Sydney Hing Festival
The History of Everything that Ever Happened to Michael Hing. Ever.
Monday, September 17, 2012
âWill this end with me beind date raped?â Michael Hing responds to my initial offer of an interview over a home-cooked meal. Instead, I make him the Mafia compromise: a meal he canât refuse in a public place where neither of us has the clear advantage. Although I have slightly more, since itâs a pizza place in the shopping strip where I work. But as no firearm has, to our knowledge, been strapped behind the cistern, and neither of us comes out of the john with just our dick in our hand, itâs still clearly the right decision. (Iâll see your Gen Y ironic rape gag with a Gen X pop cultural reference, Hingers!)
âIâm a filthy vegetarian,â Michael warns, avoiding the option to share an entrÃ©e or split a family vegie supreme. âI donât mind separate pizzas, whateverâs easiest for you. I donât want to cause any troubleâ¦â No trouble at all. Hingâs exquisite taste and tiny appetite means I get the best of both worlds. And our long conversation ensures Iâll need it.
Although it seems like heâs been around for a relatively short period of time, Michael Hingâs been involved in various modes of comedy for ages; heâs done just about everything, his disproportionate hunger for comedy seemingly outweighing any other need or desire in life. If thereâs any interesting new movement or trend happening in comedy, chances are Michael will be somewhere close to the centre of it, since most if not all roads lead back to Hing. Particulary at this yearâs Sydney Fringe Festival where Hingers seems to be producing or appearing in some 20-odd shows, making it very much a Sydney Hing Festival.
Stand-out elements of Michaelâs comedy include his need to outline an informed socio-political position. Heâll rant, but the rant will be backed up by facts. On a personal level, however, he specialises in a line of self-conscious, nerdy absurdist self-deprecation â but the self-deprecation is never racially based. That, he eschews with an almost Richard Dawkins-like fervour. Which is where I most often want to take issue, because even if the so-called âwog comedyâ and Asian permutations thereof are unsophisticated, they still serve a purpose. Unsophisticated people deserve to enjoy a laugh, too. But weâll get to that, and just about everything else, in good time.
My first memory of Michael Hing was of that self-conscious Sydney Uni kid with the dreadlocks, giving Raw Comedy a go. Twice. Within weeks of each other. First as a solo stand-up, then as part of a kind-of-âsketchâ double act with another Sydney Uni kid called Neal Downward. The double act was more memorable than the solo stand-up since it cleverly â perhaps too cleverly â deconstructed performance itself. Metacomedy. Earning Hing and his partner, Neal Downward, a bit of coverage in MX when they made the state semis. Next thing I know, Hing and Downward are producing a sketch troupe consisting of a whole mess of Sydney Uni kids, called âThe Delusionistsâ, in their self-titled show for Sydneyâs Big Laugh Festival and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
The Delusionists, (l-r when they first appear): Ben Jenkins, Alex Lee, Steen Raskopoulos, Benita de Wit, Paul Michael Ayre
âThat was all within the same six month period,â Michael acknowledges: âa pretty quick turn-around!â
What happened was, a year earlier Ben Jenkins â who would become one of the Delusionists â made it through to the Raw Comedy National Finals. Hingâs housemate, a high school buddy, was friends with Ben, so Hingers ended up seeing Jenkins in action and thought âI could probably do thatâ and gave it a go.
âI didnât have the drive, performance ability, talent and experience Ben had,â Michael recalls. âAnd I was really, really new and Raw might have been the second time Iâd done comedy.â
âI forgot most of my set that night, and stood in silence in the light.â
What was interesting was the nightâs feature act â the professional comic who entertains the loyal audience as a kind of reward for having sat through a dozen newbie amateurs â was Nick Sun. And he more-or-less âdid exactly the same thing, which is, come on into the light and be silent and not know his jokes.â
âWhen Nick Sun did it, it was hilarious because it seemed like it was deliberate. When I did it, it was like, âwhat are you doingâ¦?ââ
The rise and rise of Michael Hing began with a couple of improv classes towards the end of 2005 â which makes complete sense since Theatresports and the tradition of improvised comedy have been strong at Sydney Uni just about forever. Peripheral involvement with that yearâs Arts Faculty Revue whetted his appetite; Hing directed the Architecture Revue the following year. âI didnât perform, but I wrote a lot for it,â he says, admitting that his early attempts at comedy are a little embarrassing now. âIt was terrible. I was consciously trying to do stuff that was different to everybody else, but it was a case of âyou have to learn all the rules before you can break themâ.â
Hingers did try to be different: whereas the first commandment of University Revue seems to be âThou Shalt Taketh the Piss Out of Other Facultiesâ, under Michaelâs watch, rather than take on Engineering, Education, Science and Arts, the Architecture Revue sought to be ââdifferentâ and âcrazyâ and âout thereâ and âwhoooooaaaah!ââ Without sufficient experience the result, according to Michael, was âthis weird mess of ideasâ where, of the 90-minute show, âmaybe 40 jokes were funny and 50 million jokes were terribleâ.
