at sex, it was a breath of fresh air to see someone come out with a completely different perspective. It helped me advance my career and sell tickets – it was easy to answer “Who was your favorite on the show?” with “the Asian guy”.

Although this wasn’t without its downsides either – I remember flying around a year after the New Zealand Comedy Gala and a woman saying to me “I loved your set” when I wasn’t on the show just to realize she mistook me for Ronny Chieng who was On the bill. I’m pretty sure I sold at least three tickets this year to people I thought I was him. I’m still waiting for them to DM me on Instagram and say ‘I love your work on The Daily Show!’

Roque's tweet about a man mistaking him for Chieng

There’s the oddly positive side of the diversity coin. As annoying as it is to feel like you’re only booked to fill a quota, at least you’re booked. Well I understand that after years and years of lack of opportunity this isn’t really a benefit, but it’s a positive nonetheless.

I’ve had many open and honest conversations with very talented white male comedian friends of mine about how the push for diversity has made it a little harder to get gigs lately when there’s already a plethora of white males Comedians gives the bill.

They all understand why and support the cause, after all someone has to bear the loss if we are to make room for everyone and right now unfortunately her. And while I can sympathize with the struggles of my white male friends, the fight for equality in this industry is far bigger than them. Plus — it’s not exactly like they stopped booking white men for comedy all together.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the label is that it can help you find a clear audience for your work. People from underrepresented communities like the Filipino community in New Zealand are ready for comedy that speaks to them and their experiences. As long as you make something high quality that they can resonate with, they will show up. This is something I’ve learned recently in my career and has been very influential in how I approach this topic now.

I remember after a performance of my show Legal Alien I had in Wellington in 2018, a show about my migrant family. A Filipino woman came up to me and tearfully thanked me for sharing a story similar to her family’s. It was actually quite surprising since I didn’t do the show to get that reaction – it was still just a stand-up show. It was a brief but unforgettable interaction as it was the first time I really saw first hand the value of representation in my work.

The following year, I wrote a pseudo-sequel called Boy Mestizo that exposed the Philippines’ colonial trauma, and the overwhelming response from Filipino audiences served as another reminder that I could connect with audiences on another level, by mine Filipino nature highlighted on stage. Not that I want to do TED Talks out here, but it’s nice to do silly comedies that have a little bit more under the hood as well.

Where am I now with this dilemma? I’m still struggling to find that balance. But I think over a decade later I’m finally finding a way to find the funny part in my Kiwi and Filipino identity on stage. Some comedians of color don’t talk about their race or culture on stage because it’s not a priority for them or because they choose not to. And that’s okay. In fact I admire it.

Part of the beauty of comedy is that there’s no one way to do it. But for me, being a Filipino is a big part of my view of the world. I see it as a way to talk about being Filipino on stage to regain a part of me that I lost when I emigrated to New Zealand. When you start doing stand-up, you’re always taught to “write about what you know.” I know that. I no longer see it as a “label” but rather as the track I’m running on, within my own race.

And now that I’m over a decade into my career and starting my first Edinburgh Fringe, I see it as a challenge; How can I write about things that are inherent to my culture but make them unique to me? How can I continue to play with the art form of standup and push it from my lane?

I now know that as an “ethnic comedian” I don’t limit myself to speaking about specific topics, but that it’s about approaching any topic and bringing your unique worldview to it. If I want to talk about the pressure Asian parents put on their children, I can! If I want to talk about an obscure observation about hotel shampoos, I can do that too, but it just means it’s a little bit about hotel shampoos, as narrated by a Filipino Kiwi comedian suffering from anxiety and playing too much Fortnite at a 31 -year-old adult male.

And finally, to the comedians who told me it was a “hack” to talk about cultural differences in comedy; Have you ever noticed how different we are? Is not that funny. Oh, and I’m not going to stop talking about being Asian or Filipino, so I suggest you come on board.

• James Roque: Badong airs at 8:20pm at the Gilded Ballom Teviot

Released: August 5, 2022

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