Recently, Schema Magazine had the chance to catch up with Kuan Foo and Marlene Dong from Vancouver’s sketch comedy troupe Assaulted Fish. Over the past nine years, the group has seen multiple changes in membership, but they always deliver high calibre performances, sharp writing and, most importantly, big laughs.
Next year Assaulted Fish will turn ten years old — what is the story behind how you got started?
Kuan Foo: Well, currently Assaulted Fish has four members in the troupe: me, Marlene, Nelson Wong, and Diana Bang. Back in 2003 the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT) was putting together their first sketch comedy competition night, where they invited a bunch of Asian sketch comedy groups from across North America, and they wanted to enter their own group. They recruited a bunch of us from different backgrounds including me, Marlene and Diana. That was the first time we ever got together to compete, and over the course of the two nights we actually won the “People’s Choys” Award – which I put down to home ice advantage.
Marlene Dong: Afterwards there was an interest in seeing the group keep going, but there wasn’t much in terms of sketch comedy experience in the group. We dropped some members, recruited some new members, including Nelson, split off from VACT and started forging our own identity. We all didn’t really know each other coming together, but we all came to the table with different skills — either performance or writing — that gelled really well.
KF: We competed again in 2004 and one of the judges was Morgan Brayton, then-artistic director of the Vancouver Comedy Festival. A few months later, she asked us to perform at Sketchfest Vancouver in 2005. That was the real watershed moment where we said, well I guess we’re a real group now. We had to put together an hour show of new material and perform with these incredible groups from all over North America — Kasper Hauser from San Francisco, Reid Along With Browning from Toronto, Meat from New York and Obscene But Not Heard from Calgary. If you want to be on the same stage as these guys, you’ve really got to bring it! We got ourselves a real director, Darcey Johnson, and worked hard to elevate our game in terms of writing, performance, and direction.
What did you learn from these other sketch comedy groups?
KF: Most people’s exposure to sketch comedy comes from television, from shows like SNL, but that really is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be done with sketch comedy. We really were lucky to be able to see people who challenge the art form, and we picked up a lot from that.
MD: It opened up possibilities for writing material. Especially being a troupe made up of Asian Canadians, there’s a lot of expectation that we write a certain type of humor, but by being exposed to these sketch groups at Sketchfest we were able to see that we could do so much more with our material and didn’t have to stay inside that niche.
KF: We were always grappling with the idea that we’re an Asian Canadian group, and working with Asian Canadian content. We’ve all seen groups that that had done sketch based on cultural stereotypes. I’m reminded of this one stand-up comedian on TV, a Japanese fellow, and he joked about how he was terrible at hockey but if you gave him two sticks, he could pick that puck up off the ice. And I remember thinking to myself that is exactly the type of humor I do not want to do.
What is your writing process like — how do your sketches come together?
MD: Each one of us writes separately; we don’t really write much as a group. You’ve got four different people with four very different sensibilities as well.
KF: We each go into our corner of the universe and create material, then all of this comes back and is presented to the group and goes through a workshopping process where we all read it and suggest things to each other, ask questions.
MD: The workshopping process is quite rigorous. Since we have Nelson and Diana who do a lot of performing and acting, they would ask a lot of questions that a writer (like me and Kuan) might not think about, and vice versa. Why would we set up a sketch this way? Is there a different punchline, something that isn’t expected? As a result, the end material is usually pretty tight.
As well, we have the benefit of having a director — currently, Laura McLean — who can give us another perspective on what we’re doing. We work really hard to avoid going for the obvious joke or the cheap laugh, but sometimes it’s a challenge to try not to use swear words, or resort to racial or sexual stereotypes.
KF: There is a temptation to go for the low-hanging fruit, and sometimes we take it!
In terms of race comedy, I’m reminded of Dave Chapelle and his concern that people were misappropriating his comedy. I feel like that’s a common fear from comedians — especially those who dabble in race comedy.
