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Tote Gags

A Singaporean, an American and a Brit walk into a bar—what’s a joke that will make them all laugh?

Author Chris Swanicke Illustration Peter Oumanski


JAKARTA, INDONESIA – Three comedians from three different corners of the world sit at a table at the American Club’s compound in Jakarta. “I have to go network, talk to people,” says Fakkah Fuzz, who’s Singaporean. He’s been jotting down ideas on a small notepad, and, after slapping it closed, starts to work the room.

The comedians are here for a regular event hosted by the Jakarta Comedy Club, which tonight has a truly international flavor. Joining Fuzz onstage are Steve Harris, who’s flown in from the U.K., and a Russian-American named Daniel Kinno. The three have been swapping jokes, and arguing about which jokes travel and which ones are lost in translation.

A few minutes later Fuzz returns and tells a Peter-Pan-tries-to-pick-up-women gag he’s been testing on people in the room. “Do you think it’s funny, Daniel?”

“That joke won’t travel,” Kinno says bluntly. He goes on to recall making a crack about Fenway Park in a Los Angeles club once, and how it landed with a thud. It was then he learned to remove local color from far-flung gigs.

All three are familiar with the challenges of global audiences. Fuzz plays off his multiculturalism—he speaks Malay, English and Mandarin—while Kinno brings an unabashedly American perspective. Harris’ potty humor seems to have the widest appeal. His jokes, at least, get the big laughs. A dirty joke ending with Harris barking like a chimpanzee, in particular, is a cross-cultural knee-slapper.

After the show, the comedians mix it up with the crowd. A burly Scottish guy who’d sat in stony silence as Kinno ribbed him during his set comes over smiling, thanking him for the performance. In a couple of days, the American will be in Kuala Lumpur, where the shtick might not go down quite so well, but Kinno doesn’t seem overly concerned.

“It’s a charmed way to see the world,” he says.

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