The stand-up comics featured in the first season of ImaginAsian's new comedy showcase "Comedy Zen" aren't necessarily bad, but they are all, for the most part, uninteresting. Some of them are up-and-comers, young comics who haven't yet found their voice, or aren't yet entirely comfortable working the crowd, or are still fine-tuning their material; the rest are experienced but uninspired club regulars who have found a comfort zone working mediocre, predictable material.
"Comedy Zen" aims to be the ImaginAsian TV cable network's version of BET's "Comic View" - a celebration of minority voices in stand-up . As you can likely guess, "Comedy Zen" focuses on Asian comics, although the occasional outsider slips in to help pad the evening.
The problem here, however, is that every comic seems obliged to make race the key focus of their act, but none of them seem able (or just willing?) to go beyond the conventional commentary. Which leads to redundancy: there are only so many "people sure think we can't drive" jokes one can hear without growing bored. When the comics aim at seriousness, they never go beyond a safe zone of applause-bait moralizing.
Where's the bite? I don't mind a comic using his/her heritage as the basis for an entire set (it can sometimes lead to greatness, when done with enough intelligence and boldness), but why can't anyone find a new spin on such a topic? Why settle for predictable "small penis" or "good at math" jokes when it would be so much more invigorating to go all-out on such a topic? If you're going to tackle the idea of racism, dive in head first. What's on display here suggests these many of comics have settled for using their racial status as an easy-in with club audiences, and feel like that's enough.
And comics that have settled are comics that stop being interesting. There are a few smiles here, but never any big laughs. The jokes are all the same, and none of them are that funny. Even when the material veers away from ethnic topics, it's all generic "my boyfriend this" and "my family that." Other acts work too hard to pump up the crowd, with little success. (One goes so far as to open by announcing she's been voted a top comic elsewhere - then fails to live up to that promise.) It's a long string of forgettable opening acts; even the occasional headliners, such as Dat Phan or Dr. Ken, wind up delivering overly weak material.
It's terrific to see a community of comics support their own, just as it's terrific to see young comedians given a chance to experience a national audience. What these comics need to do next is grow, take chances, find a voice. "Comedy Zen" promotes itself as groundbreaking. But to reach that point, it must first stop playing it safe.
ImaginAsian collects all six episodes on a single disc simply titled "Comedy Zen: Season 1." The featured comics in each episode are:
Episode 1: Joey Guila (host), Susan Chuang, Marvin Todd.
Episode 2: Joey Guila (host), KT Tatara, Shawn Felipe, Robert Duchaine.
Episode 3: Joey Guila (host), Bernadette Balagtas, PK, Howard Kremer.
Episode 4: Bobby Lee (guest host), Randall Park, Dan Gabriel, Jimmy Dore.
Episode 5: Joey Guila (host), Edwin San Juan, Dat Phan, Tom Rhodes.
Episode 6: Joey Guila (host), Kevin Kataoka, Monique Marvez, Dr. Ken.
Video & Audio
"Comedy Zen" was shot on video and looks and sounds just fine. It's not slick by any means, but for low budget comedy club appeal, there are no problems. After all, you don't need anything fancy with a stand-up show - just point a camera at the stage and make sure the microphone's working. Presented in the original 1.33:1 broadcast format, with a clear Dolby stereo soundtrack. No subtitles are offered.
86 minutes of bonus footage sounds appealing, until you realize it's all outtakes. In other words, material that wasn't deemed good enough to air. I appreciate the effort, but am underwhelmed by the final result. (Worse, a disc glitch leaves you unable to properly navigate the "bonus material" menus. "Play all" was the only option clickable. I couldn't even return to the previous menu.)
Text bios for every featured comic are also included.
The disc starts up by playing a large handful of previews and promos for the ImaginAsian network (you can skip past them; they are also available under the "extras" menu). The promos get ridiculously repetitive in their attempt to hype the ImaginAsian distribution line, the ImaginAsian cable channel, the ImaginAsian Theater in New York, the ImaginAsian Center in L.A., ImaginAsian Radio, and the ImaginAsian website. It's four looooong minutes of self-promotion.
Skip It, unless you enjoy watered-down comedy club-level blandness.