To be fair, every sketch show is hit-and-miss unless itâs put together some five years into the participantsâ careers, where they can draw from the best of everything theyâve done thus far. And even then, the best sketch shows are the British ones where thereâve been several series on Radio 4 before the best bits thus far are chosen for the debut television series. You donât know that when you see that television series; it just looks like someone amazing has come out of nowhere to work comedy magic.
Be that as it may, John Pinder â Aussie comedy pioneer whoâd helped found the Melbourne International Comedy Festival way back when and was still consulting for television producers and heading up one of Sydneyâs numerous and disparate festivals (The Big Laugh Festival at the time) â happened to see the show.
âI donât really understand what was going on,â Hingers says, âbut for some reason, he liked it and gave me a bit of money to put together a sketch crew to be a part of that yearâs Big Laugh Festival, and from that, do the Melbourne Comedy Festivalâ.â
Thus, The Delusionists came into being.
Remember, by this time Pinder and producer Chris McDonald had created a âbest of the university revuesâ live show called The Third Degree, which eventually became the Ronnie Johns television show.
âThe Third Degree already had a format, so we came in at a time when the exact theatre that they were in â the Kaleide Theatre at RMIT â was free, and there was what John described as âa gap in the marketâ, which we filled,â Hing recalls. âPeople had heard of The Third Degree and wanted to be a part of that experience in terms of sketch and discovering new comedy, so in our first year, we had a lot of ticket sales that we didnât really deserve.â
Undeserved perhaps, but definitely earned. When you go down to Melbourne with a sketch show, you have a mass of performers as well as crew â a small army that can cover all the bases when flyering punters on the street in the hope theyâll come see your show. And it did seem they knew what they were doing, even if it was mostly front and bluster. But Hingers comes clean:
âThat was mostly copied from the model these guys were running. They had all these rules and tips that they gave us, so we werenât going down completely âfresh facedâ, although, to all the people who didnât know us, it was like, âwho are these kids who have come down and sold 200 tickets?!ââ
Itâs not like they hadnât done it before, really. Theyâd flyered strangers for their uni revue, and the had the likes of Dan Ilic and Jordan Raskopoulos â Third Degree and Ronnie Johns veterans â teaching them stuff. The result? A good first show that earned a three-and-a-half star review in The Age. They were overjoyed. âThe Age! The paper! It came and saw our show!â Michael recalls.
At this stage of his not-quite-career, despite an initial foray into Raw Comedy, Michael Hing is sticking to writing and directing rather than performing. And having cool dreadlocks, I suggest. âYeah, and just being a real weird dude,â he adds.
The following year, of course, the Delusionists return to Melbourne with The History of Everything that Ever Happened. Ever and sell out some 23 of their 25 shows, despite being on at a ridiculously early timeslot. There are suggestions that TV is interested, though nothing immediately comes of it. Although, the major difference this time is âwe get a two-star review from The Age, and they call us homophobic and racist and the rest.â According to Hing, âthat really hurtâ because they were all âcrazy, left-wing, politically correct peopleâ with âtotally innocuous jokesâ that âwerenât even about race or genderâ. Indeed, Michael stresses, indignant, âit really hurt to be called homophobic when weâre the type of people who go on marches for this kind of stuff. Weâre Sydney Uni students. Donât you understand? We vote for the Greens!â
Ah yes. A half-decade or so earlier, theyâd be rich kids who could afford, in time, to be âchardonnay socialistsâ. Understood loud and clear. But that doesnât make them any less funny. Or politically incorrect necessarily (although, I resist pointing out, this interview did begin with a date rape gag, âironicâ and/or âabsurdâ as it may be). If the Delusionists were guilty of anything, it was of being a bit too clever-clever.
Still, it served as a lesson to Michael Hing in his formative years.
âThatâs when I first started thinking about how careful you have to be with your comedy in terms of what youâre saying and what youâre doing. The onus isnât on the audience to interpret it. The onus is on you to give them a message that they couldnât possibly misinterpret. You dictate how they interpret you. Itâs all on you.â
After that year, Hing quit the group to concentrate on solo comedy.
