Speaking with a Techno-Geek Comedian:
Jason Chong and Reel Life

Posted on 21 March 2011

Jason Chong has been doing standup since 2001. He has radio announced for Nova and been a reporter for The 7pm Project. Jason is also a film-editor and techno-geek. Ah, I love the geeks.

Since we came to know one another in Adelaide, I get to pretend we are at one of my favourite cafes there, The Chocolate Bean. It’s a stylish two storey establishment with wood finishes and large elegantly framed mirrors.

I’m having the cherry chocolate tea. What will you be drinking?

Jason: I love chilli, and I always order the chilli chocolate latte they have there… and always regret it. Two of my favourite things, but they just don’t go together. Much like my two loves of walking around home in the nude and entertaining friends.

This year for the Melbourne Comedy Festival you’re doing a multimedia show called Reel Life. In this show a story unfolds on your computer screen, and you interact with characters and events while throwing out the jokes. How is it for you balancing story, jokes, and screen action for a live audience?

Jason: It’s been a lot of fun. To get the show together, I basically lived in an abandoned church for about 3 months. I shot all the green-screen stuff, edited it without the main actor and audience reactions, then rehearsed it, and by the first performance, I was so exhausted that there was no way I could go back and tweak anything. And while you might think that means the show can’t change at all, because the crowd laugh at different lengths each night, I have to improvise over the gaps. So I’m always doing a balancing act. I did a version of the show in the Adelaide Fringe last year, and it was heaps of fun. Luckily I’ve now had some time to re-shoot and re-edit some stuff before the Melbourne Comedy Festival with the help of Jeff Green, so I’m really looking forward to this new version.

Of course your show title gives away a deep love of cinema. The film industry sometimes forgets that simply having a good director and a good editor is not sufficient to make a good comedy. You need people who specialise in that field and understand timing. You have an excellent sense of timing, but I’m wondering how many times you re-edited the screen section of your show due to direct interaction with your audience.

Jason: While it’s true that having a good team is imperative to making good comedy, the responsibility for comic timing begins with the director and ends with the editor. The best comedies are made with a single vision, and while they couldn’t get made without a team, that team has to serve that one vision. There’s nothing worse than comedy by committee. And with that rant out of the way, I’ll answer your question. I was pretty lucky to get the timing in the ballpark the first time. When I first started stand up, I also started doing radio, and produced a lot of audio sketches. Then I went to film school and became a video editor, so I’ve learnt good timing. It took me a few shows to get things right. The stage was a little too small for my 3 metre screen, so I had to do some Matrix-style mid-air turns to get around it. On my opening night, I pushed a light stand and watched in horror as it slowly fell into the crowd. I used all my strength to pull it back up. I almost killed a Fringe Awards judge. I also kicked the entire screen into the audience. Luckily, I caught it, and asked my dad to help me put it back up. He didn’t. He thought it was all part of the show.

For Adelaide Fringe you hosted a live streaming vodcast called Festival Fishbowl. Who thought of it? How did you swing Internode support for this? How do you think it went? Would you like to do more? Do you think there’s a future in this?

Jason: Hold on there, one at a time! Festival Fishbowl was my idea, it was the natural extension of an audio podcast I did a few years ago for the Adelaide comedy scene. I brought my mate Maz on board, who I went to film school with. He’s great with the design and technology. I knew he’d be perfect for that John Blackman-style voice of God when we needed it. Internode are a sponsor of the Fringe, and I literally rang them up and explained the idea. They put me through to the appropriate person, and in a few days they’d send me a modem and a bucketload of bandwidth. They were awesome about it. They just got behind the idea and let me do what wanted, and I can’t thank them enough. Now that it’s all over, I think it went well, considering it was just me and a mate who decided to put on a chat show. Improvements would be the camera quality. We started using pro cameras, but the computer couldn’t handle it. So we downgraded to webcams, and the show suffered because of it. It would also have been great to get a producer involved—I spent a lot of time doing the admin stuff, so didn’t have as much time on the creative stuff as I would have liked. But the positives —it was another outlet for artists to spread the word about their shows, it got good viewing numbers (about 50 000 viewer minutes over the Fringe), I think we proved that you can put on your own “TV” show for almost no money, and at the end I’m 20 hours more experienced at hosting and producing a TV show. I would like to do more, perhaps turning it into a live show or something. There is a future in web TV. I don’t think it’s going to kill TV anytime soon. But it’s a place for people to learn skills, develop ideas and build an audience while they wait for their big break.

I know you love hacking technology. One of my favourite sketches is where you’ve pimped an Optimus Prime mask. Where would you like to take your skills in comedy and technology? Animatronic standup? Something like Waldo C. Image from The Jim Henson Hour? Avatar 3: The Blue Jokes?

Jason: I’ve always been a curious guy. Mucking around with ideas and toys has lead to what I call my “party tricks”. I often wonder where my next party trick will come from, and it’s pretty frustrating, because they don’t come at regular intervals. But I’ve realised that they come from something I’m passionate about. The next one may not be for the stage, it might be an idea for a web series or some sort of motion capture puppet show or anything. I like the performing and I like the behind the scenes stuff of film-making. The reason these ideas form is that I can’t figure out which one I should concentrate on.

Adelaide is one of the finest incubators for comedians. Recently, that city has experienced an explosion of comedy venues, and Adelaide Fringe is gaining more respect. Even so, I get the feeling people still need to move onto Melbourne or Sydney, or at least do some touring, in order to make comedy a living. Are you feeling the need to move on?

Jason: Yes and no. I love the Adelaide scene, it’s a positive and nurturing environment where everyone gets along—and there’s something to be said for being a big fish in a small pond. Most full-time comics around the country have to travel to get enough gigs, unless they have a steady media job. So while I’m doing that, I choose to stay in Adelaide with all my friends and family. Having said that, I would like some sort of media career, and to do that I’ll need to get known in the eastern states where all the media is made. I’ve been touring heavily for the past year with Il Dago, and have dates with them till July, but while it’s a show that everyone can enjoy, and it’s been great to constantly be coming to Melbourne and Sydney, I think it’s probably largely ignored by the mainstream. In the second half of this year, I’m planning on spending a few months in the east just to see what happens.

Are you thinking about doing Edinburgh Fringe?

Jason: I did Edinburgh last year, and while it was fantastic, I simply can’t afford to do it again this year. I knew it would be ridiculously expensive, but I paid for the venue, flights and accommodation up front, living expenses (and an engagement ring) during August, and I thought that meant at least I’d get my ticket sales at the end to help reduce the money I would lose. But somehow that got sucked away, and I never saw any of it. Also, I really do believe that my career is here in Australia, as opposed to in the UK, so I’m not sure what the point of going back would be at this stage. Come August, I’m really going to wish I was there, but maybe I’ll be able to buy myself a big TV to take my mind off it.

When, where, and how can people see your show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival?

Jason: It’s called Reel Life, and I believe you’ll have never seen a show quite like it. It’s on at Town Hall in the Backstage Room, 6pm Tues – Sat, 5pm Sun and on Mondays it’s 7:15 in the Cloak Room. You can purchase tickets at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Web site.

This is where I would like you to put your thinking cap on. Which would you rather be: a Dalek or a piece of cake and why?

Jason: I immediately thought a piece of cake, because I like cake, and never really got into Dr Who. But then if I was a piece of cake, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy eating cake anymore, and there isn’t anyone who doesn’t like Dr Who more than a Dalek, so I’m going to have to say Dalek.

Rock on geek man extraordinaire! Have a great time at this year’s festival.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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