Stand-up comedy: A trip to Indonesian middle class lives

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It was the 13th of July 2011 when Ryan Adriandhy first brought me to an “open-mic” in Comedy Cafe, Kemang, Jakarta. I had no idea what an open-mic was. Apparently, it is a live show where people who are present in the venue could perform at the microphone. However, in regards to the stand-up comedy world, it is the place for stand-up comedians, or comics, to practice and test their new materials (commonly known as “comedy bits”), to an audience prior to performing in a bigger crowd.

Although Comedy Cafe routinely holds open mic sessions, the one on the 13th of July seems like a game-changing one. A few days back, Ryan told me he was going to do an audition to be one of the finalists of “Stand Up Comedy Indonesia” (SUCI), a show that has a similar model to NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” produced by Kompas TV. In the audition, he met Ernest Prakasa, another contestant aspiring to be a comic, just like Ryan. Both of them initiated to attend the open mic, inviting friends like Isman H. Suryaman, Pandji Pragiwaksono and eventually, one of Indonesia’s most successful comedy writers, Raditya Dika. The community of Indonesian stand-up comedians, under the name of StandUpIndo, was born that night.

Now, less than one year after that historical day, almost everything has developed into more fantastic terms. Ryan has attained the title of “the first professional stand-up comedian in Indonesia” given by Kompas TV after having championed the competition, Ernest is going on his endeavor by holding the first stand-up comedy tour in Indonesia with the name of “Merem Melek Tour”, Isman. has just secured a place to be one of SUCI’s second season’s finalists, Pandji has held the first stand-up comedy special in Indonesia “Bhinneka Tunggal Tawa”, while Raditya Dika is going to be one of SUCI’s second season’s judges.

Ryan Adriandhy rehearsing for “Koper”

A few weeks ago, Ryan brought me to another stand-up comedy performance, called “Koper”. It was actually a combination of stand-up comedy and theatrical play. That evening, I witnessed something that opened my eyes about the Indonesian stand-up comedy scene.

“Koper” featured 8 comics, all with different backgrounds and distinctive personalities. The line-ups are Sam D. Putra, Ernest Prakasa, Boris T. Manullang, Miund, Ryan Adriandhy, Soleh Solihun, Sakdiyah, and Insan Nur Akbar. I have seen their performances in different off-air and on-air shows, but not until that day have I noticed the characteristic that most Indonesian comics share in common. Almost every issue discussed on stage depicts the life and the concerns of Indonesian middle class society. A performance with diversified comics like “Koper” could give a preview of how Indonesian middle class perceive its nation and its surroundings.

To the international society, the nation is often branded as the “third largest democracy in the world” with such a big number of Muslims living in the country. I have heard so many times of how some people brag about Indonesia’s (supposedly) democratic system, especially by pointing out that we once had a female president and by restating that usually, democracy and Muslim citizens do not usually live side by side.

The concept was continually countered by many comedy bits. Such as the one addressed by Sam that Indonesians believe there is a joke consists of three letters: S, B, and Y; and how the government has made it difficult for poor Indonesians to claim that they are living under the poverty line. It is interesting to hear so many people laugh about the three-letters-joke, especially as soon as we remember that those three letters are also the initials of the president that more than 60% Indonesian voters voted for back in 2009.

Sam depicted his character as a successful person from the upper middle class society. Just like most middle class Indonesians, he has achieved so many things in his career. Yet, he was still unsatisfied and unhappy with his life and his wife. Sam’s bits are consistently featured with political concerns and sex, two things that most of middle class society also frequently discusses about. Similar matters are also brought up by Insan Nur Akbar, the runner up of SUCI’s first season, which was discussed in a slightly different point of view. By comparing the way Sam and Akbar discuss the issues faced in daily life, including the political issues, we can learn how 134 millions people who belong to the middle class category might face the same issues seen and solved in different ways.

As every comic must have a persona and style on stage, if we have frequently seen these comics performing, it would not be very difficult to guess what things they would discuss about, nor the perspective used to address these matters. Although every comic has different roles in the play and different bits, most of them still address ideas under a similar theme, which are the ones they know most and feel concerned most about. By only reading the line-up, I already knew that the show will include these issues: stereotypes given to Chinese, Bataknese, and Muslims; political issues; sex and relationship; also social media. Apparently, it was all true. Despite this, all comics pulled it off and did not fail to amaze the crowd, as no matter how generic or usual the personal themes might be, some comics still could offer slightly fresher bits.

Ernest, for example, was given the role as a cleaning service staff in the station. He still discussed mostly about the perks and drawbacks of being a Chinese living in Indonesia, now in the eyes of a cleaning service staff. Such as the stereotype of many Indonesians that “Indonesian Chinese must be rich” and how, as a Chinese, he has grown immune to anyone making remarks about his slanted eyes. Along came Boris, acting as a Bataknese pickpocket. Embedded with a noticeable Bataknese accent, he addressed all the characteristics that fall into the stereotype of other Indonesians to Bataknese. From being closely associated with pickpockets and public transportation drivers, having a very sturdy physical appearance as well as way of communication, to Bataknese food and how its supposed to be enjoyed. From these two performances alone, we could see that although Indonesia has the “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” slogan, the diversified culture and ethnicities living side by side will always generate stereotypes, yet most of them consist of common misconceptions. At the same time, even with this happening, there are still plenty of Indonesians with so many differences among each other can live together harmoniously. It has been proven in all stand-up comedy shows held here by having so much diversity in one show.

