Asian comics' war of laughs

The "fetish of competition", as American sociologist C. Wright Mills called it, is alive and well in the Vancouver comedy community. The Laff Riot Girls recently anointed Colleen Brow the funniest new female standup in town, the Urban Well is holding a contest to find the funniest new comedian (of either sex), and the Vancouver TheatreSports League's Imprentice "fires" improvisers on a nightly basis at the audience's whim.

Then there's North America's only Asian sketch-comedy competition, the third annual Sketchoff!#$%!!: Ha Ha H-A! (pronounced, apparently, "Sketchoff"), taking place Friday and Saturday (May 27 and 28) at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre. Part of Asian Heritage Month, the show pits three sketch troupes against each other, followed by a noncompetitive set from one of the funniest young standup comics of any race, Jeffrey Yu.

Why the need for a battle rather than a simple exhibition of talent from across the continent? "I think we just wanted to add a little more edge and make sure everybody's bringing their best stuff," host and producer Tom Chin tells the Straight in a phone interview. "And we wanted to model it a little bit after the Stanley Cup playoffs." Here, the victors will win not a cup but the highly coveted Rice Bowl.

The smart money has to be with Los Angeles-based OPM, the two-time defending champions, with more than 200 sketches in their repertoire. But don't overlook Toronto's the Kupps, a comedy duo of Second City veterans who took home the People's Choys Award last year. They'll both be challenged by up-and-comers Assaulted Fish, the hometown heroes. This quintet has been making audiences laugh since 2003, when Chin left Hot Sauce Posse to form a new troupe because he wanted to work in more Asian themes. He talks about the movie Jaws as an example of the contrast between the two cultures. "In western society, you're going to watch it and get scared; when Asians watch it and see that fin go up, they get hungry."

Chin, who quit writing and performing with the Fish to work on the production end of things, says his group is still trying to win over the Asian crowd. "I think they've been wary of coming out to this kind of stuff because in the past maybe it hasn't been good. But it's really taking off. We sell out just about every single show these days."

Sketchoff's parent company, Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, has produced about 24 shows in the past six years, and its non-Asian audience is growing. "It's almost paralleling what happened in the States with the Afro-American community," says Chin, a high-school French teacher by day. "They had all these shows at the Apollo [Theater] with black comedians and strongly black crowds in the '60s and '70s, and they've suddenly become very mainstream and very hip in movies and TV. We're a little bit behind them because it's probably something that's discouraged in our own culture. We're supposed to be a doctor, dentist, or accountant, right? I'm out of the will because I'm a comedian."

As with a lot of African-American comics, you can bet that a prominent theme will be racism. Even in our supposedly tolerant multicultural society, xenophobia is a fact of life.

"It's shocking!" Chin says, sounding incredulous. "People think it's gone, but I got called a 'fucking chink' on Friday. On Dunbar Street, of all places! Subtle things, too. I was in Alberta last year. I was trying to buy a hat and all they had were small sizes, and the lady said, 'It must be all that time you've spent in front of a computer.' I said, 'I dunno, lady. Surfing porn doesn't make you smarter.' I don't think she meant it in a mean way. But it's just stereotyping."

Still, VACT is careful not to paint all whiteys as bigots. "We're sensitive in that sense," Chin explains. "We don't want to portray anybody like that. One thing we do show, though, is that there is some kind of racism in the Asian culture, too. Even between Asians-the Chinese and Japanese and Koreans. And how goofy our own cultures are. So we try not to portray anyone in a mean light unless it's to serve a better goal."

Chin acknowledges the criticism that concentrating solely on Asian issues implicitly treats Canadians of Asian descent as second-class citizens. But he and his group are just trying to represent part of their identity. "Any kind of writing that anybody does has to come from a point of truth," he says. "And any writer writes from personal experiences and what they've experienced in their community. …I think people will find them [the sketches] silly anyways, but Asians will see that it's their own stories that are out there."

So everyone's a winner in this competition. Although only one goes home with the Rice Bowl.