I think I’m pretty good at English. I read newspapers, I devour novels, and I watch TV and movie, I speak and write quite well and make only small mistakes or have little trouble spelling difficult words. English is – I think – a language that I to have conquered a long time a go. True, it took me several months to understand broad Scottish accent, but it’s more because these Scottish people talk like something is stuck down in their throat! But after a while, I could actually understand what the taxi driver was talking about!
So when last week our friends suggested to go to Melbourne International Comedy Festival – in Perth, yes, they were doing a roadshow – I said yes, out of curiosity. But I had a small reservation, I was afraid I wouldn’t find it funny. Having a single person standing up alone on a stage telling jokes for 2 hours is not a familiar concept for me. I didn’t grow up with this type of… errr… culture. I don’t remember any Indonesian comedian has done it. Normally the stage will be filled with people who talk all at once at the same time (and do horrible practical jokes, but we are not going there).
There’s always a first time for everything. I’ve done ballet and opera, so why not comedy? Bring it on!
But just like what I was afraid of before, it happened. One guy came doing an opening, who wasn’t really terrible. I understood his Australian accent (yay!) and could pretty much follow whatever he was saying. For the first 3 minutes. He mentioned about coming to Perth the first time, and saw a guy walking with a Spiderman costume and Batman mask and thinking, “wow, this town must be really safe”. I got the joke. Why? Because I knew what he was referring to. I’m familiar with Spiderman, and I know Batman. So I chuckled.
That was the first and the last time I found the whole show slightly amusing. The guy then introduced the first comedian, who had a guitar on the side. He’s Australian as well, but he spoke like Usain Bolt running for a victory in Olympic Games, so fast that I didn’t get a single word he was saying. Then he was singing something, which I didn’t get either. I turned to twitter and played with it for the next 10 minutes or so.
A guest star from Edinburgh was on the next performance. Edinburgh is famous for its Fringe Festival, the world’s largest art festival, so I presume having someone from Edinburgh must be such an honour for Australian’s comedy world (judging from the laughter level in the room that night, I believe she was doing really well). At first I smugly thought I would understand her better than the guy before, since I spent a couple of years living in Scotland. I prepared myself and hope for the best. Alas, I didn’t understand her either. Not just her accent, but the entire jokes. By the time I caught one or two words she uttered, she had fired another 20 and I kept losing her. It didn’t help that she used dialects that probably all Westerners understand but for someone who speaks English as a second language wouldn’t learn at school or pick it up at newspaper or TV. Plus anything, and everything, she was referring to, was something local, something Western-ish, something an Indonesian and Asian wouldn’t understand.
I realise now that to understand a comedy, not only you have to understand whatever the person is saying, you also need to have an understanding of local knowledge and current affairs as well. Like when one performer said Bunburry and people laughed, I have no clue why. What happened in Bunburry? What is it associated it? If I don’t have such knowledge, then I wouldn’t understand it, and the joke would be a waste. I tried to ask mr.mck about some words the Edinburgh lady was saying, but when he repeated it, it’s a slang that I’ve never heard of unless I’ve spent my entire life living in an English-speaking country.
I was frustrated and decided not to return after the break. It’s also humiliating to see others were enjoying the night and laughed their heads off, while I was sitting there, staring down at the stage, having no clue whatsoever about what was going on. I refuse to say that I failed though. I reckon the jokes don’t translate cross-Atlantic or cross-continent really well. What we think is funny, wouldn’t be something others consider funny in a different part of the world, and vice versa.
Maybe, if I have been living here long enough, I would understand why Bunburry is funny.
In the mean time, I’ll just stick with opera and ballet.