This article was publish in the Hanoi Times.
Short stools have been scattered haphazardly facing a microphone on a stand on what would normally be a step, but tonight will double as a stage.
The bar to the side, with its assorted beers and bottled spirits, is brightly lit but the lights at the back of the room have been dimmed.
The crowd is small. Very small. Without the comedians performing in the show and the bartender it would tally a total of just two.
The team running the event look nervously and offer reassurances that it’s ‘not always like this’ at 7 Fridays’ Stand-Up Comedy Show, in Tay Ho, on a Tuesday night.
The audience, however, is unperturbed.
“Generally speaking the rooms in Hanoi, in all comedy shows in Hanoi, are good rooms,” says Dan Dockery, the main man behind the Stand-Up Hanoi (SUH) which organizes regular comedy with both local and international acts.
Stand-Up Hanoi was founded in 2011 and has been instrumental in developing the stand-up comedy scene in Hanoi. Their most recent endeavor, the Vietnam Comedy Competition (VCC), was held at the beginning of June and packed out the Standing Bar on the edge of Truc Bach lake.
“It’s always a very mixed crowd,” Dockery goes on. “We have a good gender balance and you have a good nationality balance… There are also a few mature heads in the crowd… it’s an intellectual crowd generally and there is not much heckling.”
Despite waiting beyond the scheduled kick off time, a diverse, mature, and intellectual crowd, does not materialize at 7Fridays on Tuesday. That is not to say the night is a fizzer but rather that it creates a much more intimate comedy experience.
It is not, after all, the size of the crowd that matters but rather what you do with it.
As such, when the night’s comedy lineup kicks off a little before ten, it is more of a conversation than a one way performance. For many of the comics, the smaller crowd is a marked difference from the VCC in which many of them participated earlier this month.
The VCC in its fourth year is a joint Hanoi-Saigon competition with heats in both cities. The top three winners of each progressing to a final round will battle it out for the title of Vietnam’s Funniest Person. The final will be held later this year.
Over the four years since the competition began, Dockery says that the stock of comedians has expanded both in size and in quality.
He also notes a growing number of young Vietnamese both attending and competing.
“What’s always been important to me, is to develop, or at least hope to develop, the local comedy scene so that it becomes a scene in its own right. I’ve always wanted to attract a much wider Vietnamese community.”
Erick Garcia, from the USA, who has been performing stand-up comedy in Hanoi for the past four years, says that when he started performing in 2016 the stand-up comedy scene was tiny.
“When I came here it was just me, Minkus, and another guy named Mike the three of us doing comedy and it was only once a month. It was very rare.”
Since then, however, comedy nights have sprouted all over Tay Ho and are beginning to seep into the Old Quarter. Almost any night of the week a stand-up comedy event can be found somewhere in Hanoi.
They are, however, almost always performed in English which can limit the participation of local Hanoians.
That said, Uncle Minkus, the self-proclaimed “people’s champion” of the VCC and one of Hanoi’s best known Vietnamese comics, says that language is not the main problem.
“Stand-up is closely related to rhetoric and public speaking but… We (Vietnamese) just don’t have that tradition of people going up in front of a big crowd and giving a speech… We’re just not that into it.”
Interest in the art form, among locals, therefore has been slow to develop.
While Dockery and Garcia see a rise in interest in stand-up comedy among local Vietnamese, Minkus sees it differently.
“There is a good number of comedians coming up but in terms of cultural impacts to local culture, I think it’s pretty minimal.”
He does, however, say that among expats “It’s becoming very much a part of the cultural life.”
While opportunities in Hanoi may be limited, Southeast Asia as a whole offers exciting possibilities for Vietnam’s comics and comedy lovers.
Dockery notes that a string of promoters throughout the region have made bringing in bigger acts much more affordable.
That said, Covid-19, has somewhat thrown a spanner in the works.
Regional travel has been put on a hiatus and events have been cancelled. The first big international act, IIiza Shlesinger, scheduled to perform at Nhà Hát Tuổi Trẻ (the Hanoi Youth Theater) in February was cancelled due to the virus.
Garcia also says the small showing at 7Fridays on Tuesday is in large part due to English teachers still lacking in disposable income due to the prolonged school shut down.
That said, the show must go on, and on Tuesday night it did.
Although at its conclusion there was some discussion about whether or not the night should continue as a weekly event or move to a monthly cycle. There seemed to be no definitive decision made.
That said, this brief discussion was followed by a plug for Wednesday night’s comedy show at the Forum also in Tay Ho. Stand-up comedy nights, undeniably, have become commonplace almost every night of the week and it seems that while demand has slumped, supply has remained that same.
Garcia, however, on the whole, is bearish about the future.
“I don’t see this growing indefinitely, at least for the foreign crowd….but I do think the Vietnamese community is going to keep growing.”
Minkus, however, was much less optimistic.
“For the foreseeable future I think it’ll be pretty much like this,” he says. “These little Islands of comedy within this sea of popular culture.”