âI was too insecure to work in a group,â he says. âIâm not performing, so Iâm thinking, Iâm not the funny one; theyâre getting all the laughs, Iâm just writing jokes.â By this stage, the Delusionists were a strong troupe of performers, and as such, pretty much directed themselves. âIâm like, âyou know what, I really want to do my own thing now. I want to go back to Uni and do drama and some other stuff, maybe finish my degree, I donât know.ââ
Back to Uni
Thatâs an interesting diversion at this point. What exactly was Michael studying? The plan out of high school was to follow Mama and Papa Hing into medicine, because Michael was a pretty smart kid.
âBut then it turns out Iâm not smart enough to do that,â Michael says, âso after six months of that I move to teaching for about three years.â
After teaching, Hingers tried his hand at counselling. âI go on a school counselling prac and I expect it to be âoh like, hey, talk about your feelings and stuffâ and on the first day it was, âmy mumâs an alcoholic, my dadâs a heroin addict, what have you got for me?â I was like, âthis is out of my league!â so I ditched that because there was no way that I could really help these kids.â
Six months of architecture ensued. And then an attempt at a philosophy degree.
âThe point is,â Hing says, âI never graduated.â
Hang on, Hingers. Youâre an Asian kid. You have an intellect. Both your folks are high achieving doctors. How do they feel that you need to be a clown?
âThey are amazingly supportive of this unmitigated bullshit,â Michael says. Although his routine is littered with jokes about his parents disapproving of his life choices, âin reality,â he insists, âthey are just amazing. For exampleâ¦â
Before he launches into his example, Hingers falters and has a second thought.But then says, âYeah, Iâll talk about this,â and carries on.
âI had an opportunity two years ago to audition for a television show which never got made. It was a sitcom. I got asked to audition for the part of this Asian character who spoke in a weird accent and did a lot of Asian jokesâ¦â
If you know Michael Hing at all, or have seen him on stage, you will almost certainly know that this is anathema to him â playing the self-deprecating, comic-relief, cheap-laugh Asian. And yet â sitcom. Television work. Income. Perhaps fame.
âI was kind of not sure about what I wanted to do or whether I should do it, and my dad was like, âMichael, you didnât do uni because you donât want to have a real job; if you start doing stuff like this that youâre not passionate about and donât believe in, thatâs like having a real job. You need to do what you want in the way you want to do it.ââ
Cool dad, huh!
âThat is one of the biggest influences on what I am trying to do,â Hingers acknowledges. âMy parents are super, super supportive. Ridiculously so. To the point where it is almost irresponsible. Now Iâm doing fine and donât need support, but if I ever did, I think they would help me out.â
Moving on from The Delusionists while remaining friends with the cast and crew, Michael began to concentrate on his own comedy. He took another stab at Raw, making it to the state final. âThat was when I realised stand-up was the thing Iâm not terrible at,â he says. Still, his career trajectory was somewhat bound to the sketch comedy troupe.
âAll the shows weâd done down in Melbourne, they were partially funded by the University of Sydney Union,â Hingers explains. For the uninitiated, the Union is the body that administers much of the cultural life of the student body, and one way in which it does so is by funding cultural undertakings. However, Michael says, after two years of financing a small armyâs interstate incursion, the Union woke up to itself.
âThey were kind of like, âHey, youâre going down to Melbourne with thousands of our dollars and weâre not getting anything out of thatâ. So for 2009 when we wanted to do it, we said, âYou know what, to prove to you that weâre doing something for culture on campus, weâll start a comedy room on campus thatâll do a show every week and weâll mix between doing stand-up and sketch and improv and story telling and musical comedy and plays and everything and weâll literally do a different show every weekâ.â
And so, out of the need to fund a final Festival foray in 2009, Project 52 was born. âWe didnât realise that what would become Project 52 would be the greatest thing weâve ever done and one of the coolest things that weâve ever been involved in,â Michael says, quickly pointing out that heâs ânot the only personâ behind it. âI do a lot of the boring admin work for it, but it certainly is a five-way group who run it.â The team includes Ben Jenkins, Carlo Ritchie, Steen Raskopolous and Tom Walker. âCarlo and Tom are the people who probably make me laugh more than anyone else in the world. I understand their minds, and they still make me laugh all the time.â
It wasnât an instant success, of course: some nights were packed out. Other nights the comics outnumbered the audience. âThere were some grim times for us,â Hing acknowledges. âThereâd be eleven people in the room, and ten comics, and itâs going to go forever and itâs gonna be terrible and Iâve got to tell some first year Iâm really sorry, he canât go on because there are too many comics. But by the end of the first year, a small crowd for us became 60 people.â
It certainly helped Michael develop as a comic, having to front up each week, often in front of largely the same group of punters. He had to have new material each time.
