Friday, August 26, 2011

Live from Thailand: Monkeys & Elephants & Me (Oh My!), or, My Search for Physical Comedy in Chiang Mai

[post 184]

I'm not in Thailand for physical comedy, but I do keep my eyes open. I like to believe that clowning is universal, as natural as human error, but that doesn't mean every place you visit is a hotbed of variety theatre, much less of inspired foolishness. Here in Chiang Mai, "cultural capital of northern Thailand," physical comedy has proven to be an elusive commodity.

My first foray was to the famed Sunday Market, said to be full of amazing crafts and street performers. The crafts were in abundance, but the only buskers carving out space on its nearly impassable streets were musicians soulfully strumming and drumming on traditional Thai instruments, ultimately bumming for tourist tips; lovely, but hardly physical comedy.

Then there are the cabarets; the place is teeming with them. Surely I'd find something old or new vaudevillian there....


It turns out that they owe their popularity to lady boy transvestite / transgender revues, not to slapstick shenanigans. (See this recent BBC News piece on the lady boys' runaway popularity at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival!) An interesting enough phenomenon, but was this the kind of variety I was looking for?

After exhaustive research sitting at a bar for over a half hour, I did find one lady boy cabaret numéro that was borderline blog-worthy: a two-faced interpretation of the song One-Man Woman. I’m guessing you’ve seen this bit before: the performer plays two roles simultaneously, swiveling 180˚ from profile to profile, a different makeup and costume on each side, now a woman, now a man. It does go with the lyrics and is certainly a good fit for a drag show, but as a visual gimmick it wears thin quickly if you don't do anything original with it. Admittedly I’m not a huge fan of lip synching, especially here: if you're going to play two characters, actually do something different with them, starting with the voice!

But there I was at the bar, concealed Flip camera in hand, cleverly sitting right next to the much overused spotlight and right where all the waiters had to cross in front of me  to pick up their drink orders, the ideal spot to grab some footage. You might dismiss the results as bad cinematography, but I know better. This is merely my genius at rendering a complete 4-D environmental experience. So what if you can barely see the main performer! It’s only 17 seconds, enough to get the idea.

Okay, so that was the worst quality video ever posted to this blog!

The rest of the show was all glitter and no substance, physical comedy or otherwise. So....  no street performance, no cabaret, but as it turned out there were hearty physical comedy laughs to be found amongst Thailand’s most celebrated citizens. Yes, I’m talking about its talented elephants and monkeys. I've seen a bunch of circuses in my day, even been in a few, ridden an elephant bareback (bareneck?) and know enough not to come near a chimpanzee while wearing clown makeup. But in Thailand I still found myself saying, "I didn't know they could do that!"

The pachyderms at the Maesa Elephant Camp dance, play harmonica, kick and block a soccer ball, dunk basketballs, and beat human beings at dart throwing.

Here are a couple of elephants playing with me; to all appearances, toying with me. At first a sniff of danger, realizing those powerful trunks enveloping my puny body could flick me clear across the Burmese border. On the one hand threatening, on the other comic release from their docile behavior. They tease me, bestowing a safari hat on my head, giving it a few pats for good luck, then take it away. Feed them a bunch of bananas or a piece of sugar cane and they scarf it down. Give them a 20-baht tip and they pass it back overhead to their mahout.

And they even paint better than me! That top photo is of an elephant making “art“ before my very eyes and the image below shows the standard work churned out by these four-legged Rembrandts three times a day. (I wanted to buy one to hang on my refrigerator back home so guests would think my kids were more artsy, but they were too expensive.)

But all this brings up the question: does the elephant actually know what it’s painting? When it paints an elephant, does it see it as a self-portrait? When it throws a dart, it understands the goal, but does it even know that it's in competition with the human, much less that we find it very funny if it wins? And above all does it get the basic reversal joke? — the “inferior” animal getting the best of the human.

Groucho Marx liked to claim that his comic foil Margaret DuMont rarely understood the humor of their scenes together and would ask why the audience was laughing. Highly unlikely, given her long career as a comedienne, but of course from the audience’s perspective it does not matter whether or not elephants or Margaret Dumont think their routines are funny.

Still, I am curious. The elephants perform actions, endlessly repeated without any trace of boredom on their part. The work is easy, they get rewards, plenty of attention and positive reinforcement, but do they enjoy the event for its own sake? And if so, do they have a sense of humor about it all? The obvious answer is, no, there’s no way they understand what humor is, the irony of the situation, or even that the humans are laughing.

Many animals do, however, have a clearly documented sense of play that is not so different from what we might call a sense of humor. For example: monkeys. I do love me some monkeys. Like cats, they have a highly developed sense of play, and like cats they are natural acrobats, only ten times more so. Is it possible they have a sense of humor too? In your typical Chiang Mai monkey show — I saw two, very similar — they pose, they strut, they interact with the audience in carefully scripted routines. They outsmart humans, for example by (apparently) performing feats of memory (a numbers game) better than an audience volunteer.
“When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.”
— Michel de Montaigne, French essayist (1533–1592)

Here's a video of me needing a monkey to escape from bondage: the joke of the monkey's superiority, with a sweet touch of trans-species bonding thrown in, complete with kisses.

But in this video, my all-too-human pride wouldn't let me go along with the joke. No monkey was going to beat me at shooting foul shots! I wisely adapted to the low net by choosing Wilt Chamberlain's underhand style, sunk the first two but, suffering from all-too-human overconfidence, rushed the last one. Still, two out of three was good enough to beat a fellow homo sapien and a monkey who can dunk but chokes at the free throw line. The crowd may have been disappointed, but a man's a man, when all is said and done.


Okay, okay, this post has obviously been more full of questions than answers, but this is a blog so I'm allowed to think out loud and to free associate, right?

So while I'm still chuckling about monkeys, here are some related videos which recently crossed my desk here at AFD Central. The first is a remarkable BBC piece on drunken monkeys courtesy of NYC clown Billy Schultz.

We all wish we could climb like monkeys. Well, at least I do, and it's a fact that the founders of parkour studied monkey behavior, as I discussed in this previous blog post, which just happens to be one of my favorites. But I doubt anyone can beat this guy in India, who climbs walls as well as any primate I ever saw:

And finally, speaking of wall climbing, from Brazil comes this cool Nextel commercial, courtesy of clown, artist, and All Fall Down guest blogger Karen Gersch:

I don't know much about this, but was able to track down one of the performers, Guto Vasconcelos, who was a clown with Cirque du Soleil for ten years and who writes: "This was a corporate gig for Nextel; the company's name is Ares, my friend is the director. I don't believe the the website is up yet, but you can google or youtube and for sure you will find some more clips."

That's it for now. Goodbye to Thailand (and India and Brazil) and my jungle-inspired ramblings. As one monkey said to the other,  "We're not laughing with you, we're laughing at you."

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