'Maybe the next Bill Hicks is gonna come from Mexico' | Tom Rhodes talks about the globalisation of comedy

'Maybe the next Bill Hicks is gonna come from Mexico'

Tom Rhodes talks about the globalisation of comedy

BY BRYONY SHIPSTON

There are some things that are intrinsic to a comedian’s life, and travel is definitely one. For some this is a cross to bear, others consider it a gift that informs a large part of their comedy.

But something interesting has been happening over the last few years. For a long time the best gigs were to be found in the cities of the First World, now comedians are coming back not with tales of San Francisco and Sydney, but Manila and Seoul. And some of most travelled comedians are coming back with a message; the rest of the world isn’t just importing it’s laughs, they’re cultivating their own too.

Globetrotting comic Tom Rhodes is one such messenger.

‘I think comedy’s pretty red hot, internationally and I think the smart people who know, know,’ he says. ‘It’s a really hip, cult, underground thing, this new wave of international comedy gigs, and the fighter-pilot comedians that do it.

‘I always loved to travel and when I started out in America I thought I just wanted to headline all the cities. Then I headlined all the cities like, 16 times, and it all becomes like a blur. I wanted to branch out.’

And so in 1995, when Comedy Central gave him the opportunity to make a documentary called Viva Vietnam with UK favourite Rich Hall, he packed his bags and went exploring a, then, much misunderstood and mistrusted country through the eyes of two comedians.

‘It still holds up,’ Rhodes says of the show. ‘We filmed for two weeks there and just did everything. I did a few planned things, like doing the Jane Fonda workout tape in Hanoi. Because she had upset all these people during the war [by visiting Vietnam]. Vietnam veterans to this day despise her for that, even in veterans’ groups, you’ll see Jane Fonda urinal targets. People still hate her. So I did the Jane Fonda workout tape. And Rock’em, Sock’em Robots

‘had actually come to London for the first time right before that because I thought, “If I step on a landmine or something fucked up happens to me while I‘m in Vietnam, I want to have gone to London once in my life.”’

‘I remember Rich [Hall] told me, “Don’t go to The Comedy Store first, you don‘t start at the top, do some lesser gigs where you can get your sea-legs and read the temperature of the country, see what works, what references you need to change.’ So that’s what I did. Greg Proops had rented an apartment in Hampstead Heath. It couldn’t have been lovelier and I did little test gigs. Eventually I worked up to trying The Comedy Store.’

‘I remember somebody yelled at me when I first came over, “You caused Vietnam!” I was like, ‘“No sir, I was playing Little League Baseball, I was a child, I had nothing to do with it.” I used to do a joke about it a long time ago that in England people will heckle you for crazy shit as an American. Like “Fuck you and the Panama Canal Treaty of 1874.”’

So what differences would a comedian notice the first time over?

‘I told American comedians who wanted to come over that there is the danger in England that you could be heckled by someone who’s funnier than you. I think it is a feather in your bonnet, it’s a badge of honour.

‘The thing about English humour, that makes it so fantastic, is the self-loathing. The stereotype is that they’re generally never happy about anything.’

It seems though, that despite our grumbling, comedy is treated with more reverence over here than in Rhodes’s homeland. ‘It’s like diamonds in Africa man, humour is England’s greatest natural resource. It’s great that it’s so celebrated here.’ From London, Rhodes moved to Amsterdam, scoring his very own chat show. This lead to a season presenting a popular travel show called Yorin Travel, affording him a unique opportunity to see comedy that was yet to make its way to the West. In almost every nation and every culture, comedy can be found if you look hard enough: ubiquitous, if not always abundant. So what does comedy mean to the rest of the world?

‘Well, in the Third World, comedy’s different. TV comedy is always a gay guy getting hit in the balls. You see that in Asia, Latin America and they haven’t really evolved into the monologue comedy and spoken word aspect of comedy. ‘I think comedy’s more important than ever now because the world is so fucked. Everybody needs to laugh about the situation they’re under. They’re hopeless. That’s why you’d think the Arab World would be producing all sorts of comedians right now.’

Presumably the ‘situation you’re under’ would also dictate what a culture or a generation would find funny to some extent. But Rhodes has found his expectations thwarted – for example when he performed in Kuala Lumpur.

‘[Malaysia] is a Muslim country but you got Malay Muslims, Indian Hindus and Chinese people and those are the ethnic make-up of the comedy scene, that’s the populous. The thing that I found interesting there was they all ruthlessly make fun of each others’ religions and ethnicity. You would think that a Muslim country would be more strict and uptight than us, in some regards I thought they were a lot freer than we are. Because our liberal, political correctness keeps us from speaking truthfully sometimes.’

The internet has made the world a smaller place. More people are aware of the far reaches of the world. Art and entertainment reflect this regularly, so perhaps this has also expanded our collective sense of humour? Perhaps the exchange of comedy can be the thing that unites us all?

‘I think there’s always a revolution waiting to happen and every country needs to have a great stand up comedian they can identify with. Like with Russell Peters, now everyone in India knows what stand-up comedy is and all over Asia, because they can identify with this guy. I know there’s some stand-up in Mexico and guys are talking about the radical, nasty things that are happening there so I don’t know, maybe the next Bill Hicks is gonna come from Mexico?’

‘About two weeks after September 11th, I played in Jakarta. It was tense. They told all European looking people not to go outside for fear of being mistaken for an American. I’m actually American, so that was a tense time. But I’ve since been back there twice. I was here right after we killed Osama Bin Laden and it was a much looser place.

‘We were staying in this hotel, there was a parade. We went down to take pictures, my wife and I, then these girls, these Muslim girls with the headscarves came up to us and started talking. This girl told me that she was in a Beatles Club and once a week her and these girls get together and they sing Beatles songs. I go “Really, my favourite Beatles song is ‘We Can Work It Out’” and then we started singing “We Can Work It Out”, that was like ten years later. To go from not being allowed to leave the hotel to, ten years later, singing Beatles songs with Muslim girls.

‘Last year they had the Jakarta International Comedy Festival, they had Indonesian comedians. A lot of them were young and complete rubbish, but they have comedy now.”

Rhodes has used his podcast, Tom Rhodes Radio, and his blog on The Huffington Post to throw a light particularly on Asia, interviewing individuals like Malaysian comic Kuah Jenhan and rising star Harith Iskander and reporting on burgeoning comedy scenes such as in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. One thing is abundantly clear; where there’s comedy, there’s gigs for comedians willing to travel. ‘You know we won the lottery when it comes to the language because the English language is the language of business, so if you go to third world countries people learn English. They know that equates into money. There’s a lot of people who love comedy and there’s a lot of cool gigs to entertain these people.

‘I think you’re a true comedy badass if you can go to England, Asia, anywhere and make the people laugh.’

So with U.K. comics travelling across the world, and the internet bringing international comedy to our fingertips, are we really to discover that when it comes to a chuckle, we’re not so different after all?

‘The question I always get asked [is] “Do you have to alter your material?” Somewhat. To a tiny, tiny degree but for the most part I do what I do and people get it. You talk about pain, misery, heartbreak, relationship stuff, things that are going on in the world. Especially now with technology, we’re all living in the same country-planet. We all get the same information, immediately.'

What piece of advice then, would Rhodes give to anyone thinking of exploring the world at large?

‘Bring lots of extra socks. Because you can do without underwear, but you’re always gonna need fresh socks.’

Indeed.

Tom Rhodes Radio is available on iTunes. He will also be appearing at The Soho Theatre in London on February 13, 14 and 15.

Published: 7 Feb 2014

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