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American spreads love for stand-up comedy in Vietnam

Wednesday, March 04, 2020, 14:43 GMT+7
American spreads love for stand-up comedy in Vietnam
American stand-up comedian Ben Betterby performs at a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Hong Van / Tuoi Tre News

An American man who found hard-earned success doing stand-up comedy in Vietnam, where he also met the love of his life, has been spreading the love for the comedic craft through regular workshops and a comedy club he runs in Ho Chi Minh City.

“This Ben Betterby guy, he thinks he is the funniest guy ever. But he is stupid and he is not funny at all,” said a man who went on a date with Vee Vee, a young Vietnamese lady who five years later would become Ben Betterby’s wife.

The comment made Vee Vee curious and urged her to Google the name ‘Ben Betterby,’ a stranger for her at that time, when she got home.

Vee then registered for a free workshop about stand-up comedy organized by Ben Betterby and his team at Comedy Saigon.

They went on a date a few weeks later and the couple were married in 2017.

Cold feet

Sitting on a sofa in a coffee shop where his stand-up comedy workshops for expats and Vietnamese are held weekly, Ben Betterby recalled having a great passion for the comic style ever since he was a child.

“When I was a little kid, my grandmother would take me to the movie rental shop every Friday night. And she would say, ‘Okay, you can get any movie you want.’ I always ran to the stand-up comedy section and I would rent a stand-up comedy video,” Ben Betterby recounted.

He began writing many jokes but it never occurred to him that stand-up comedy was something he could do.

Ben Betterby remembered driving with his friend Michael to an open mic event at the age of 23, when he was in college.

The green room for performers was in the parking lot of the comedy club, and there was a door that the performers would walk through to get onstage.

About 15 comedians were waiting for their names to be called out by the emcee and each would be seated among the audience after performing.

Ben Betterby and his friend could hear applause and music coming through the doorway each time it was opened for a performer to walk through, only to never come back.

The two young men were the last. As the emcee opened the door, he looked at the two of them and said, “Okay, you guys, one of you will go up next” before closing the door behind him.

Ben Betterby and his friend looked at each other, ran back to their van, and drove away, too nervous to perform.

Becoming a people person

Seven years ago, after a few years living in South Korea, Ben Betterby decided to move to Ho Chi Minh City.

Back then, he had no idea that he would start his family in Saigon, the city’s former name, and kickstart his career as a stand-up comedian in the bustling southern metropolis.

How he met his wife was unique but their wedding was also one of a kind. As Ben Betterby had not talked to his parents since their divorce, the young couple found a backpacker on Bui Vien Street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City and asked him to pose as his father at the wedding party.

It did not take long for the doppelganger, who was from France, to reveal the secret in front of the guests not just by his heavy French accent but by confessing that he had met the couple just a few hours previous. The entire audience exploded into laughter!

In December 2019, Ben Betterby returned to the U.S. and made up with his parents. Now that the wound inside him was starting to heal, he could recover from the pain of his troubled childhood and finally focus on his stand-up comedy career.

Having read a lot of books about stand-up comedy, public speaking, storytelling, and improv, Ben Betterby started to build a community of people with similar interests in Ho Chi Minh City four years ago.

Working with books and thinking about his craft now take up most of Ben Betterby’s mind and are what he is good at.

He admits to having issues with working with people and that it is a challenge for him as well as his big weakness. When Ben Betterby started doing shows in Vietnam, he got into problems because suddenly he had to work with a lot of people.

“I was bullied a lot as a child because I was different. It is very common for a comedian to be hypersensitive, very thoughtful, introverted, [and] not really good with people,” he said.

“I knew that a lot of people didn't like me, but that didn't really concern me. I mean ... I'm used to that.”

Ben Betterby said most of his imagination was spent thinking about comedic scenes or comedic stories when he was young.

“So, unfortunately, it has been difficult for me to deal with people because I don't have the same people skills as everyone around me does. But one day, I really wanted to get better with people,” he said.

