Jakarta. “My name is Ernest, and I’m Chinese,” the stand-up comic opens his routine at a comedy competition broadcast on a local television channel.
Ernest Prakasa, 29, jokes mostly about the plight of being ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, from being a target of muggings by high school students as a child to being called random Chinese names.
“A comic has to explore what’s unique about him,” Prakasa says.
“I don’t just make fun of the Chinese. Sometimes, I defend them by saying, for example, ‘The Chinese aren’t stingy. They are parsimonious,’’’ the former marketing manager said, referring to one of the stereotypes about the local ethnic Chinese.
Prakasa is part of a growing number of Indonesians trying to perform stand-up in a country where most comedy shows on television involve people engaging in silly pranks and trading insults about undesirable physical features.
Two local television channels have recently launched weekly stand-up comedy programs, with one modeled after the US reality show Last Comic Standing.
Clubs have emerged across the far-flung archipelago, organizing open-microphone nights when amateur performers can take the stage to hone their craft, said Isman Suryaman, a comedy writer and comedian himself.
“Many people didn’t believe that stand-up comedy could sell in Indonesia,” said Suryaman, who helped organized a pioneering stand-up show in Jakarta a few months ago.
“The first stand-up night was a success, and the videos posted on YouTube have been viewed by thousands of people,” he said. “This all suggests that stand-up comedy can get wide acceptance in Indonesia.”
But Suryaman said it would take some time before the genre could become a full-fledged industry in Indonesia.
“For it to become an industry, it has to start from the clubs, where comics are exposed to a live audience,” he said. “There’s a tendency right now that new comics get invited to appear on TV or radio when they still have no stage exposure.”
Entrepreneur Ramon Tommybens, who until recently was a lonely proponent of stand-up comedy in Indonesia, said the new embrace of the form was a dream come true for him.
Tommybens established the Comedy Cafe in Jakarta in 1997, hoping aspiring comics would come and perform there, but few had the courage to get on stage.
“Anyone was welcome to perform, but no one came up,” he said, “so I asked the restaurant’s employees to do the stand-up. They were reluctant but didn’t say no because I was their employer.
“Some of them went on to become famous comedians like Tukul Arwana, but they don’t do stand-up, and that’s what makes me sad,” he said, referring to one of the country’s most successful comedians who now hosts his own television show called Empat Mata, or Face to Face.
Nowadays, the Comedy Cafe, heavily adorned with comic stickers, posters and cartoons, is packed with customers every Thursday to hear the night’s comics reel off jokes.
“I’m happy because now I’m making money doing something I really love,” said the former television show producer, disc jockey and humour columnist.
Tommybens, 54, said the stand-up comedy industry is still in its infancy, but growing rapidly.
“I don’t think the phenomenon is just a fad,” he said. “People are tired of unsophisticated comedy that involves slapstick and people doing outrageous practical jokes.”
Apart from being funny, Indonesian comics are also challenged by pushing the boundaries of religious and ethnic sensitivities.
The country with the world’s largest Muslim population is a democracy where freedom of speech is protected, but it is also a diverse nation where relations between religious and ethnic groups are sometimes prickly.
“In Indonesia, we can’t say this, we can’t say that, because people are too sensitive, unlike in the US, where comedians are free to spew profanity,” Tommybens said.
“But over time, we will have stand-up comedy with a distinctive Indonesian style. There are limitations in what we can say, but it’s still funny,” he said.
Prakasa said he hoped Indonesians would become less thin-skinned.
“Stand-up comedy can help people to be less sensitive,” he said. “People should chill out and not take offence at things too easily.”