You are not a comedian. You are more than likely an ESL teacher in Busan, South Korea. (Some wiseacres might say, You are not a teacher, either, but that’s another story.) Tonight you are making your, what, fourth? fifth? appearance at The Haha Hole, Busan’s monthly open-mic stand-up comedy night. Yeah, you know it’s just an open-mic, it’s just a hobby, but you take it seriously. Started in November, 2009, it has become a first-Friday-of-every-month Busan institution. You want to be worthy of the two free drink tickets.
It’s 6 p.m. on Friday afternoon, your hagwon English classes are done, and you’re back at your crummy little one-room apartment. You haven’t eaten all day. You’re chain smoking again. By now, your Korean neighbors definitely think you’re insaneâthey’ve been hearing you, the waygook whom they know lives alone, having loud conversations with himself for the last few days. They don’t know that you’re just going over your set for tonight. You take a final drag on your Dunhill then stab it out in disgust. You go over your set again, telling jokes to the couch, the bed, the wall. Hopefully the real audience will laugh more. You time your set this time. Fourteen minutes. Too long, dammit. You don’t like going long, and besides, Tharp says he’s going to be flashing a pen-light at people at the ten mark. Not that this would get Hockmuth off the stage. That guy goes longer than a Springsteen concert.
What can you cut? You look over your bits. The Korean mountain hiking bit? The Arirang TV bit? The celebrity suicide bit? You realize that 80 percent of your material is Korea-related, as is just about all of the bits comedians do at the Hole. Well, living in Korea does offer up a lot of low-hanging fruit. Hazelton has told you he’s trying to veer away from the Korea stuff. Easy for himâhe’s from Idaho. Lots of material right there. You especially like: I went to Boise StateâI paid my tuition in beef jerky.
Maybe you should cut the suicide bit. A little risky. New Korean apartment buildings come with diving boards pre-installed on the roofs? Errrr, maybe that one’s gotta go, especially after that horrific online suicide club story in Busan from a few months ago. You know you must walk a fine line here in Korea. (There’s a fine line between clever and stupid, goes the line from Spinal Tap.) You read about (in Haps) the 2006 Babapalooza business, where a whole raft of English teachers almost got the heave-ho from Korea for their sketch comedy show. They weathered the storm, and a few of them, Tharp, Sammy, Gus and Angry Steve, are still in town and regularly play the Hole. Tharp, who did stand-up and alternative theater in Seattle for years (gee, no wonder he came to Korea to find a job), is actually the Haha Hole’s founder.
But you also know you can’t be afraid to step on toes, to bite-the-hand-that-feed-you, to push the envelope, to avoid clichés (unlike this sentence). Meyerriecks is definitely not afraid in this department. That guy goes definitely goes where angels fear to tread (assuming angels fear to tread in the land of Japanese bondage-porn masturbation comedy bits). Angry Steve once did a whole set on his father dying of Alzheimer’s. You noticed the audience wasn’t laughing muchâbut they were stone silent, listening. Get âem to listen, and you’re already on third base.
You wonder what kind of audience you’ll get tonight. The Hole’s been going robustly for more than three years now, still at the same original locale, Soultrane up in PNU, first Friday of every month. Sometimes the crowd is large, rollicking and rowdyâjust the right balance between fun and chaotic. Sometimes it totally out-of-control with yammering piss-heads who don’t seem to realize that you are, like, on stage, trying to, like, perform. Most of the heckling is good natured. Em Teachy. Lord, Em Teachy. Bless his besotted soul. The guy will repeatâin a joyous bellowâany comedians’ lines that he thinks are halfway funny. Which is most of them. It’s always audience participation time when Teach is around.
You wonder how many are going on the mic tonight. Most Holes average eight to 10. Most of the regular crewâTharp, Scraggs, Meyerrieks, Hazelton, Johnny the Greek, Ben May, the new honey-voiced kid McGrath, Hampson, maybe Angry Steve coming down from Cheonan. Hopefully some women this time. The comedy scene here is mostly a boys club, but, in your opinion, the women who’ve gone up have generally nailed it. French Emma, English Sophie and recently Korean Miran. Who says chicks aren’t funny?
You hope you’re good enough to eventually get invited for one of the road gigsâa crew of Busan comics doing shows at bars and clubs in other cities. Already the Hole’s Traveling Cavalcade of Yuks has been to Suwon, Cheonan, Pohang, Changwon, Gwangju and Gumi, plus the Showcase shows out at Sharky’s in Haeundae and Beached in Gwangalli. Plus, Meyerriecks has recently started a monthly Daeyeon Haha Hole at HQ. Busan comedyâIt’s kind of a thing, Hazelton once told you. You tend to agree. Busan comedy is definitely a thing.
You most look forward to hanging out after the show, upstairs at Crossroads, everybody already hammered or well on their way. You walk back the show, talk about who wears the Green Jacket for the night. Who killed? Who died? Which of your bits worked? Which ones ate it? Which ones were good but needed some tweaking? It’s really an amazingly supportive group of comics. You all know how damn hard it is, just you and a mic and a crowd and make âem laugh, kid. Do a good set, and it’s like floating on clouds. A bad set? Well, one time Scraggs went around the room, pointing at that night’s comics and giving his pithy assessment: Funny, funny, funny, funny. He pointed at you. Temple stay!
Photo shoot by Ben Weller. You can see more of Ben’s work here: benweller.photoshelter.com
Other photos and video courtesy of The Ha-Ha Hole. Visit them on Facebook here.
You can check out the Ha-Ha Hole this Friday, March 1st. More info here.
Further reading: The First Ha-Ha Hole Roadshow by Johnny the Greek