Bawal ang pikon.
X marks the spot. Quezon Avenue is one of the metro’s most prominent nightlife and entertainment districts, and is the the center for Manila’s counterculture communities, where bars and restaurants are within five minutes from one another. It is a hub for slapstick bars that feature some of the Philippines’ top comedians which may highlight live musical performances in between stand-up comic acts by mostly gay performers. Punchline is among the many establishments that line the whole street of Quezon Ave. The first thing I noticed upon arriving was the fully lit sign outside the bar featuring the stage names of the performers for that night, namely: Ethel Booba, Anton Diva, Le Chazz & Donita. Looking at the names, I thought to myself, Oh am I in for a show.
We were charged 300 php for the entrance fee—I was practically watching a 3D movie. Coming in a few minutes after 10 p.m., we noticed that the place was already nearing to a full house, two middle-aged women asked for their “regular” spot. The doormen escorted us to our seats, which happened to be in front, quite near the stage. Seeming as they were the only unoccupied seats left that could accommodate a lot of people, I couldn’t tell whether our default spot in the crowd was a good or a bad thing.
As the dark filled space with strobe lights and 2011 sounds, the shadows almost occupied all seats for the sake of the course and enjoyment. Inside the bar was your typically multicolored stage layout of glitz and glamour. Despite the relatively small set-up for the performers, the remainder of the bar provides a spacious avenue where its patrons can enjoy the show over dinner, drinks or simply just pulutan. Looking around, there had already been a couple of early birds.There was a group of yuppies who kept ordering pints of beer, a seemingly married couple at one corner, a family consisting of balikbayans (I could tell from their accents) since comedy bars are increasingly popular among local tourists, the two provocatively dressed middle-aged women from the entrance were seated at the front (which I assume to be their “usual” spot). And how can I forget the man who guffawed at every joke cracked by the performers, seemingly having a great time, with his plates of crispy pata. That night, the mix of customers, performers and liquor resulted in fascinating dynamics.
I, for one, am a virgin of Filipino stand-up comedy. I observed how their bits were composed of conyo jokes (targeting universities like the Big 4), slapstick jokes, and dumb humor, together with the occasional profanity and constant reminder to order from their food and drink selection. The hosts are somehow more geared toward satisfying the more carnal sensory needs, while the comedy skits relegated on the sideways. Assuming that all comedy bars were similar to Punchline, it wouldn’t seem likely to call them comedy bars because they’re more burlesque than comic. They make the audience laugh mostly by personally shaming and berating themselves and the selected people from the audience. “Bawal ang pikon” is somewhat an unspoken rule in comedy bars, precisely because the show is not for those people with sensitive egos — regardless of the intent, context, and the manner jokes are delivered.
Also, I won’t disagree that the gay performers were amazing singers. What left me even more awestruck was how they could transition their voices into different modes. I remember how one of the hosts, the man in the gown, squealed with glee upon seeing how “AY! Ang daming guapo sa harap. Yan tama yan!” and then facing to this man seated in front of us, he said, “Kaya ikaw. Wag ka uupo doon, ha.” In the Philippines, gay comics are accustomed to performing to a mix of gay and straight audiences and are comfortable with their material. However, there are some things that won’t phase gay audiences, but will shock a straight crowd. Case 1: Comedians were overwhelmed by the ‘mga guapo‘ from our row. Moreover, one of my classmates caught the attention of one of the host in the long gown, so he was called up the stage. After asking him a few “small talk” questions, the long gown man asked Lee for a peck on the cheek. Despite my classmate’s reluctance, he wasn’t really given much of a choice. See for yourself:
© Mark Del Pilar
But it doesn’t stop there. Case 2: The man in the gown had been eyeing my seatmate for as long as I could remember. Finally, he blurted out, “Siya talaga oh. Ang kinis! Chinese ka ba?” My seatmate affirmed this. Still, the man in the long gown had a follow-up question: “So ano last name mo?” My seatmate, Ley, played along, but replied and said that his last name was Lim. The long gown man then said, “Ay! Siya rin! (pointing to the man in front of us again) Last name: Tan, first name: Uranggu.” As much as I hate to be mean, this hirit wrung out a hysterical laugh out of me and the rest of the audience. Yet, the man took the insult with a grain of salt and laughed along even after being ridiculed for the nth time.
If you enjoy seeing people being the subject of sarcasm, direct onslaught or cruel jokes, even slapstick all for the sake of low comedy, and if you take undue pleasure in seeing a member of the audience recoil in his seat because of the unforgivable remark about the size of his nose, or the kinkiness of a balikbayan’s outfit; yet you fascinatingly do not want to be this person, then either a comedy bar is not for you. Or you may strategize on how to appear less conspicuous, less easily noticed by the merciless comedians on stage if you prefer to laugh out loud clandestinely in your seat at the expense of a less fortunate person in the audience seated right in front of the platform.
As the night became darker, the jokes turned diriter. At one point, the hosts were fuelled with green rants and gags, which brings me to Case 3: The hosts took advantage of this one volunteer balikbayan woman from the audience who wanted to sing a karaoeke number. Though before she could get to the song, the hosts began interviewing (or rather, interrogating) her, bombarding her with nasty comments (i.e. hipon), obligating her to make a fool out of herself, and were even this close to fondling her private parts. She didn’t seem to mind, but it was embarrassing for me. I was taken aback by such aggressiveness, even if they’re gay! Case 4 would be the married couple sitting near the stage. The hosts cajoled the man to touch his wife down there, which he did, while everyone was watching. However, I know some may feel that honest humor that reflects others’ personal condition is the funniest, whether it be achieved through a malicious practical joke. These comedians are directed towards an older crowd, which is perhaps why they frequent in using green jokes.
Then again, this is just my perspective on the matter—a single point of view. It may be that I find this a sensitive matter because I came from a conservative upbringing. Who knows what the backstory on the records of their risqué banters are? It could be that comedians may have trouble making money, which is why they deliberately resort to this genre of humor. Given that the very backdrop of their set-up was of masks, one could match this with how they put on a satirical mask/persona precisely because that’s what the audience want and pay/come for—considering that some people enjoy others’ mockery. One has to understand that the tastes, along with the natures of response of people to humor, will always vary.
I still recognize that comedy bars have wholesome and willing viewers. There is the idea that once you step into a bar like this, one must be be open and mature to what is coming his/her way. And even though some jokes were racially and sexually discriminant, I admit that the performers are genuinely talented and funny. The only part of the experience I found distasteful was how they seemed totally reliant on rudeness, sex or profanity for their acts. I believe that Filipino comedic talent can also be promising using topics and deliveries that don’t involve toilet humor, expletives, or raunchy remarks.
It was a different experience, and something off of my bucketlist. Within those 2 hours, I was able to conclude that comedians have proved that they are more than a butt of jokes. All in all, I would say that it was still an entertaining night because even though I was not laughing my ass off, the experience was a great opportunity to expose myself to the notorious comedy styling of Filipinos.