Woody Allen’s humor does not translate well into Khmer. Jacob Gold ’06 once attempted to explain to a cast of Cambodian comedians the opening joke from Annie Hall. (First woman at a restaurant: “The food here is terrible!” Second woman: “Yes, and the portions are so small!”) The joke flopped.
How does one adapt American comedic sensibility so Cambodian teens will laugh? This is what Gold and James O’Toole ’08 found themselves ponder ing late at night in Phnom Penh, after spending their days reporting on national news for a bilingual daily newspaper. That’s because during the fall of 2009, they also found themselves writing for Upside Down, Cambodia’s first sketch-comedy TV show.
Gold and O’Toole first traveled to the Far East through Princeton in Asia. They fell in love with the region, and so each headed to Cambodia in 2009 to write for The Phnom Penh Post. Before flying there, Gold indulged in a “YouTube and Internet feast” of Khmer music and movies, including episodes from the first season of Upside Down, produced by Khmer Mekong Films (KMF). A week after arriving, Gold spied a KMF badge at the house of a colleague, who subsequently introduced Gold and O’Toole to KMF senior producer Matthew Robinson.
Robinson had come to Cambodia after 30 years in British television production, and founded KMF in 2008. A year later, Cambodia’s leading cable network commissioned KMF to create a comedy show. The result was Upside Down, with 13 half-hour episodes of 60-second sketches. Upside Down became a hit, and a second sea son was commissioned. Robinson asked Gold and O’Toole to start writing.
O’Toole and Gold considered themselves well versed in American comedy. At Princeton, Gold had written for the Princeton Triangle show and created a comedy show at Theatre Intime. But Anglo-American comedy relies on a medley of word play, puns, and parallel meanings. None are present in the “Khmer comedic sensibility,” as Gold puts it. “Something funny is something that is goofy ... it’s a totally different phylum of comedy, based on a carnivalesque sensibility.” Khmer humor, they learned, was slapstick complete with loud “bongs” and oversized bananas.
Over the next month and a half, the pair met at O’Toole’s apartment to write. Because the sketches had to be translated from English, many were merely skeletons of ideas. “We strove for visual humor that could translate across cultures,” recalls O’Toole. In the end they wrote more than 100 sketches, most of which were produced.
Inspiration came from the streets of Phnom Penh and from topics Gold and O’Toole covered at the Post: police extortion, cell-phone crazes, unregulated pharmacies, karaoke. They created a Cambodian bachelor who invented a robot, “a Frankenstein without the horror,” Robinson says. They penned sketches about a “gym” for up-and-coming young Khmers, which actually was just the stairwell of a decrepit 1960s-era apartment building. Other inventions included a motorbike-taxi driver who constantly missed opportunities to snag customers, an incompetent security-guard duo nicknamed “Anxious and Sleepy,” a bumbling genie trainee, and a man with a pet plant.
The second season of Upside Down began in January 2010 and succeeded so well that it has been rebroadcast twice.
Gold and O’Toole hope that a third season will be commissioned. In the meantime, O’Toole continues working at the Post, while Gold is in the United States, applying to graduate schools. Whether Cambodian comedy will be acceptable for a dissertation is still up in the air.
Jessica Lander ’10 is teaching English in Chiang Mai, Thailand, through Princeton in Asia.