When I stayed in Mandalay, I spent an evening being entertained by the Mustachio Brothers, the most dangerous comedians in Myanmar – formerly Burma.
But this evening developed unexpectedly in to a culture clash which revealed to me how some of the gaps between societies may simply be unbridgeable. Goodbye, my One World dream!
I’ll start off by acknowledging these brothers as the incredibly brave artists they are. This trio of hirsute guys have truly suffered for their art down the years, at the hands of government goons and the local judiciary.
There used to be 3 bros, but one died following a stint in jail for making politically incorrect jokes about the high and mighty. What they have done is a high water-mark for all comedy which wants to be subversive.But it seems like the Mustachio Brothers are being over taken by history.
When I saw the remaining 2 bros perform, it was November 2015 and a historic general election was taking place: for the first time in decades the poll was fair and free by international standards. Gags about corrupt cops were no longer so dangerous in a Myanmar where the Generals had loosened their grip on society and the beloved Aung San Suu Kyi (aka The Lady) was days away from a landslide election win.
Then there are the jokes. What stuck out that night was not necessarily the big events taking place outside the theatre (which is also the family home). No, it was the comedy itself and how us the audience took it. The jokes were bawdy and on topics such as ‘the wife’, ‘marriage’ and ‘who does the cleaning’. There were some about domestic violence too. It sounded dated and outmoded to me – and to others too: there were a few intakes of breath amid the indulgent laughter, perhaps a signal that some sacred safe spaces had been violated. So the comedy was challenging stuff, but not in a conventional way: this pensioner on stage was telling us jokes so tired even Jim Davidson might turn them down (maybe).
So how to respond? Laugh along at his politically incorrect gags in order to be respectful of this slice of local culture? Invade the stage in the name of women’s liberation? Tut-tut the dated gags? The sense of dissonance and confusion were palpable to me, sat at the front on the floor. My laughs were polite, not genuine. I didn’t want to disrespect this radical comic veteran who’s been through so much, by sitting stony faced through his routine. But if he did this material at a students’ union in Britain, there’d be a riot and then a public shaming on Twitter.
So it seems to me the Mustachio Brothers today face a bit of a crisis of comedy: jokes which used to be subversive no longer are in a changed political climate and bawdy cracks about ‘her indoors’ just aren’t very funny to the type of audience who come to the show (travelling westerners). Will the Mustachio Brothers mock and ridicule Aung Sang Suu Kyi now she’s in power? That might be awkward: posters of her are plastered all around the venue and she’s a national icon of freedom. Myanmar looks like it is moving in to a new epoch and the Mustachio Brothers can legitimately say they have helped bring about this monumental change, by refusing to be cowed by despotic authority, or to stop laughing at it. But what next for Burma’s most dangerous comedians?
At the end of the night, I loyally paid for a t-shirt and got a photo with Mr Mustachio. He’s a cool guy and I admire his bravery and endurance greatly. Above us in the photo is a picture of The Lady at a show back in 2002.