My friend and I have established a little quarantine routine (a quarantine…tine?) where we send each other random stand-up clips we find on YouTube. We tell each other, “I think you’ll like this” or “this is SO YOU,” when we find weird mirrors of ourselves in 20-to-30-something comedians trudging through joke after joke. This has become one of our coping mechanisms amidst this absolute mess of a year, and I don’t think we’re alone. You probably have a fair share of these clips on your own YouTube recommendations section, whether they’re clips from Comedy Central or Live at the Apollo.
In a digital world, where everything seems picture-perfect and shiny, it’s refreshing to see people purposely break that image while acting silly on stage. Great stand-up holds a wonky carnival mirror up to us, showing just how weird and convoluted our social codes actually are. Or maybe it’s not even that deep — it’s just good to laugh when it feels like the world is burning all around you.
These factors make it the perfect storm for local stand-up comedy to finally get its time in the spotlight. Although the form has slowly been gaining traction over the recent years, it still occupies a relatively niche area within the wild and wacky world of Filipino comedy.
It was only a matter of time before people figured out that there’s something addictive about making people laugh on stage, but even then, getting the stand-up culture off the ground was a bit of a struggle. Micah Andres, Andren Bernardo, Aldo Cuervo, and Alexio Tabafunda organize Open Siomaic Nights at Mow’s Bar, where new and experienced comics alike (who may or may not be drunk on Red Horse and San Mig) can come up on stage and try to get some laughs.
Andres recalls hosting open mics in different cafes before the owners of Mow’s reached out saying they’d love to have regular open mics at their stage. Cuervo adds that those first few shows were pretty small: “we’d send out hundreds of Facebook invites and maybe 12 people would show up.”
Perhaps there are deeper cultural reasons behind local stand-up’s small niche within the realm of Filipino comedy. It’s not just about the lack of slapstick — Filipino humor is communal and chaotic.
A study by researchers from Centro Escolar University and Western MIndanao University found that Vice Ganda’s comedy works in large part due to conversational witticisms and irony, which necessarily play off of an unsuspecting guest.The long-running sketch show Bubble Gang constantly features segments where Diego Llorico’s appearance is the butt of the joke. Within popular realms, comedy here is interactive: audiences are supposed to talk back to the performer, and there’s a kind of rapport.
Another thing worth pointing out is that Filipinos are generally more risk-averse when it comes to comedy. In a paper on the legacy of comedy king Dolphy, professor Maria Rhodora G. Ancheta highlights Dolphy’s role as comedic relief as something that ended up pigeonholing him and taking away the “possible transformative value” of his comedy.
While even the best stand-up comedians have a solid set of jokes they can always rely on, evolution is really the name of the game. You’re supposed to switch up your sets and try something new because that’s how you stay relevant.
It’s therefore lonely under the stand-up spotlight, with comedian Chris Bacula noting that stand-up’s solitary nature is part of what makes it so difficult. “When a joke bombs, it’s on you,” he says, “because you’re the one who wrote it, edited it, and performed it.” It’s tough to perform by yourself without the help of a laugh track. Live stand-up doesn’t have the added benefit of video editing either.
There’s also the silent but ever-present divide between what’s local and what’s foreign. Comedian Dani de Castro points out that, despite being fairly new to the stand-up scene, she’s noticed how a lot of people can easily name their favorite foreign comics at the drop of a hat but have never been to a local show. According to her, “there’s still a bit of colonial mentality at play, and an exclusivity to local comedians being in actual showbiz, with stints on comedy shows like Bubble Gang or as hosts on the noontime shows.”
Although people (myself included) have mixed views about internet sensation Jo Koy and his whole shtick, the sold-out homecoming shows in Manila and Cebu are proof that stand-up has a place locally. Jo Koy became one of the most recognizable faces of Philippine stand-up: YouTube commenters call him “one of the funniest comedians there is,” “a natural storyteller,” and — my personal favorite – “so funny, and I’m not even Filipino lol!”
For Bacula and fellow standup comedian Ram Roque, Jo Koy has the comedic formula down pat. “Jo Koy added swag to the craft and made more people interested in it,” Bacula says, “[and] what’s important is that Jo Koy created that noise that made the world look.” While Juan admits that it was smart for Jo Koy to hone in on the Fil-Am niche, he maintains that “it doesn’t give the full picture of what a Pinoy is. But I don’t expect Jo to talk about what it’s like to ride a jeep when you are late for class only for the barker to keep you waiting because siyaman po yan! And only eight of you are cramped in.”
For audiences back home, part of what makes this Fil-Am comedian so cool is that, though he does joke about his Filipino mom and her life-saving Vicks supply, he also discusses the struggles of parenting his teenage son; it’s refreshing to see an Asian comedian joke about these dynamics, it and points to all the other universal experiences that have remained undiscussed within the stand-up stage.
