The Moustache Brothers and the Risky Act of Doing Comedy in Burma

What is the deal with international comedy? Join me each week to ask that very question in Comedy Tourism as I explore different trends and traditions of how the rest of the world makes funny in their respective native tongues. Don’t forget your passports! Just kidding, you don’t need your passport. Or do you? (You don’t.)

Bordered by China, Laos, Thailand, India and Bangladesh, Burma (or, according to the ruling military junta, Myanmar) has a rich cultural history, including a longstanding influence of Buddhism. Although human rights are still a major problem, Burmese comedy has managed to survive and in some instances even thrive.

One common joke popular among well-known Burmese comedians concisely illustrates the dilemma faced by performers under an oppressive regime.

A Burmese man visits a dentist in India.The dentist asks him: “Don’t you have dentists in Burma?”“Yes, we do,” the man replies, “but we’re not allowed to open our mouths.”

While this zinger is applicable to any country whose government doesn’t tolerate free speech, it is impressive that this joke and others like it have been commonly told in public throughout Burma. It’s almost as if comedians enter into their careers knowing full well that jail time is part of the job requirement.

In some ways being shut off from the outside world has protected Burmese cultural traditions from an oversaturated marketplace. One beneficiary is the unique comedic performance form known as “anyeint” or “anyeint-pwe.” A piece in the Times attempted to relate the form to the West, describing it as “Myanmar’s traditional vaudeville, featuring puppets, music and slapstick comedy tinged with in-your-face political satire.” Others don’t even attempt to draw a comparison. One article just concludes that “Anyeint is of Myanmar origin which has no counterpart in any other culture.” Alrighty then.

The word “anyeint” means “gentle” and the word “pwe” is Burmese for “entertainment.” Most parties agree “gentle entertainment” involves singing, dancing, a heavy dose of slapstick and puppets. According to a Myanmar culture website, the anyeint performance must contain two elements: a team of dancers and a group of clowns who perform funny banter and slapstick. Usually, there are two women, or Minthamee, who sing and dance throughout the performance. The clowns original purpose was not only to give comic relief but also allow the Minthamee to rest. Their traditional uniform consists of “jackets, large checked waist-garments and wraparound turbans.”

This comedic form has been quite popular in Burma, and there are still active troupes. The form is relatively malleable to the group’s size and sensibilities. While anyeint troupes do not have to be political, most popular ones are.

One of the most popular troupes happens to also be the most accessible to foreigners, though not entirely by choice of the performers. The Moustache Brothers are a group of comedians based in Mandalay known for mixing the classical elements of anyeint with sharp satirical critiques of the Burmese military regime, and of course, great mustaches. Of the three primary members — Par Par Lay, Lu Zaw and Lu Maw — Lay and Zaw have both spent time in prison and labor camps for their comedy as recently as 2007.

Gone are the days of performing from village to village. Gone are times like in 1996 when they performed for an enthusiastic audience, thousands strong, in Yangon. A video tape taken of that performance landed Par Par Lay in a camp for five and a half years. Now, the Moustache Brothers keep the dream alive in their living room and garage. Under house arrest rules, the troupe is allowed only to perform in English and only for foreign tourists.

One such foreign tourist recounted the performance for Suite 101. She describes the stage as no more than a large crate and the technical element as primitive. Lu Maw, the English-speaker of the group, emcees the performance doing some light crowd work through a microphone straight out of the 1960’s.

Here’s an example of dancing during a Moustache Brothers anyeint performance:

Lu Maw’s jokes in English are mostly restricted to pop culture references with which he is familiar, and idiomatic English — “my father died, he kicked the bucket.” Most of the dancers are the wives and family members, and according to the reporter even Lu Maw’s elderly mother gets involved keeping vigil on the front porch for the secret police.

To acquaint yourself better with the guys take a look at an introduction by the three Moustache Brothers from 2009:

For a more comprehensive have a look at the content of their shows, watch this short doc on the Moustache Brothers from 2008. It features subtitled performances and interviews with the Mustache Brothers in their home. For a group of people under house arrest, they have surprising candor about their government and the state of the Burmese people. Despite their political nature, though, the MB troupe also displays an aptitude for physical comedy that at times harkens the Marx Bros.

It might feel odd, even tacky, to seek out a forbidden comedy performance as a privileged Westerner, but the Moustache Brothers adamantly believe that a continuing foreign presence can only help their fight for freedom. Despite their enthusiasm for foreign fans, much like any true comedian, their hearts belong on the road with their fans.

Guilt absolved, when watching videos of the Moustache Brothers on YouTube (and there are many) or reading interviews, it’s still difficult to shake the feeling that any of them could be in jail tomorrow.

In fact, Burma’s most popular comedian is currently in jail and has been since 2008 — simply for criticizing the government’s relief efforts after a devastating cyclone. I would be remiss in writing about Burmese comedy to not mention Zarganar. Google Zarganar and you will find a wealth of information not about his comedy, but of his current persecution in Burmese prison. The man whose stage name means “tweezers” has become the face of human rights in Burma, and Internet overflows with Free Zarganar campaigns.

Zarganar rose to fame on the performance circuit after completing dentistry school, quickly becoming a superstar of anyeint. He founded and led the successful troupe Mya Ponnama Anyein, but found himself in and out of jail since the 1980’s. Two years prior to his latest arrest, he was banned from performing sketches altogether because they were too critical of the military.

However, similar to his peers, arrests and sanctions did not deter his creativity. In 2007 just one year before his arrest, he helped found another anyeint group Thee Lay Thee. They appear to still have an active website, and you can take a look at the artists page to learn more about each comedian, some of whom have taken refuge in Thailand.

Zarganar has also directed and produced many comedic films over the years, but has recently found himself the subject of one in the documentary This Prison Where I Live. The film connects its narrator, a popular German comedian, with the story of his imprisoned “counterpart” Zarganar. The film has yet to receive wide release, but will be making the rounds at film festivals in USA through summer 2011 if you are interested in delving deeper into his story.

For me, anyeint connects as more of a cultural education than a piece of comedy. It’s difficult to understand the humor, as it is equally difficult for me to relate to the political situation under which it is produced. Burma is not so absolutely shut off as its continental neighbor North Korea, but the Burmese people certainly do not enjoy the luxury of access. As I mentioned earlier, on some level it may afford anyeint a protective environment. But given the government’s relentless and unpredictable crackdown on anything resembling free speech, it seems that for once, cultural imperialism from the West does not pose the most imminent threat. And I’m not saying that’s a good thing.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can get involved in the campaign to free Zarganar, here’s Amnesty International UK’s action page.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

The Moustache Brothers and the Risky Act of Doing […]