âItâs perfect when youâre young and you have a million ideas and you have to write them all down,â Michael reckons. âI say like Iâm some old guy nowâ¦â
I am some old guy now, and I can say the one night I got to perform there, it was chockers. Admittedly, everyone apart from Hing â and me â was some undergraduate doing material about Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, but it was a great night. And then I couldnât get another go, because word got out that it was the coolest room in Sydney and visiting international acts were climbing over each other to get some stage time. Although Michael has a far more touching story about Project 52âs growth in prominence.
In Memoriam, Jordan McClellan
Some time into the roomâs second year, on the night of Sydney Universityâs Theathresports Grand Final, a student called Jordan McClellan, who âdid a lot of improv stuffâ with Hing and co, was tragically hit and killed by a taxi on his way home. âIt was really serious and really, really sad,â Michael recalls. âThat affected a lot of people and changed the way we did comedy. It really changed a lot of stuff.â
One change was the renaming of the Theatsports Trophy. Steen Raskopoulos and Tom Walker, who run the Theatresports program, renamed it The Jordan McClellan Cup. But one of the âmore offbeat thingsâ to come out of it, according to Michael, occurred as a result of them googling Jordan McClellanâs name, to see how his death had been reported.
âWe found this blog by someone called Sidney Critic who had been writing about us for 18 months. We had no idea. He reviewed all our shows. So there was this great memory of our friend who had passed away. That was really cool.â
Sidney Critic went on to name Project 52 the best comedy room in Sydney. âI think other comics must have read that blog or something, because when we started up in the second year, the people who wanted to get on werenât just open mikers and friends, it was proper comedian people.â
But thatâs just the stand-up night; there is far more to Project 52 than stand-up, which takes place on night a month. Steen Raskopoulos runs âThe Impro Denâ. âIt is â and I say this having watched a lot of impro â by several standard deviations the best improvised comedy youâll see in Australiaâ â Michael insists.
âStory Clubâ is the story-telling night run by Ben Jenkins. âItâs part of a new trend thatâs been happening for a couple of years,â Michael says, acknowledging story-telling rooms run by the likes of Kathryn Bendall (âTell Me A Storyâ) and Michael Brown (âCampfire Collectiveâ). The point of difference for Story Club, Hingers explains, is that people literally type a story and read it out of a giant book. âSo thereâs no performance element to it the way you would tell a stand-up story. Itâs more of a writing and performing process, and theyâre on a theme. Itâs as really good way to break in, when people donât feel confident in performing, they can just read.â
And, finally, there is a sketch night called Make Way For Ducklings. âItâs probably the funnest thing to ever do,â Michael insists.
In addition, Project 52 runs other themed nights where the comedy is about a specific â often nerdy â thing. âLike our Game of Thrones night. Recently we did a âwould you ratherâ discussion. Itâs license to do whatever we want. Weâre not locked into doing stand-up every week, like other rooms are.â
Makes me want to run away and join Michael Hingâs circus. They have the most supportive milieu. âItâs not even just students,â Michael insists. âItâs a specific kind of student.â The room has a capacity of 130-odd. âWe donât like turning people away,â he says, âbut there are nights when we say, âThere are people who shouldnât be here, could they leaveâ¦â.â Such people, according to Michael, arenât going to âget into the spiritâ of the roomâs comedy. He reckons theyâre people âwho want rape jokes and âedgyâ comedyâ (said the man who suggested dinner-and-interview might serve as the prelude to unwanted foreplay. And afterplay).
2012 was the first year Michael Hing took his own hour-long show, An Open Letter to Rich White People Concerning Their Role in the Downfall of Civilisation, to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival âbecause thatâs how the Australian comedy industry works,â he acknowledges. Whereas in America you develop five minutes of material, building it to 10 and then 15 and then twenty, on your way to an hour, in Australia you âdo comedy for a bit and then you do an hour-long show at a Festivalâ. Though not necessarily âreadyâ to take on the solo show, there were indications that it was time â âa bunch of weird thingsâ starting to happen from the beginning of the year.
âI broke up with a girl who I had been dating for years. I started working at a university as an adult instead of as a student lay-about.â It was, he says, part of that coupla-year cycle where h panics a little and thinks he has to decide whether he should persevere with comedy or pack it all in and try to get a real job.
âI gave myself to the end of the year to decide,â he explains: âIf Iâm just doing one or two spots a week and only a couple of gigs a month are paid, then Iâm going to focus on my career and do stand-up as a hobby. But if by the end of the year Iâm doing stuff that I really like and Iâm really proud of what Iâm doing, then comedy is the thing Iâm going to do.â
Focus on your âcareerâ, Hingers? What, pray, tell, was the âcareerâ if it wasnât comedy, midway through 2011?
