With more international acts and a diverse array of gigs, the country’s growing comedy scene is no joke. Amateur stand-up comedian and English teacher Sam Thomas discusses the art of funny. Writing by Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

How did stand-up start here?
We got started in 2013, when professional comedian Aidan Killian [hosted] one of [his] comedy workshops in Phnom Penh. A bunch of us worked on jokes for an entire weekend, then performed for mostly friends. For a long time there was stand-up comedy happening [in country], but it was only international professional comedians brought in. Once we established we were pretty funny, we started opening for the international acts.

[The scene] is on the upswing – the Verbal High comedy showcase is each month; we’ve got a regular open mic at Top Banana, another at Sundance. We work really hard, and we’re very serious-minded. Nobody is doing comedy to get laid. We’re all thinking of it as, this is where I’m going to get my comedy education. Part of building a scene is just waiting for word to get out. People have to learn it’s not cringe-worthy amateur stand-up. You can be funny without being a pro.

What does it take to be a stand-up comedian?
I subscribe to the belief that every human has at least five minutes of stand-up inside them. I don’t think we’re an anointed group of God’s chosen funny people. Everyone has [that] capacity. What it takes is you have to put up with some embarrassment, because stand-up comedy is like a friend audition. If you do well, you’re a hero. Everybody shakes your hand; people want to buy you drinks. But if you fail, people will shun you. They’ll pretend not to recognise you from when you were on stage because it’s just simpler that way. So you have to put up with that terrifying result. I don’t think I ever would’ve started if someone would’ve sat me down and said, “Listen, this is what’s at stake here”.

How do you come up with sets?
It’s often just funny things I’ve said to people, or stuff that’s happened in class. I try not to tell too many of those though, because to make your students laugh you only have to suck less than school. It’s a very low bar. I’ve been doing stand-up longer than I’ve been teaching, so I knew I was funny before I got a classroom of bored Khmer students who’ve never seen a white man with long hair.

What’s one of your recent jokes?
So I was at the bar the other day. I left my backpack at the bar so I could go for a swim. And one of my buddies was like, “Oh shit, Sam, I think somebody’s been through your bag; somebody’s been rifling in there.” And I said, “Ah man, that’s okay, the most valuable thing in there is my jokes.” I was so offended that they left my jokes, and they stole my laptop. This joke was in there; that’s how valuable they are. Good luck getting free beers just for having a laptop.

Is stand-up easier or harder in a small city?
What makes it easier is people get to a point where they recognise you, so they trust you more when you take that stage. They’ve already decided you’re funny, so they’re going to give you more leeway. What makes it harder is you have to write a lot. You can’t repeat a set from one month to the next because everybody will be like, “Uh, this again?” We need to switch out jokes, so it is a lot of work. But as a result, all of us have [a] big catalogue.

Is censorship an issue here?
Other scenes have rules. In Saigon, they ask comedians not to use certain slurs [or jokes] about the war, the government. We’re fortunate enough that we don’t really have to have that conversation. We’ve said some awful things on stage about awfully important people. My understanding is in China they’ll send government people to your show who will write down any seditious things you say and get you in trouble. If the government would send somebody to our shows, that would actually be great, because then we’d always know there’s one Cambodian guy in the audience.

Tell me about the recent Stand Up Bangkok comedy competition, and your upcoming tour.
The competition was a really cool networking opportunity. The first night I was the top-scoring finalist, so I felt really validated by that experience. I had been shitting my pants watching these guys, being like, oh my gosh, they come from a scene where they can do eight shows a week at nice places, and here I am from Cambodia, where I just go around ruining music nights. But it felt like, okay, I can hang here, and what I’m getting out of this scene is good stuff. [For the tour,] Aidan Killian is coming out. We’re going to do shows [in] Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam. He’s going to do Phnom Penh Apr. 1, to kick it off. I’m looking forward to it.

What are you hoping will come out of comedy here?
For me, I would love to go pro. Comedy is a great way to see the world. For Phnom Penh’s scene, I’m hoping we get a comedy room here, so we always have a perfect venue that will attract more headliners. And I’d like to see more different types of humans getting involved. Like I said, everybody’s got five minutes inside them. So the line-up should reflect that.