Image credit: Dan Jackson, Manifest Photography
How do you deal with the possibility that an audience with misinterpret your comedy?
KF: One of our mentors, Morgan Brayton, always says “never write a cheque that your ass can’t cash.” We would never do humor that we can’t back up. A lot of our material will touch on topics that might be sensitive for some people. We go through this process where everything we write is held up against our basic value system as a group. Are we exploiting people? Are we relying on a cheap stereotypes? Are we antagonizing or victimizing somebody? Who? Is it someone we deliberately want to antagonize? Really, don’t piss off somebody you unless you intend to.
MD: We are a diverse group in terms of age, gender and sexuality and some of us even work in the field of diversity, so we are sensitive to those kinds of issues. We’d never use words like ‘gay’ or ‘retard’ just for the sake of getting a knee-jerk reaction, for example. But at the same time we want to make sure we’re not preaching either. We enjoy the challenge in trying to make somebody laugh at something they wouldn’t normally think to laugh at.
What do you do when the audience doesn’t get it?
MD: We recognize that there are sketches that we do that wouldn’t work with a wider audience and we wouldn’t necessarily do them because of the fact that they may be misconstrued or misinterpreted.
In terms of sketch comedy versus stand-up, I feel like sketch is so much more difficult. Unlike standup, you don’t have the ability to turn on a dime and change your material once you realize that it isn’t working with a specific crowd. At least a sketch will be over in four of five minutes!
KF: I always live by the fact that if we’re dying out there, I like to believe that they’re looking at Nelson, not at me! At least with Assaulted Fish you’ve got three other people who are sharing the same fate and dying the same death you are.
Every comedian has their favourite bomb. I remember my first flop; it still haunts me to this day. It was a show for a fundraiser, and we were on really late at night, like around 11:30 PM. By the time we came on the audience dwindled down to five people, less than the number of people on stage. And it was this big dark auditorium. Nelson was playing Jackie Chan in a sketch and he was getting no response from the crowd. As a result he was getting louder and more emotive, until by the end it sounded like Jackie Chan doing Tennessee Williams. We were killing ourselves backstage and when he finally sauntered off-stage, he came up to us and smiled and said, “Jackie hear crickets.” So you always get your rough ones, but you learn from these things, and at least it was for a fundraiser so it was for a good cause.
What new challenges are Assaulted Fish taking on? What direction are you headed?
KF: Anyone who’s seen us over the last couple of years would say that we’re becoming more theatrical: Longer form sketches, movement pieces, short vignettes set around one theme, slam poetry. . . Not everybody is going to laugh at the same things so we try to see how long we can keep the audience interested even if they don’t necessarily find it funny. That’s why we talk to other groups, work with a director, and bring in influences from elsewhere.
These days comedy troupes like 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors are creating a lot of YouTube content — is that something we can expect to see from Assaulted Fish?
MD: The current track that we are on, doing more theatrical shows, our stuff is trending more towards working in a theater environment instead of online.
KF: Or bars!
MD: That being said, we’ve been doing this for ten years next year, there aren’t a lot of sketch comedy groups that last this long, they generally last about two years and are seen as a stepping stone to other things. That’s not us. We don’t want a sketch show on TV, that’s not why we’re doing this. It’s certainly not for money!
KF: We have done a project online — Dandy Lions — which comes from the twisted mind of Diana Bang, so we’ve explored that space and there’s still a lot for us to explore. As long as we find what we’re doing fun and creatively fulfilling I think we’ll keep doing the sketch comedy thing, either in theatre, online or wherever it takes us.
If you want to see Assaulted Fish, they will be performing in Seattle in joint show with Seattle’s Pork Filled Players on July 13 & 14, 2012. As well, they will be doing a free performance in Vancouver at the Powell Street Festival, on August 4th, 2012.
Rob Parungao is a web producer based in Ottawa. He navigates race, pop and geek culture for DailyDose and InDepth.