âAt the time I was booking bands and the Roundhouse, at the University of New South Wales,â Michael says. âI was like, âI can be a booker. And do comedy as a hobbyâ.â Of course, Michael gave that all away, and his non-comedy employment nowadays consists of teaching digital marketing and media at said university part time, âeven thought I donât have a degree and Iâm not qualified at allâ.
Aiding the transition from part time amateur comic to full time professional were the collaborative shows Michael had been creating for earlier Sydney Comedy Festivals with Patrick Magee. A founding member and stalwart of Comicide, the other sketch comedy troupe operating around the same time as The Delusionists, Magee was in many ways Hingâs perfect foil.
Their first show, 2010âs Illustrious Physicians of Romance, set out âto teach you everything you need to know about love in an hourâ. A sample routine involved grabbing a punter from the audience and calling up their ex-girlfriend in order to try and win them back over the phone. The show arose out of Hing and Mageeâs respective obsessions with women at the time. (What? And your long term relationship faltered, Michael? How? Why?)
Their second show, the following yearâs Orientalism was a sustained ârallying cry against ethnic comedyâ â one of Hingâs bugbears. Although Michael is still adamantly opposed to ethnic comedy, he can at least acknowledge that â60 minutes is a long time to be preachy about somethingâ.
These shows werenât necessarily good prep for Hingâs one-man show. âThey were mostly improvised and they were more sketch than stand-up,â Michael explains. âThey changed every night because Pat Magee has an inability to maintain focus on stuff, which is what makes him super funny a lot of the time. It also makes him highly emotionally volatile a lot of the time, as well. He is seriously one of the smartest, funniest, cleverest people Iâve ever met and worked with. If he ever bothered to commit to doing comedy forever, heâd be great.â
Given that Patrickâs currently in the UK
pursuing comedy, chances are heâs well on his way to achieving that greatness.
As for Michael, the process made him realise he had a number of stories he
wanted to tell, and so it was time to do his own show. Its first incarnation was Iâm Only Doing This Because They Wonât Let Me Be A Rapper at the 2011 Sydney Fringe Festival.
Half a year on from the Melbourne Comedy Festival, Michaelâs attitude to his season is telling.
âI came back from Melbourne with a good amount of money from doing comedy,â he says, âwhich felt really, really cool.â
So comedy as career instead of hobby, then. No need to get qualified to teach digital media and marketing after all.
âAt the same time, there was stuff in my comedy that I didnât feel very proud of. I was doing some jokes that I thought were lazy, and some easy gags. I felt a little bit guilty because I was using easy tricks â in about three or four parts of my show â to get laughs.â
Oh, Hingers, ever the purist. He sometimes got laughs not by telling a joke, but by using âjust the rhythm of a joke, and the word âf*ckâ.â What comic has never been guilty of that? Your job is to make them laugh. Did you make them laugh? Good. No problem. Unless youâre competing in a [Raw] comedy competition, in which case, be concerned that the jokes are below your judgesâ standards, rather than your audiencesâ. But even then, it doesnât matter: the point of doing comedy is to make the audience laugh, not to win competitions. And the point of doing comedy competitions is to make the audience laugh, not to win competitions.
Still, Michael makes a convincing argument:
âFor the first three weeks, where Iâm selling out some nights and getting great reviews, it feels great.â
Why wouldnât it? Thatâs every Melbourne Comedy Festival debutante â and veteran â comicâs dream.
âAnd then Chortle comes to see my show.â
Uh-oh. Chortle is the Ã¼ber-comedy critic, the comedy critic sine qua non. And Hing confirms that Chortle essentially said, ââHey, dickhead, youâre a mad, lazy writer who should be trying harder, cos youâre cheapâ.â Hingâs paraphrasing, of course; Chortle is far more articulate than that.
âI read that and I think, âHe sees through everything, and itâs trueâ. And the reality is, any other achievement that I feel proud of, is meaningless. So I come back from Melbourne with money that Iâm not uncomfortable to have, but think I should put it towards something cool.â
Good man, Hingers. I think I speak for almost everyone when I say Iâm never uncomfortable to have money, and I always think I should put it towards something cool. But Iâm never as cool as Michael, who has put his money to the best possible use, producing fringe festival shows of several of his comedy peers.
