I checked my cellphone clock. 10:22pm. The doors have been open for only less than an hour so the show must have just begun, but there were already several people at the entrance.
I walked in, had my bag inspected, watched a man stamp my wrist with a smudged logo with words I couldn’t make out, and settled onto my seat at a comfortable distance from a beautifully painted stage, amused. The first minute of my first visit to a comedy bar could just as well have been the first minute of a piano recital, if not for the surround sound system, waitresses promoting apple-flavored vodka, and the grinning Vice Ganda merrily hung on the wall.
I spent the next few minutes listening to the hosting army of two comical cross-dressing gay men and a fairly attractive woman in a figure-hugging one-piece warming up the atmosphere with their animated speech and gestures. They singled out a German man of about 50 years old from a nearby table. One of the hosts conversed with him in basic German, unfailingly managing to crack joke or two while doing so. They challenged the female host to ask the man a question and she does so terrible English, to everyone’s demeaning delight. They crack another joke that I didn’t catch but was apparently pretty funny because the entire room was echoing with laughter, and I started thinking how these three were actors as much as they were hosts.
The first gay host played the archetypical sassy gay Filipino, the other the confidently unattractive butt-of-the-joke, and the female host the dim-witted beauty. Together they conveniently fulfilled the roles of both the boisterous tellers and the self-depreciating receivers of the joke.
I kept thinking.
People laugh every day (or at least I hope they do), and the reason need not involve gay men in layers of makeup and female clothing. Why, then, do these gay men seem necessary in the formula of comedy bars in the Philippines, when, for example, stand-up comedians and gag-men from Canada, South Korea, and America range from bearded men to skinny ladies? Why is this our preference? What is our preference? What is the Filipino palate for humor?
Mentally reviewing my experiences of humor, I concluded that the Filipino humor emphasized by comedy bars is characterized by slapstick, insult comedy, and physical comedy. Breaking it down, the key elements are exaggeration and depreciation, or a mixture of both.
The sassy feminine bakla is characterized by feminine liveliness and a knack for cross-dressing. Society dictates that men wear clothes for men and women wear clothes for women, so cross-dressing is generally viewed as eccentric and outlandish, and thus, humorous. This goes right back to the elements of exaggeration and depreciation, making a comedy trump card out of the bakla archetype. Moreover, the Philippines, I believe, has a long way to go in terms of genuine openness to all kinds of sexual orientation. About 93% of the Filipino population is Christian, a religion which as of today maintains certain reservations about the LGBT community. Consequently, the collective understanding, whether conscious or unconscious and albeit inherently erroneous, is that people are straight by default and homosexuality is a substandard wrong turn. There is an element of repression, which in turn creates the comedy bar atmosphere of not only release, but delightful indulgence of this repression on the part of the audience. The bakla archetype is also characteristic of bluntness about sexuality, which is another suppressed element in this conservative country that the comedy bar night life seeks to release. Save for my classmates and I and a few children tagging along behind their parents, the audience was of those in their working age. In the dead of the night, they pop the lid off their reservations as well as their tensions after a long day of work.
There was a place in the bar for all kinds of clientele. The back portion was for those who preferred to watch from the outside looking in. The semi-secluded area was occupied by couples and groups of women who were there less for the show and more for each other. And unlike what I had expected, the place was generally conducive to a relaxed kind of fun without the worry of being put on the spot, unless you volunteered or sat in front, in which case you probably aren’t looking to avoid the spotlight. On the occasion that you are put under the spotlight, expect a landslide of sexual jokes. The audience delighted at the host’s detailed comparison of foreign and Filipino penises. Filipinos have a special spot on their funny bones for sexually suggestive jokes; so much that we even gave them a name (‘green jokes’).
I shifted my attention from the people to the place itself. Dim lights, disco lights, tables at the front for those who dared, tables at the sides enveloped by railings, an open bar, and my personal favorite, the stage.
The stage was a wide but fairly small elevation, behind which was a wall painted with musical instruments, bass clefs and eighth notes, and then a half-faced mask aptly painted at the center. How very aptly so.
I checked my cellphone clock. The first hour had passed so quickly. I had a pretty bad impression of comedy bars before that night. But sitting there, it was impossible not to let out a few giggles and marvel at the comedy bar culture. It is iconic of the Filipino’s knack for humor through tragedy, and it underscores the intrinsic faults and plus sides of the Filipino society.
Besides the giggling, there was not much else to do, other than to listen to the surround sound blaring with the host’s impressive Celine Dion covers, give in to the waitress’ apple vodka sales talk, and be as glad to be here as the grinning Vice Ganda on the wall.
SA 21 G