Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Asian-ness alone isn’t funny

Assaulted Fish and the language of connection

Assaulted Fish is steadily establishing itself as one of the most unique comedy acts in Vancouver. First, the troupe is almost entirely Asian. It’s sad that in 2005 the mere Asian-ness of a comedy troupe is enough to qualify it as “unique”. But the sad fact is there remains a scarcity of Asian faces in theatre, television and cinema.

Having coffee with me at Starbucks on West Pender St and Granville, the troupe-Yumi Ogama, Nelson Wong, Marlene Dong, Kuan Foo, Diana Bang, and Darcey Johnson (the troupe’s lone person of pallor and its director)-explains that their existence, they think, helps rectify this situation, at least in this town.

“Having an Asian-Canadian sketch troupe, I mean, how many are there in Vancouver?” laughs Yumi Ogawa. “So yes, I think we definitely contribute [in that way]. I think it is getting a lot better now-Asians are being a lot more seen in the media, in television and film and theatre. And for our group to do work like this, it does open a lot of doors. We’ve got a good following now and we’re putting on really different, unique work.”

Their work was on display at the Xtra West Community Achievement Awards in May, where they performed a snappy five-minute sketch about a gay computer geek, his relationship with his mother, and his romantic experiences in cyberspace.

Nelson Wong, the troupe’s only queer member, says the audience at the awards ceremony “really received it well. We had done that sketch before with the main character, David, as straight, and the queer audience got the jokes better than the straight audience did. They were laughing at things that the straight audiences didn’t, that we totally got.

“And that shows that there are lots of parallels between Assaulted Fish’s comedic point of view-and I think that parallel is inherent in knowing what it’s like being an outsider in the mainstream, being an Asian in a white world, being gay in a straight world.”

This willingness to tackle politically charged issues (for example, one of their most acclaimed sketches deals with, of all things, human trafficking) points to another aspect in which Assaulted Fish is unique: their ability to wed humour with activism.

“Humour,” says Wong, “is a language of connection. It’s also a means of survival. People who don’t have humour usually die off pretty quickly.

“I think the queer community as well as the Asian community completely understand that you can either fold when being attacked, or try to point out how silly or how wrong or how stupid things are. And the way you can do that is through comedy. You show someone that something’s stupid and you make them laugh at it and you share in that experience. The more shared experiences the people are exposed to with queers and with Asians, the more they understand that they’ve shared an experience, the less homophobia and racism could bloom.”

Adds Marlene Dong, “I think humour can be very subjective but at the same time it’s the common denominator for a lot of people. It provides a great entry to address things of a more serious nature. You never want to offend someone, but you want to show some different aspects [of an issue], and then show a truth about a particular issue. So we use humour when we can, to highlight [certain things].”

The troupe formed in 2003 and was a hit from the start. They debuted at that year’s SketchOff!#$%!!, a prestigious continent-wide sketch comedy competition, where they won the “People’s Choys” award and placed second overall ahead of other, longer-established comedy teams.

Since then, they’ve been building their reputation and gaining new admirers: after a rapturously received performance at SketchFest this February, Vancouver comedienne (and Xtra West columnist) Morgan Brayton dubbed them “Vancouver’s hottest sketch comedy group.”

“Ass Fish make me wish I were Asian,” says Brayton. “Then maybe I could perform with one of the smartest, boldest, most hilarious, most exciting comedy troupes around….

“I think there is great potential for comedy to not only make people laugh but to make people think as well,” she adds. “Ass Fish do both like nobody’s business.”

Too often, comedic scenarios involving Asians try to coast on the ethnicity of the characters, as if Asian-ness alone were funny. Assaulted Fish’s work is a sharp rebuke to that.

“We just really write about our life experiences,” says Diana Bang. “We don’t solely try to find stuff about being Asian. We try and just write about what we know, what we’ve experienced…. We don’t limit ourselves to just being Asian or whatever. We just be.”

Adds Kuan Foo, “Someone asked us, ‘Do you find being an Asian-Canadian comedy troupe limiting?’ And my answer to that is, ‘Only if you find being an Asian Canadian limiting.’

“Asian Canadian-ness is part of my identity and for me it’s every aspect of my life, so how can that possibly be limiting? Everything I do is touched by that perspective. I mean, nobody goes up to Monty Python and asks them, ‘Do you ever find being tall white Englishmen limiting, because you can only write about tall, white Englishmen things?'”

“So many aspects of being a North American Asian have never been touched on,” says Darcey Johnston, “and chances are it’s never been done or it’s never been heard of, so it makes it extremely easy for us to find original material to do.”

Wong promises more queer content from the group. “The queer characters that we’ve portrayed have been different, have been lively, and have been, I believe, truthful. And we will definitely continue having a strong queer presence in our material.

“We really feel that there’s a strong link between our group and the queer community, because our comedy comes from that point of view of being on the outside, which everyone in the queer and Asian Canadian communities can relate to.”