But thatâs the obvious, immediate penance â putting potentially âill-gotten gainsâ toward a greater good. Michaelâs taking other initiatives as well:
âI donât have a lot of strengths, but one thing Iâm quite good at is learning. I flatter myself to think I can learn quite well, so if someone I respect, whose reviews Iâve read, says to me âthis is a two-star show and you need to work harder and not be lazyâ, then I can click onto that being a real thing.â
And so for Hingers, itâs once more into the fray: among the multitude of shows heâs involved with is the new hour of material, in development for the 2013 festival season.
All roads lead to Hingers
While âcoasting comedianâs guiltâ goes some way to explaining why so many roads lead to Hing â the âSydney Hing Festivalâ part of it, anyway â there are still all the other undertakings he is and has been involved in.
For example, a couple of years ago one of the new hot young things of comedy was a svelte Sydney chanteuse called Gen Fricker whose sinister world view with conveyed via punk ballads sugar coated with a thin veneer of faux-naivete bookended with some of the most hilarious off-the-cuff banter youâll ever have served up at you. Another one of the many to arise out of the Sydney Uni milieu, Gen is clearly a world-class talent in her formative years. Suddenly, Hingers was hosting the breakfast shift with her on Radio FBi.
A couple of years previous, Jack Druce was the youngest Raw finalist ever (dubbed âan embryoâ at the time by one slightly older â and possibly slightly jealous comic). Now Hing is co-hosting one of the better comedian-fronted podcasts with him.
Cale Bain hosts an brilliant impro night on Tuesdays at the Roxbury Hotel (the second best in the known universe, according to Hingers â but he has a vested interest in the Impro Den, so itâs hard to call) and Hing is one of the regulars.
A bunch of brash alternate comics have a weekly package of performance anarchy called Phuklub â of which Iâve written at length. Guess whoâs now a regular there, tooâ¦
And virtually any cool newbie you see who is or was at one time a student at Sydney University, rest assured, is a friend, was groomed by, appeared in a revue with, or letâs face it, will one day regret never having embarked upon a meaningful physical relationship with, Michael Hing.
Thereâs a reason why this is.
âIf I want this to be my job,â Hing explains, âif I talk to my friends, most of whom are comics, and theyâre doing a cool thing, I want to be a part of it. And I feel like I have a disparate amount of experience now that I can go into any place and try and fit in with what theyâre doing.â
And, more than wanting the constant challenge of trying to apply his worldview and talents to each new comedic undertaking, thereâs a far more fundamental and obvious reason.
âThereâs no shortage of talented people in any comedy scene,â Hing says. âAll that separates me or anyone from anyone else is the amount of work that you do. If I think Iâm good and Iâm gonna coast this out, there are any number of more naturally talented people who can take my place.â
One of the forces guiding Michael, particularly in the way he helps administer comedy to university campuses and beyond, taking newbies under his wing as he investigates new avenues for himself and others, is to provide the means of access that didnât exist when he first hit the scene.
âWhen I was at uni and had a dream of doing stand-up, there was no way that I knew how to go to the Mic in Hand on a Thursday night. If youâre a student studying a science degree or whatever, you go, âoh, there are people at my uni putting a show on every Wednesday night, and theyâve done shows in Melbourne, and theyâre doing gigs at the Comedy Store. If I hang around with them maybe I can learn how to do this â how to get it doneâ. Thatâs a really attractive thing to be able to offer young people. When I was in high school and at university I didnât know how to be a comedian. Now, if I can offer anyone anything, itâs this: here is a night where you can get on and you can do comedy, and if you like comedy, I can tell you who to talk to and who can help you out. And now we get the people who run the Comedy Store coming by and checking out our night. Thatâs really cool for me.â
Thus, Michael is producing 20-odd shows at this yearâs Sydney Fringe Festival because when he was at Uni he didnât know how to do comedy, and now he has a bit of an idea. Not just of how to approach it, but of the different approaches you might choose to take. Indeed, Michael has several approaches of his own that heâs putting into practice all at once â in a handful of shows.
One of them is a sketch show with Ben Jenkins, called Ben and Hing Do Sketches At You for the Better Part of an Hour. But donât think, for an instant, that itâs another âMichael Hing and Patrick Mageeâ show with Jenkins playing the role of Magee, even though Hing works as well with Ben as he does with Pat.
âBen and I have been writing together for six years now, so we have a catalogue of 100 sketches. Weâre gonna pick out 10 or 15 of them to call them a show.â
And of course, thereâs the solo show, Occupy White People, thatâll be the prototype of his 2013 festival show.