Stand-up comedy has actually helped him become better with people and he is still working on it.

One day two years ago, Ben Betterby asked a friend what people thought about him. The friend’s response was, “They all think you're a jerk.”

So he started reading as many books on people skills as he possibly could in an effort to be as good with people as possible.

One year later he asked the same person the same question. “They think you are weird,” the friend replied.

American stand-up comedian Ben Betterby is surrounded by young fans after a performance at a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Hong Van / Tuoi Tre News

American stand-up comedian Ben Betterby is surrounded by young fans after a performance at a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Hong Van / Tuoi Tre News

Inspiring Saigon's stand-up scene

Before I met Ben Betterby, I thought he was funny. After meeting him, I knew I was wrong. He is serious about comedy. He looks funny onstage because he works hard to be a good comedian.

Most people do not see the work off the stage of stand-up comedians. The goal of an artist is to create a moment onstage where the audiences think that the performance is spontaneous. In reality, a lot of work has gone into making a performance look unscripted.

There is a saying that in stand-up comedy it takes ten years to become an overnight success. A lot of the times when we see someone who is funny onstage, we rarely think about the fact that they have been quietly and patiently working very hard on their craft.

“A good ratio is among 100 jokes, ten will be chosen to practice and perform in front of an audience. If I'm lucky, they will laugh at three of them,” Ben Betterby said.

“And so anytime you see someone who is funny, they have spent a great deal of time working on being funny. A funny person, when they were very young, they started to experiment with being funny and by the time they're 30 or 40, they have 20 or 30 years trying to make people laugh,” he said, adding that a stand-up comedian has in addition to that 10-20 years of stage time trying to be funny in front of an audience and finding out what works.

Unlike a painter who might create many paintings and only release their best artworks, or a singer who comes out to sing a song everybody wants to hear, a stand-up comedian must never really knows how a crowd would react to their jokes until they go onstage to perform in front of an audience.

A comedian is under constant stress of the show not going well and their jokes not getting laughs from the audience.

Ben Betterby said he immediately knows if a joke is good or not based on the crowd’s reaction. Oftentimes, nine out of ten jokes are not good, so a lot of stand-up comedy is failure – direct, total, and embarrassing failure.

“I used to think about quitting every week”, the stand-up said. But he has been fully seduced by the hard-to-explain charm of stand-up and is now fully leaning in with all of his passion.

American stand-up comedian Ben Betterby performs at a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Hong Van / Tuoi Tre News

American stand-up comedian Ben Betterby performs at a coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Hong Van / Tuoi Tre News

There are a lot of ups and downs in stand-up, he said. A show in front of 350 people might go really well but a show in front of eight people might not.

The basic setting requirements for a successful show are a room that is comfortable and quiet, with bright lights where the stand-up comedian is while the audience sits in total darkness.

The room must be filled with people, with everyone sitting close enough to each other so when one person starts to laugh, the laughter can spread throughout the whole room.

Over seven years of practice and performing, Ben Betterby now has an hour-long set of his favorite jokes, full of tried-and-tested materials that he and the audience – both Vietnamese and foreigners – really enjoy.

Many of the jokes are about his life in Vietnam, travel, food, his efforts to lose weight, learning Vietnamese, lost-in-translation incidents, and more.

It would be easy for Ben Betterby to just keep doing that hour-long piece over and over but, not wanting to be artistically lazy, the comedian is constantly trying to come up with new materials and practicing their delivery for the best comedic effect.

He and his wife, Vee Vee, recently moved into their new home in Ho Chi Minh City, which has become their home away from home.

However, as stand-up comedy is more popular in the U.S., Ben Betterby feels that he might need to go to America to reach his full potential.

“I will miss Vietnam a lot. But I hope to always have a home here in Vietnam," he said.

“I fell in love with Vietnam, because I love how the Vietnamese people smile so much and they laugh a lot, too.

“No other country is so full of the sound of laughter. Vietnam is full of love and humor.”

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Hong Van / Tuoi Tre News

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