However, those in the know will attest to the fact that our own local brand of stand-up has already been in the making long before Jo Koy’s rise to the top. Back in pre-COVID days, longtime fans and the comedy-curious alike would head to Open Siomaic for their fill of belly laughs and cold beer. Organizers Andres, Bernardo, Cuervo and Tabafunda have seen their fair share of sets both successful and successfully bad, and they say that the scene was slowly starting to get traction before the pandemic hit.
Tabafunda points out that the comedy scene is slowly moving away from the classic slapstick and insult formulas, and audiences are starting to gravitate towards more observational humor. Word of mouth spread, as it always does in Manila, and by 2019 Open Siomaics were packing full houses. Prior to that, the only way they’d get a full house would be by advertising the appearances of big comics like Alex Calleja and GB Labrador. It also helps that these big names have garnered mainstream attention, such as Calleja performing on ABS CBN’s It’s Showtime and Ryan Rems Sarita winning the show’s “Funny Juan” competition.
“The stand-up that we do is still pretty small,” says Andres, “but it was slowly getting steam pre-COVID. [Comedy group] Solid OK would host their Blagag! comedy nights at Mow’s, and people would comment on the videos saying ‘Wow, I didn’t know this kind of stand-up existed.’’
Whenever the team runs comedy nights, whether Open Siomaics or Blagag!, they make sure not to censor comics. This means that they can explore whatever form they want — one Blagag! video is of a guy advertising a bidet for three minutes — but it also means that if you bomb, then that’s on you. The one rule that Cuervo enforces, though, is that you definitely can’t go overtime.
When it comes to the kinds of jokes Manila audiences prefer, it’s pretty much what you’d expect. Bacula and Roque both point out that people love jokes about relationship issues and hugot, traffic on Edsa, and 90’s culture. This leaves the door wide open for people who want to talk about things like the government (which still remains a sensitive topic for the average audience), mental health, and that weirdly warm feeling that you get when you re-download Bumble and see the same people you saw the last time you had it.
But because this kind of stand-up is so different from the back-and-forth comedy that many people are accustomed to, it also makes Filipinos the toughest audience members. According to Cuervo, your first 10 seconds are what make or break the audience’s impression of you. Bernardo says that the first time he did stand-up was at an open mic in a gay comedy club; he was a couple beers in and thought that he might as well go for it.“I went up and the host was pretty friendly naman,” he says, “but I went up and I bombed. Daming hecklers, and then when I went off-stage hineckle ako ng host. It was actually pretty funny.” Andres fondly recalls that one time when a disinterested audience member asked his girlfriend, loud enough for the restaurant to hear, what they should order. Andres told him to get the tapa.
The ones who make it out on stage therefore really kill it. All four Open Siomaic organizers readily admit that our home grown comics can easily go mano a mano with international comedians, and even those who have Netflix specials. The relative newness of stand-up in the Philippines means that today’s comics have to endure trial by bombing while the audience warms up to this new format. The Open Siomaic team says that the goal is to have comedy night happening all across the metro every single night, Mondays though Saturdays (Sundays are for rest and church). Cuervo also says that he’d like for stand-up to become popular enough that comics can actually make a living out of it like they do elsewhere.
Sadly, the pandemic has put a halt on performances for now. Even Bacula points out that local stand-up was slowly reaching what he calls ‘Jo Koy’ levels right before the pandemic hit, with people buying tickets to headlined shows and becoming regulars at comedy nights in bars. For newbie comics like De Castro, the next step is to put in the time, and switch over to the digital realm, be it through podcasts, Kumu streams, or YouTube channels. Open Siomaics are now conducted online, which the team admits takes some getting used to.
It remains to be seen just how the stand-up scene will recover from the pandemic. Perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to close that Netflix tab and dig around for sets by local comedians — the material is out there. And if you think you can do better, maybe it’s your time to step up to the mic.
Special thanks to Micah Andres, Andren Bernardo, Aldo Cuervo, and Alexio Tabafunda of Open Siomaic, Chris Bacula, Ram Roque, and Dani de Castro.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article referred to Ram Roque as Ram Juan. This has since been changed to reflect his stage name.
Header art by Frances De Guzman
Gaby Flores is a writer and researcher based in Manila. Her ultimate dream is to be a firebender with a dragon as a pet, but she will settle for marrying Niall Horan and living in a small house off the coast of Ireland with their three kids and a Bernese mountain dog. Her work can be seen in Rappler, Esquire, Cha Literary Journal, and Mabuhay Magazine. Please let her know what your favorite cheeses are.
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