Ryan and Miund, coming up as a pair in the play, shared the perspectives that most younger generation of the middle class society have in common. Much about love life, fashion, lifestyle, and of course, something you cannot miss from Indonesian middle class society: social media and its impact in our lives. Both of them ranted on how bad mobile telecommunications connections are in Indonesia, the expenses of being in a relationship and being a middle class having to afford some certain lifestyle, and how women and men can never seem to understand each other. Sounds familiar? The absurd relationship of men and women is always a sexy field for comedy bits to be created upon, as these issues are faced by everyone and anyone could understand it thoroughly.

Nonetheless, there is no single bit crafted without a message behind it. Ryan’s complaints about the absurdities of life he finds every time, for instance, has been a tool for him to remind the audience on how we often overlook the little things in life. We share the pie of being a part of middle class society in Indonesia. Even so, most comics see the things in lives discretely. How could the words on shampoo packaging remind us to appreciate the little things – if not addressed by these comics?

Soleh Solihun then performed on stage. Despite discussing mostly about Indonesian politics, Soleh, as usual, included a lot of remarks related to Islamic values, and once rebutted what Sam shared about Christianity. Similarly, Sakdiyah discussed about herself becoming a Muslim living in Indonesia, commenting about other Muslims not wearing helmets because they have worn kopiah and how the practice of taaruf should have more benefits than most people are aware of.

Sam, Soleh, and Sakdiyah shared their deeply personal values, which are related to their religious beliefs. Although in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. religious beliefs are often specifically addressed as well, the way of addressing this matter in Indonesian stand-up comedy scene is quite different. It might be quite difficult to perform something as controversial and as sensitive as George Carlin’s bit “Religion is bullshit”. However, in regards to religions, most comics who discuss it take it from the perspective of the ridiculousness of religious practice in Indonesia. Such as how Indonesians with Arabic ancestry are always perceived as “religious” people or how some “religious” people sometimes claim to have the privilege to do things that other people cannot do (such as, riding on a motorcycle without wearing a helmet).

The fact that so many people from different religious beliefs are living side by side in Indonesia is one of the essences of living in this country. I am wowed by how these comics, coming from a variety of backgrounds, are able to discuss these important and sometimes overlooked matters in fresh, funny ways. Comedy is about telling the truth, it is about getting your point across. With these issues brought up almost every day on open mics and stand-up comedy shows, I have no doubt that stand-up comedy is going to be one of the most effective tools to open people’s minds.

When other people might only say that Indonesia is a successful democracy, then pointing out the amount of Muslim population, and how we are able to live harmoniously with no problem, Indonesian stand-up comedians share what we all experience. That to reach the state of democracy, we are still learning on a long journey. That to live harmoniously with different ethnicity, culture, race, and religious beliefs, some misconceptions, stereotypes, and negative remarks might still be there and should not prevent ourselves from making peace with one another. That being successful is not only about money, but also the relationship with other things, other people, and things within ourselves. That one day we would be able to reach the state of “success” and “happiness” if we let our eyes and minds open to change, which might be sensitive and controversial, but necessary.

8 thoughts on “Stand-up comedy: A trip to Indonesian middle class lives

    • What kind of national foundation? In terms of democracy, I think stand-up comedy reminds us how we have not yet reached a “complete” state of democracy yet. There are still many flaws here and there, unlike the message some of us have tried to convey to the world. However, these flaws, mistakes, complaints are necessary in order to reach the real state of “democracy”, where anyone would be able to freely express their opinions.

  1. very accurate observation on Stand Up Comedy. i’m eagerly waiting for those other from the middle class to try and perform for us to see different perspective on things we middle class people see. i think it would be fun.

    but maybe not televised just yet, as i don’t think the general audience would be ready to hear “their” side of the story XD

  2. Good post, Mbak.
    Its nice to be reminded why i love comedy in the first place. Now that it (stand up comedy) become super mainstream, I often find myself getting bored by the media over coverage. But now that i think about it, it’s actually not because of the stand up comedy, but the media.
    I guess its just me, seldom attending live event. But what can I say. I live outside Java.
    :D

  3. johnson

    The ironic itself is a comedy, well played SUCI, we need this because when we laugh at ourself we realize we need to change.

    Great article, am wowed :)

  4. Ryan is very good at comedy..Sometime i watch him on tv, but this day the joke that he showed to audience doesn’t seems to be good enough :( i hope that he can improved his joke better one day and be the one who can make “SUCI” more interesting.

    To Ryan: Always Spread Happiness To Everybody!
    To Alanda: Keep support him.. okay.. :-)

  5. Mix

    before i use to think that what makes one country rich than the other country is their technology and their wealth. but now i realize the real wealth is the diversity and iam proud of indonesia because we have that. our diversity is so unique that other people from other country want a piece of the pie.

  6. Sarah

    Just found your blog & love it! Really interesting to hear about the Indonesian stand up comedy scene. Unfortunately in Singapore, the only person who seems comfortable making political jokes is a cross dressing Indian named Kumar… Kumar’s fantastic, but it would be nice if more mainstream comedians ventured beyond slapstick style. I love it when comedy is so true, you’re not sure whether to laugh or sit in stunned silence, because you’ve never heard the situation summed up so well before!

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