On stage at the Mic Drop Comedy Club in Limerick, Nghia Mai tells the story of sitting in a Scottish pub, watching Japan defeat a heavily favored South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. When the final whistle blew and the curtain came down on one of the tournament's greatest ever upsets, Mai had become subject of backslaps, fist bumps and high fives from the rowdy Scottish rugby fans around him – all offering congratulations to Mai and his “countrymen.”
The crowd erupts at the joke, but they’re not laughing at Mai, they’re laughing at themselves. It’s a fine balance, leveraging loaded material to get laughs without compromising the nuanced message, but it’s a skill that Mai is beginning to perfect.
Mai’s first spot came when he was still a student at the British International School in Ho Chi Minh City, at a school talent show no less. He made a mental note of some jokes, did his five minutes worth of material, got some big laughs, and the seed began to grow. “I remember there were actually two of us doing standup that day,” recalls Mai, “There was this kid in the year below me who had written his set word for word. I think I was the only one that got a big laugh. Anyway I’m not sure what happened to him, but I hope he’s well,” he quips.
A few years later, Mai moved to Edinburgh to study history and continued working on his act in one of western Europe’s premier comedy hunting grounds. By the time he relocated across the Irish Sea to Dublin in 2018 to work on a Master’s, his resume was strong enough that he was able to throw himself right into the Irish circuit — the same one that’s produced widely-loved names like Dylan Moran, Dara O’Briain, Tommy Tiernan, Aisling Bea and David O’Doherty.
Mai is no hobbyist comedian either. Like pretty much all up-and-comers, he has a day job to keep things ticking over financially, but by night, a cursory glance at his social channels lets you in on just how active he is. Five and six-hour commutes from Dublin to comedy clubs in Limerick, Galway, Cork, and back to Dublin again, peppered with open mic nights to work out new material.
Not even the great lockdown of 2020 knocked him too far out of his stride. With comedy clubs all over the land shut and little other place to go, he whipped out his camera and began working on skits as Grandpa Mai – an elderly Vietnamese man trying to make sense of the rapidly changing world. He also recorded two seasons of a collective podcast, “Xin Chao Homie,” with a group of other Vietnamese comics based all around the world, which he’s hoping to start up again soon.
I spoke to Mai about his growing comedy career, and his views on the need for empathy amidst the absurd.
You performed your first set ever as a teenager at school in Ho Chi Minh City, but what made you want to give it a go and what made you stick at it?
When I was around fourteen or fifteen I started watching standup regularly on YouTube – people like Russel Peters and Eddie Murphy. I also watched a lot more traditional British sitcoms like Black Adder since I was really into history. I guess I started wondering about how jokes actually worked, and would sometimes just imagine doing it myself. So then I started thinking, “Why don’t I?” That’s how I ended up doing the show at school, but it wasn't for another two years, when I went to Scotland and joined the comedy society at my university, that I started doing stand up regularly.
Scotland was really the starting point in terms of doing it consistently. I spent the next two years just trying to figure out the nuts and bolts of standup comedy – how to write jokes, even just how to get stage time – that’s the trickiest part at the start.
You moved to Ireland with a good enough resume and some video footage to help get your gigs, but was it difficult to initially break into the scene in Edinburgh?
Yeah. I was very new to the city, the country, as well the art of comedy itself and the structure behind it. Even though Edinburgh is famous for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival every August, the day to day scene doesn’t have that much going on. There’s one big club called The Stand, but that’s pretty hard to get into. In fact, even their newcomers night has a long waiting list. But through the university comedy society, I was able to get some gigs, and even did a bi-lingual set for the Vietnamese student society. I also entered the Chortle Student Comedy Awards and got some great stage time there.
I ended up doing The Fringe the summer after my second year – just a short slot during the final week of the festival– and was able to do it every year up until I left Edinburgh.
I didn’t really move up in the scene during this time but I was just trying to work hard, get stage time, stay sharp, learn how to connect with people and how to hustle for gigs and opportunities – all those little skills away from the act itself that you need to thrive in the comedy scene.
