BUSAN, South Korea — It’s been three years since Roy Early and Chris Tharp first founded Busan’s first, best and only English-language open mic comedy night, The Ha-Ha Hole. Held in PNU on the first Friday of every month at Soultrane, the show has expanded to include one-off gigs in Kyungsung, Haeundae, and Gwangalli, sometimes featuring out of town (and country) talent, and always including Hole veterans. As successful as these nights are, however, many of the Hole mainstays like to take their acts on the road for a change of pace.
I was fortunate enough to go on the road last year for one such trip (as told to Haps) and survive. Would I be so lucky this year? I’ve already survived the prognostications of the Mayan Calendar and the poisons of the common cold. This trip will be all sweet and no sweat.
These road trips serve a couple of purposesâit’s a chance to present our material to new crowds who may have never heard any of our bits, but it’s also paving the way for future comedy gigs both from us and our comedy brethren up north from Stand-Up Seoul, who often go on the road themselves.
About this time last year, our bus nearly killed a man. This year, we’ll settle for just killing the crowds.
Tharp, myself, Sam Hazelton and Sir David Scraggs are specially joined this year by two road-trip virgins (but Hole veterans), Stephen Hampson and Milan Kim. Our first stop is Changwon, where we’ll be performing at O’Brien’s, where Austin, the owner (incidentally one of the first co-owners of the Gaya O’Brien’s), clearly runs a tight ship.
A wicked Indian dinner at his restaurant precedes the gig. My wife’s in tow so I should be nervous, but I’m not. To paraphrase one of my favourite comedians, Jim Florentine: I don’t know why all you people are so whiny tonightâI’ve done these jokes thousands of times, so I know they work. If you don’t laugh, it’s your f***in’ problem, not mine.
In truth, though, fear sometimes transforms a good performance into a great performance. The reverse is also trueâmany comics (or musicians, for that matter) constantly agonize over their set before they deliver it, and there are all kinds of ways to push the nerves away. Most of us choose to drown the butterflies in libation.
Tharp is along as the host for both nights, and after so many years of performing on all kinds of shows, he’s the perfect choice to get a crowd warmed up. His comedy armour is bulletproof and he’s paid his dues, so he bulldozes through an array of jokes that don’t exclude anybody in the audience. Maybe it’s the road, but he’s unusually energized tonight and it shows.
Hampson follows him and is visibly and understandably tense. Still, the crowd seems like they’re into the show. When Kim tears into a mouthy audience member as only she can, the crowd goes nuts. She may be a woman, but she’s got balls and material; in a male-dominated bar and comedy bill, she does exceptionally well. Buddy in the crowd doesn’t stand a chance and goes back to his corner of celibacy.
Now it’s my turn, and I’m pumped but a little pissedâthere’s a guy in the bar who’s brought his mutt to the bar, and the dog is running all over the place, to the point where he starts playing with the dog in front of me. That dog will be in somebody’s soup tomorrow, buddy, I yell in frustration. The crowd digs it. I start off in neutral but end up in full throttle. Now coasting on cruise-control, Tharp introduces Hazelton and lets him unleash the hounds of comedy hell with a physicality and emotion that just can’t be described in words here. Scraggs closes off the night in a manner befitting his knighthood, and the people are sated. A solid night of comedy done, and we’ve got one more to go.
The following night we’re scheduled to head to Pohang, to perform at Tilt Bar and Grill. Cue to the news of the Connecticut school shooting, something none of us can wrap our heads around. With a mixture of sadness and anger, Tharp feels he may have to cancel the show. In the end, we decide to proceed, but do we mention the massacre? There’s absolutely nothing funny about it. In the end, Tharp makes an indirect reference to it, which is 100-percent the right thing to do in this situation.
Andy, the owner of Tilt, is a class act and has prepared food for us that easily beats any pub grub in Busan. The joint is clean and dimly lit. The sound system is perfect. The place starts to fill up in short order. It’s go time.
Tharp is still stoked from the show the night before. Initially we’re afraid the crowd’s going to be a little too quiet, lacking that bit of nuttiness that encourages heartier laughs, but a few minutes into Tharp’s set we can tell they’re a good lot. Hampson goes up and killsâmaybe his best set ever. Kim’s not as biting as the previous night, but she gets some hearty belly laughs from the crowd. Thirty seconds into my set, I already know I’m going to destroyâit’s that kind of night. Sam and Scraggs bring it all back home, and everybody is all smiles. It’s a tough weekend to laugh or find humor in, but, somehow, we’re able to do it.
The ending of these road shows is always a bit anticlimactic, but at the end of the day, all we can hope for is that we’ve left the audiences wanting a hell of a lot more. Korea, rest assured that the next time we’re in town, we’ll bring it all back and then some. See you on the next one.
You can check out the Ha-Ha Hole on Facebook.
Photos by Milan Gim