BUSAN, South Korea — Friday nights weren’t always like this at Soultrane–back when the once infamous venue was located across the street–back when people lined up down the block for a night of dancing, drink and the occasional brawl.
For over a year, where once was a Friday dance venue, you can now be treated to some of the best amateur comedic minds on the planet, fired up and inspired by their time in the ROK to turn ANYTHING into laughs–and I do mean anything. It is suggested you not attend a Hole and decide that that’s the night you’re ready to announce that you’ve got terminal cancer.
On the other hand, we can always use fresh material, so forget what I just wrote.
Much like the effect Busan has had on expat (and local) musicians who have realized the effectiveness of working together, there's a much tighter-knit comedy scene in this city, and it shows in the mutual support of each other's sets. Nights at the Ha-Ha Hole have spawned a collection of Busan-based comics whose material is wholly inimitable.
Recently, myself and fellow co-host (and co-founder, Chris Tharp), decided to take the Hole’s dirty 1/3 dozen on the road. And so it came to be that we and two other regulars –Sam and Sir David–found ourselves on a bus to the cultural mega-city of Gumi, not knowing what to expect at all. Tharp himself has made the rounds over the past year or so, but for the rest of us, we would soon be swimming in uncharted swamp waters.
Gumi’s a town of 375,000 about 30 minutes outside of Daegu. While I’m sure it has some kind of Earthy charm buried deep within, I don’t think a single one of us—social demons, all—could imagine a worse place to live, much less do stand-up in. There’s a big difference between wanting to teach in a thoroughly isolated countryside, and living in a town with a 375,000 people and having even less to do. Who the hell would stay there? Turns out, a big South African contingent. My Texas St. material would prove ineffective there. The reality of it all provided Sir David with a good lead-off joke, however.
The hosts (Helena & Peter) of this joint “Waygook Cook” couldn’t have been nicer or more hospitable. The crowd was decent enough, but still subdued in the way I imagine Carrot Top would have gone over at a Shriners convention. As the MC and host, my job was essentially to warm up the crowd (warm up isn’t really an apt description, as the temperature in the bar hovered around 9 degrees Celsius). They started off colder than a gravedigger’s schlong but eventually saw things our way. With no spotlights and garbage acoustics meant that any visual material was sure to be weak as all hell, and that’s the way it turned out. I careen into the chasm devoid of flop sweat, mainly because it was too cold to perspire. Sam’s the Karl Malone of the group—he always delivers.
Sir David’s enviable mic skills turn the tide. Chris as the headliner throws his entire arsenal at the crowd, but the lighting is abysmal and none of the visual material really works at all. I die a lonely death on the mic that night, but stand-up comedy is an addictive beast; both success and failure can inspire others to either top you, or else makes them figure “hey, I can’t be as bad as that guy.”
The following morning we fully recover from the frigid Thunder Bay-esque night of subzero temperatures and make our way to the train station after lunch. With an interminable wait ahead of us, we decide to take a bus instead. The Boston Red Sox trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees was probably a better decision. Not 30 minutes away from Suwon, I spend some time playing the level on my PSP copy of Burnout: Legends where you have to run your bus into oncoming traffic.
I should have been playing Tetris instead, because our driver proceeds to plough right into a stopped SM5 on the highway. Talk about instant karma. Luckily there was nobody in the back seat, for they surely would have been rendered into part of the upholstery.
The gendarmes, EMS, and tow-truck arrive posthaste, and our replacement bus isn’t too long in the waiting. We are all okay until we realize they have handed the keys to the new bus over to the exact same psycho driver who nearly killed a man. Steve Martin was right; comedy is not pretty.
When we get to Suwon we are met by French Emma and Angry Steve, both of whom are on the bill as well. This particular joint “The Big Chill” has all the makings of a disaster—very low turnout—but it turns out to be a legendary night. We all kill—I deliver the best set of my life, and all a sudden my previous night’s epic carpet bombing is erased from memory. We drink at hard volume, the music is flowing, and it’s all good. It’s better than good—it’s transcendent. The kind of comedy night that makes every single person watching forget where they are and what they’re drinking.
The trip back to Busan is uneventful, with the exception of getting “shushed” by a stereotypical ajumma whose attire is way louder than any conversation we were having. We arrive back in town and go our separate ways.
But the damage has been done—the seeds have been planted for a triumphant return to either town and a few more, besides. And for the true believers in Busan, four expat comics return to you with a couple of notches on their belts, a lot more confidence, and a justified belief that you can export laughter as well as lager.~
Tharp is here.