You poke a lot of fun at racial ignorance and the absurdities you’ve encountered abroad. Rarely is this at your own expense, but rather it spotlights ignorance in your audience. How do you find that balance?
A lot of my material is just me being a flawed protagonist, with his own personal agenda. I guess it's also about me taking advantage of awkward situations for my own benefit.
These situations that I mention in my set aren’t malicious or even negative experiences – they’re just kind of absurd. Take for example that story about the Japan rugby game. That was a moment of joy and celebration for all those people watching, and it just so happened that I was the only person of Asian descent in the pub that afternoon! For me, it’s about understanding both sides and being empathetic. They’re just misunderstandings that I guess could be taken out of context, but I try to be kind of empathetic and generate humor from it.
Even with things like people mispronouncing my name – sometimes people avoid saying it at all for fear that they’ll be seen as insensitive or racist. I like to explore that kind of thing and poke fun at it.
Though you turn these encounters in the UK and Ireland into material for jokes, do you think they really are innocent moments, or is there something darker there?
I’ve personally never really had a bad experience over here, but I suppose Dublin is quite a cosmopolitan city. It’s not that racism and xenophobia don’t exist here, but there’s also a kind of curiosity and confusion about things that are “different”. Trying to navigate these can branch into misunderstandings and microaggressions.
Even when talking to people who are worldly and open-minded, they’re sometimes so anxious dealing with the thought of saying something wrong that they end up saying something else wrong – Far Eastern, Oriental – those old school terms. You just have to be empathetic. To be honest I like to have fun with those terms as someone who's studied history and seen how languages change over time. Within the context of a joke they can be really funny. I remember talking to a comedian who was using the word “Indochina” – I just joked that he sounded like a French war veteran.
I think on the whole people just need to chill a little, to understand that it’s all an ongoing process. Sometimes if people say the wrong things I'm willing to correct them or explain to them. That’s not to say I educate them! People like to say “educate”, but a lot of people like to use big or strong words when they don't need to. A lot of it is a very simple human-to-human interaction.
Quite a bit of your material does wind up being enlightening for your audience. Is that your aim or is it just a by-product?
I think in comedy in general, everything bar laughter is a by-product. The main aim is to make people laugh. I guess that this is a feature of my act is just Vietnamese culture. We’re obsessed with metaphors. There’s always an underlying message. It's probably just part of my heritage, but it was never really the main target.
But you know, most people know about Vietnam through the context of the war only, so I guess it’s nice to show people that it’s a geological entity with its own history and culture.
Tell us about Grandpa Mai, the character you created during lockdown? Was it just a lockdown thing, or do you plan to continue with him, or even take him on stage?
I’ve always been interested in character comedy, and I’m really into history and looking at old photos and so on, so I think the lockdown was a good opportunity to experiment. A lot of it with Grandpa Mai was actually just homesickness and nostalgia. It stemmed from interactions with older relatives and that certain way they have of speaking and trying to understand the world from their own point of view, I thought it was good ground for material.
Though it was more of a lockdown thing and he’s stayed behind the screen for the most part, I actually did do a set as Grandpa Mai last summer at an outdoor gig. It went pretty well. Once I’m more established, I could maybe bring him back live at some point. I still think it's a very good character. It's actually a good way of promoting Vietnamese culture to a wider audience, and also bridging a generational gap.
Who are your favorite comics to watch these days?
At the moment I really like Mark Normand. He just does very straight-up joke-telling without any agenda. He’s a standup comic in the classical sense, which is quite refreshing in this day and age when everyone has to be a pseudo-philosopher.
One of my other all-time favorites, though he’s not a standup comic is Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm. He is a philosopher without knowing it. A lot of his stiffness just looks at social taboos and that kind of thing. That's the job. You just observe things and in a way critique them without being so direct.
I also have to talk about Ali Wong and the Vietnamese Australian comedian Anh Do. I’ve read And Do’s memoir “The Happiest Refugees” and I really like his work. As for Ali Wong, she’s one of the most successful comics of Vietnamese descent at the moment. I see her as kind of a role model. She’s actually a role model for Vietnamese comics all around the world.