But the most political and personal one, by far, is A Series of Young Asian Comedians not doing Asian Jokes, which features Jen Wong, Ronny Chieng (joint Best Newcomer at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year), Alex Lee, Jonathan Lee and Aaron Chen along with Hingers. âWe all do 10 minutes each and no one mention race, no one mentions racism, no one mentions immigration, no one mentions being Asian, no one mentions stereotypesâ¦ nothing. Itâs us doing jokes that have nothing to do with that.â
The stereotyped kid
Michael and I donât quite agree on the âwog comedyâ issue. Being slightly older, and remembering what an amazing phenomenon Wogs Out Of Work was, I appreciate that self-deprecating humour was the first opportunity certain audiences â consisting of huge cross-sections of Australian society â got to see characters they could identify with on stage. Performers were talking to them about their particular experiences in ways that Ango Austalian comics and other stage and screen characters couldnât. Furthermore, these non-Anglo Australian stereotypes werenât merely the âlowâ characters, the comic relief, the butt of the Anglo Australiansâ jokes. They played the gamut of characters, and where they were the butt of the jokes, they were the butt of their own jokes: the humour was self-deprecating, so it wasnât hurtful. Decades on, yes, that kind of humour is clearly less sophisticated; society has changed enough (we hope) that itâs unnecessary. We see non-Anglo Australians in the media representing more than the mere fact that they happen to be people of foreign extraction. But in less enlightened times, self-deprecating wog comedy was empowering.
âYeah,â Hing replies, âbut if the only way ethnic people can identify with a character on television in the 1980s is through Con the Fruiterer, thatâs a damning indictment of television. Itâs so rare, for example, to see a Chinese person on TV where their defining role isnât merely being Chinese. Itâs only now that youâre seeing hot Asian girls who are actually just âhot girlsâ, rather than âhot Asian girlsâ.â
Somewhere, a Gen X woman â who probably reviews for The Age â is reading this and being annoyed at the objectification of âhotâ and âgirlsâ when Hing clearly meant âwomenâ; is it a bigger faux pas when special attention is being paid to the avoidance of racial generalisations? His point stands, however: if the person of a certain race appears in popular culture merely as a stereotypical representation of that race, there is a tendency for kids engaging with that culture to define themselves and others primarily by ethnicity. âAnd it is divisive,â Hing insists, âbecause, growing up, you are no longer the kid who happens to be Chinese or the kid who happens to be Italian. You are âthe Chinese kidâ. Or âthe Italian kidâ. And for some people thatâs a really positive point of difference, but there is no reason that they have to be that. Why not âyou are the smart kidâ or âyou are the fast kidâ?â
So then what happens, it seems, is âthe Ethnic kidâ (feel free to insert the ethnicity you are most familiar with) who is funny and talented enough to take to the stage, becomes âthe Ethnic comicâ and has to roll out all of the Ethnic clichÃ©s. If youâve heard them all before, they stop being funny. For Hing, they can be downright offensive. Like when a comedian makes fun of his or her parentsâ accents.
âA lot of Asian comedians do it: âMy dad gets his Ls and his Rs mixed up. Whatâs up with that?ââ Hing says, outlining why this line of humour fails.
âYouâre making fun of your dadâs accent. Number one: itâs very well-trodden ground. You should be above that. If youâre holding a microphone, you should hold yourself to be above that. Number two: if your parents have a thick accent, chances are, theyâre first generation emigrants. They probably made huge sacrifices to bring you here and bring you up in a country with opportunities where they can give you the best life possible. And youâre gonna get on stage and make fun of them because they donât speak English properly and they have a funny accent? Go f*ck yourself. That f*cken annoys me. It enrages me.â
The rage has its origins during Hingâs own childhood.
âGrowing up in the mid-90s in Australia, watching a comedian on
television who looks like me,â he recalls, âI get excited, and then he says,
âspring rollsâ¦ boogadah boogadah boogadah, whatâs up with thatâ¦?â (The
âboogadah boogadah boogadahâ is shorthand not unlike the Yiddish âyaddah yaddah
yaddahâ, serving here to dismiss facile observations.) âEveryone goes, âThatâs
amazingâ and they grow up thinking thatâs okay to do, and you think thatâs what
you have to do as a Chinese guy doing comedy. I just want to prove to people
that you donât have to do that.â
What it feels like, I offer, is that Michael saw Hung Le on television, and irrespective of how funny or clever Hungâs observations were, later on at school narrow minded people repeated them, seeking to tease Hing. âDefinitely,â he admits. âBut this is what Iâm talking about. People take away the message they want. Itâs your job as a comedian to ensure that nobody leaves your show going, âIâm going to find the guy who that applies to and make him feel like sh*tâ. You start a ripple effect where youâve hurt some guy you donât even know.â
Iâm not sold on the argument. Part of me feels that Hingâs âbunging it onâ more than he actually feels it, in order to create the context for his particular brand of intellectually outraged stand-up to work. And mostly, it seems, itâs for the edification of less privileged âoutsidersâ. I mean, the open letter to rich white people has a different meaning coming from a rich non-white person, than it does from a poor non-white person. Thereâs nothing wrong with taking that position, it just takes more effort and more experience to make it feel less âbunged onâ and more relevant and sincere.
