Vivek Mahbubani On Humour As A Problem-Solver

Vivek Mahbubani
Our eclectic team of writers from around Australia – and a couple beyond – with decades of combined experience and interest in all fields.

Vivek Mahbubani reckons his life has become a lot more weird thanks to the fact that he thinks and speaks in both English and Cantonese.

The stand-up comedian was crowned the Funniest Person (in Chinese) in Hong Kong in 2007. . . Plus, he sealed a victory in the English category at the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition in 2008. Since then, he's had opportunities to bring the laughs all over the world.

Here, Vivek was handpicked as one of the comedians to represent 'Asia's best', as part of the inaugural Melbourne International Comedy Festival 'Comedy Zone Asia' in 2015.

Now, Vivek's back in Australia for his show 'Indian Comedian, Cantonese Comedy'.

Before he hits our shores, we have a chat about all things stand-up and Vivek's goals with his work.

You’ve been able to take your comedy all over the place. What’s been the highlight of your career thus far?
Being invited to represent Asia's best in Melbourne International Comedy Festival's inaugural 'Comedy Zone Asia' was definitely a highlight because it let me experience comedy at a whole new level! Until then, I'd performed mostly around Asia and other up-and-coming scenes. It wasn't until I came to Melbourne, which has a way more mature scene, that I saw so many seasoned performers live (I've watched a bunch of professionals online and on TV growing up, but watching it live is a completely different thing). Watching a variety of shows one after another, night after night completely changed my perspective of what the world of comedy can be, and currently is! It also became my new mountain I set for myself to climb which is why I've been coming back year after year since 2015 (the pandemic excluded) trying to make every year at the festival another highlight of my career!

What main piece of advice would you have for young, up-and-coming comedians?
Watch a lot of comedy and ask yourself what it is about certain performers that makes you like them so much more than others. Chances are, you can learn certain techniques or styles from them and combine it with your personality to create your unique comedic voice.

Why do you do what you do?
Comedy in many ways is my coping mechanism to deal with life. Having grown up as an Indian kid in the predominantly Chinese society of Hong Kong, I always felt like the odd-one-out and would have to defend myself when people made fun of the fact that I was a "minority". One time, a classmate made fun of my hairy arms calling me a monkey and instead of fighting back I decided to play along and said "I'm so hairy, I don't get mosquito bites, I get mosquitoes trapped in my hair", and suddenly the bully started laughing and left me alone. I realised that humour was a problem-solver in itself, and I preferred to use it to deal with all the things I just didn't understand about my life. Eventually it became my default mindset and now has become the way I enjoy life, constantly looking at the bad times and thinking "this is actually so bad, it's funny!"

What can audiences expect from your show this year?
This year's show is called 'Indian Comedian, Cantonese Comedy' because I'll take the audience on a journey where I start with my signature Cantonese comedy, mocking my recent experiences such as having to get a certificate stating that I have not committed any crimes 'yet' before I was allowed to go for a gig, to why I'm not married after being in a relationship for almost eight years (spoiler: Indian weddings typically span over three to five days, and right now I've only saved enough for two, thus the delay). I then go back to my roots talking about my life growing up as the kid that felt culturally misplaced and how I eventually embraced standing out, making it part of my identity that has led me to fall in love with comedy.

Where do you get your inspiration when you’re writing new material?
Daily life. Hong Kong's such a busy, compact and crowded city that if you turn 360 degrees, you'll probably see 361 things happening all around you. I'm more observational so I try to take note of small habits I do and use them for inspiration (for example, I get really excited when urinals have some sort of bullseye for me to aim at and never realised I could actually 'look forward to going to this particular toilet' because of that).

You’ve been crowned The Funniest Person, you had a victory at Hong Kong International Comedy Competition, and you’ve been selected in Australia to be part of 'Comedy Zone Asia'. What does this kind of recognition mean to you?
It's like society and the world around me saying "hey, nicely done, keep it up, we like what you're doing!" It gives me that little extra push and motivation for the days when inspiration doesn't strike or nothing is working out. It also gives me more power to push myself because I always like to ask myself "what's next?" when I reach a milestone or get an achievement. That's why, since 2015, my performances at Melbourne International Comedy Festival have grown from being part of 'Comedy Zone Asia', to trying to do a duo-Cantonese-show for the festival, to putting on my own solo-Cantonese show!

You were also featured in Comedy Central Asia’s first ever ’Stand Up Asia!’ shows. How did that go?!
That was a wild moment because it felt like a gathering of who's who in Asia. We were not just here to be funny but in a way representing our home countries and cities, not just to Asia, but to the rest of the world! I felt like I had the responsibility of telling people that even though Hong Kong is just a dot on the map, its funniest Cantonese and English comedian is an Indian, so don't underestimate what can come out of this tiny city. The range of cultures, habits and personalities was mind-blowing because you'd have people who spoke languages you didn't expect, comedians with habits you couldn't guess and most importantly a lot of mutual mockery as peers.

Do you have a goal when it comes to how you’d like audiences to respond to your material at every show (besides of course the obvious, which is laughter!)
Yes, I want them to get to know me. I try to be my authentic self on stage where even though I exaggerate things for comical effect, the essence and story is still completely true to who I am. I want the audience to come to me after the show and say things like "oh I could totally see myself doing the same thing as you", and see how we're really not that different after all.

Vivek Mahbubani plays Trades Hall – The Quilt Room (Melbourne International Comedy Festival) until 21 April, Brisbane Powerhouse (Brisbane Comedy Festival) 1 May, The Concourse (Sydney Comedy Festival) 3 May, and The Rechabite (Perth Comedy Festival) 4 May.

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