By Tara Abhasakun
“In case you’re wondering which of my parents is Thai, my father is British, and my mother is not a prostitute,” comedian Chris Wegoda said to a crowd of Londoners one night in 2017.
The joke was well-received, as the audience roared with laughter. But the joke came from a place that was not so humorous.
Living in Thailand as a luk khrueng (a person born to parents of different nationalities), the 41-year old co-owner of The Comedy Club Bangkok is well aware of the assumption many Thais have that local women with Western men must be sex workers. This stereotype began during the Vietnam War era in the 1970s when American soldiers stayed in Thailand and formed temporary relationships with Thai sex workers.
Wegoda grew up in a predominantly white area of London, where he did not think much about stereotypes such as this. He often jokes that the first time he wondered about his identity was when another child asked him, “What are you, Chinese or something?” The child, ironically, was also half-Asian.
But after moving to Thailand in 2007, he was forced to confront the ugly image that many Thais still carry in their minds. When getting a message, for instance, someone asked Wegoda if his mother was from Isaan, the Northeastern region of Thailand. According to stereotypes, foreign men form relationships with sex workers from this region. Wegoda intrinsically knew that this person was trying to figure out if his mother had been one herself.
“You have this chip on your shoulder as a half Thai. People make assumptions,” Wegoda told The Culture Review Mag.
“I’m usually very quick to say to people, ‘yeah my mother is Thai, she came to the UK to study when she was 16.’ So I usually don’t even give them a chance to think that, and that again is very much a chip on my own shoulder, but I just don’t even want anyone to begin to think that way,” he said.
Wegoda moved to Thailand to pursue a career as a teacher at a bilingual school, but he always had dreams of performing on stage. In 2011, while he was doing improv comedy on the side of his teaching profession, he decided to participate in an open mic night at a pub. The crowd loved him, and he won a ticket to a show. Thailand did not have much of a comedy scene and he started an open mic at the now long-gone Sukhumvit 33 Londoner Pub.
Wegoda and his friend, professional improvisor Drew McCreadie, then opened The Comedy Club Bangkok together later in 2014. CCB has since hosted some of the world’s most famous comedians, including Jimmy Carr, Neal Brennan, Eddie Izzard and Jim Jefferies.
The secret to good stand-up comedy, Wegoda believes, is making the audience like you immediately. What audiences like may vary by nationality. According to him, British audiences appreciate it when comedians are self-deprecating. American audiences, on the other hand, accept a bit of bravado from comedians. But very strong comedians, Wegoda said, are typically able to transcend these cultural differences.
“If a comedian is very strong, he can almost kind of overcome that cultural difference,” he said. “In Bangkok, you get a real mix of people, and it amalgamates into something way beyond any individual culture,” he continued. “I think people are much more similar than they are different,” Wegoda said.
Still, not all jokes land well with every audience, as cultural differences dictate what’s considered humour. Such is the case with a joke Wegoda sometimes tells about his ex-wife. He starts by telling the story of how she gave him an ultimatum; he proposes to her, or she would break up with him. Wegoda then asks the audience, “Is that fair?” Most international audiences, Wegoda said, think that his ex-wife’s proposition is unfair, and thus the audience yells “No!” and the story is amusing. But when performing for an Indian audience in one instance, the audience thought that it was fair of a woman to demand a proposal, and thus the joke did not work.
Standup comedy has not traditionally been a part of Thai culture. The very nature of standup, he said, is to set up a premise and reality, and subvert them with a punchline. Thai comedians, on the other hand, tend to tell more humorous stories, however these stories don’t have the hidden punchline that Western audiences typically expect. However, he said that a new generation of Thai standup comedians is making big moves.
“If a comedian is very strong, he can almost kind of overcome cultural differences. In Bangkok, you get a real mix of people, and it amalgamates into something way beyond any individual culture. I think people are much more similar than they are different.”Chris Wegoda
Due to the Covid 19 pandemic, The Comedy Club Bangkok currently cannot fly international comedians to perform. However they plan to continue doing so once travel restrictions subside.
Though being a luk khrueng comes with its challenges and confusions, for Wegoda, it’s also a blessing. Since Thais primarily view him as a white foreigner, being mixed-race has given him empathy for foreigners living in Thailand.
“It gives me the appreciation of being effectively a farang [foreigner] for most Thais. Ultimately it’s an interesting perspective for an audience and hopefully a very funny one,” he said.
About Tara Abhasakun
Tara Abhasakun is a freelance reporter based in Bangkok. She has interned with Southeast Asia Globe, and has also written for Prachatai English, among other publications. She mainly covers human rights, protests, and arts and culture. Tara was born in Bangkok, raised in San Francisco, and now lives in Bangkok again. She is interested in how taboo subjects are expressed in literature and art.