'So, where you from?'

Be yourself, not a national stereotype, says Dan Brader

I'm originally from New Zealand. Sometimes when I'm on stage I don't mention that. It doesn't seem especially important to me and in no real way informs my material.

One comedy club owner I used to work for however thought this was a huge mistake. He rang me up to have a chat one time and this is what he told me: ‘Listen mate, you've got to tell them you're from New Zealand right, because when you don't it's like the elephant in the room, mate, everyone's whispering to each other about your accent, mate, trying to work out where you're from and it detracts from your act. You need to acknowledge it mate, and then maybe do some jokes about it, you should build your whole act around it, it’s your selling point mate.’

I chose to ignore his advice because in my everyday life I've rarely made a joke about coming from New Zealand, for me it's not particularly funny or interesting. I'm not too proud to mock my country or anything it's just that my comic mind simply doesn't wander down that particular avenue. My natural sense of humour instead comes from my ability to do character sketches of people I find amusing on television and in real life.  So when I'm on stage, that’s what I do. Maybe there is something funny about coming from New Zealand but it's not my ‘natural funny’.

Of course there are many comedians whose entire acts revolve around their nationality or ethnic background. Some of them – such as the late Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle – are hilarious and are able to make sharp, social commentary about how we see people from their corner of the world. But sadly there are countless more who desperately seek acceptance from the crowd by trading off on negative stereotypes, pandering to the more racist segments of the crowd.

Comedy should be like any other art and should be about self-expression. A great comic should present to the crowd their skewed vision of the world. To simply mirror back a bunch of racial stereotypes not only smacks of a lack of inspiration but shows that the comic has no real point of view, nothing personal to express.

I've seen an Asian-born comic rattle off unique, quirky one-liners and leave the audience in stitches. A close friend of mine is a Kenyan-born comedian who is a natural improviser and can do 20 minutes sets purely by talking to the audience and using their answers to go off on inspired, hilarious flights of fancy. These are just a couple of examples, I've seen countless more. The point is these comics chose not to use nationality as the basis of their act because their natural funny comes from somewhere else.

Again, there's nothing wrong with routines that acknowledge a comedian's nationality, if you naturally find the funny in being, say, an Italian in Australia and have always viewed the world seeing the humour in this experience then that's a legitimate viewpoint. But to ignore a ‘natural funny’ rooted in something else because you feel you won't gain acceptance from the crowd unless you pander to ethnic stereotypes is a sign that you lack faith not only in yourself but in your audience.

Sure there’ll always be morons in the crowd who whisper racist comments if you choose not to pander to them, but the great comic has an inner comedic voice so loud and strong it drowns out the whispers of the ill-informed few.

Published: 23 Jun 2009

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