âI donât feel disenfranchised,â Hing confirms. âIâm the Asian son of two doctors who grew up fine. I was bullied a little bit at school, but there are people who cop it much worse. But racial injustice angers me. And when I talk about racist stuff in my comedy, itâs because I genuinely think there is something funny to be said about it.â
But, Michael continues, the reason he finds âthe vast majority of ethnic comedyâ loathsome is because âwhen youâre in a position of power â and I think we can agree that having the microphone is being in that position of powerâ your target â the butt of the joke, and the level at which you pitch your jokes â has to be above your own level. This because, if you donât, âif youâve got a microphone and youâre screaming about someone who has less power than you and youâre aiming your anger and ridicule downwards, youâre just bullying someone. Whereas if youâre aiming it upwards âtaking on the prime minister or people who are muscular and rascist or people who are smart and rich â they can defend themselves; they have a right of reply in a cultural capital.â
I agree with this philosophy. And I can see why it is such an interesting comedic path that Michael Hing treads. Coming from that privileged background, there arenât many targets above him. And the bullying canât have been so full-on from fellow privileged lads.
âI went to the local public primary school, but because it was in a reasonable area âIllawong, in the Shire â it wasnât a rough school,â Michael confirms. âI was âthe Chinese kidâ. It totally influences my position. I hated being defined as âthe Chinese kidâ because everyone else is pointing and laughing.â Perhaps, Michael considers, thatâs where the comedy-as-defence-mechanism began because, he says, âI grabbed the mic at talent quests and stuff.â
Talking out of school
After primary school, Hingers wasnât so keen to attend the local selective public high school. âI didnât know what I wanted to do, so my parents sent me to Trinity Grammar. I got involved in some dicey stuff. I joined a gang.â
Dicey gang stuff at Trinityâ¦? Apple in the chapel, I enquire, getting my posh private school scandals muddled.
âNo, Trinity was âThe Anacondaâ,â Hingers reminds me, adding, âand no, a proper gangâ.
This was the key story of Hingâs Open Letterâ¦ and since heâs performed it on stage, he doesnât mind relating it to me now. âThrough a series of events,â says Michael, he âended up being friends with this guy whose older brother was in a gang at Cabramatta.â Lonely and in need of friends â often a characteristic looming early in a comedianâs life â Hingers ended up âdoing jobsâ for these people that included picking up packages from the guyâs place and delivering them to addresses in China Town.
âItâs hundreds of dollars every time that I do it, and I pretend I donât know whatâs going on, but I know: itâs drugs and weapons and stolen goods in my school bag.â
Dressing like the Ã¼ber-nerd he is â âtop button done up, tie done up, socks pulled up even though Iâm wearing long pantsâ â Michael is the perfect mule.
âI do this for between 12 and 18 months. Eventually my friend gets moved to Hong Kong, to live with a disciplinarian uncle. I eventually quit, and because Iâm a nerd and they know Iâm a coward, they donât hurt me. They let me go.â
This is around 2000 when the âanacondaâ sex scandal took place, and suddenly the schoolâs systematically searching every studentâs locker. âA lot of people Iâm associated with are called to the principalâs office,â Hing reports. âEventually, Iâm called. Iâm sitting there, crying and stuff. They tell me Iâm not going to go to that school next year, and I think, âIâm f*cked!â but it turns out that the reason Iâm at the principalâs office isnât because of that stuff; itâs because about 6 months earlier, being a super nerd, I made a website about my friend David calling him âgayâ because I was 14 and thatâs what I found funny. They were like, âthatâs unacceptibleâ and I was like, âyouâre right, it is, I need to leave the school; goodbyeâ.â
Hing ended up at Carringbah High, the selective high school he had been trying to avoid, where he met all his nerdy friends, was mocked, got angry, got to uni got into comedy and eventually ended up opposite me in a pizza place in Manly Vale, where I ate most of his vegie selection after finishing my own marinara, and after I swallow his last piece, I have to know: how the hell were the doctors Mama and Papa Hing about all this?
âAgain, just stupidly supportive of everything,â Michael says. âThat also contextualises what Iâm doing now: sure, Iâm not finishing my degree or getting a job, but Iâm also not in a gang, which is a thing I came very close to doing for the rest of my life. It makes the choice of being a stand-up comic much, much easier.â