With a toothbrush microphone and an audience of heckling junk mail, the new Portland short film Crouching Comic peeks at the earliest stages of a comedian’s creative process.
The film stars Portland standup comedian Katie Nguyen (winner of Willamette Week’s 2021 Funniest Five Poll) as Leila, a fledgling standup who’s writing and rehearsing her new material on Asian fetishization, bullies turned foodies, and the impasses between the dreams of immigrant parents and those of their children.
Crouching Comic premieres in Portland on April 1 at a one-night festival very much in the spirit of the film: CINE / SEEN, which will showcase six Pacific Northwest-made films from underrepresented filmmakers, plus live standup by Nguyen and Shain Brenden at the Hollywood Theatre.
The event is co-organized by Crouching Comic director and co-writer Alberta Poon, a Portland film and music veteran who met her co-writer and star Nguyen some 10 years ago at a warehouse arts event Poon likens to a more DIY version of CINE / SEEN.
After collaborating previously on one of Poon’s student films, she and Nguyen conceived Crouching Comic to illustrate and lightly surrealize how an Asian American woman navigates the “white man’s world” of standup comedy.
“You have to balance perfectly that this [film] is set in reality, but the places we go are highlighting how ridiculous sometimes our lives can be as Asian American women,” says Poon, known to many in the Portland arts scene for her comedic web series Scorpiono and her bands Wet Confetti and Reporter.
Bringing to life Leila’s ricocheting mindset in Crouching Comic, Poon aimed to squeeze out every ounce of possible production value from a three-room setting. The film plays with invisible crowd noise, extrapolates a rock instrumental out of a Zojirushi rice cooker’s “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” beeper and pulls off a particularly involved whip pan that suddenly sees Leila’s bathroom lit like a comedy club.
That shot, executed practically, required 14 takes. “That was really fun, even though it was a nightmare to get,” Poon says.
On a narrative level, Crouching Comic reveals the gauntlet that Leila must go through just to get out the door to her open mic. First, she weaves a few traumatic stories (featuring creepy ex-boyfriends and schoolmates mocking her Vietnamese lunches) into standup material. Then, her mother calls with the usual hassles: When will Mom be a grandparent, why is Leila wasting her time on comedy?
“I think the mom part of the story is a highlight,” Poon says. “We’re both daughters of immigrant Asian women. So there were things where [Katie] was like, ‘My mom wouldn’t say that.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, my mom would.’”
There’s a genuine sting in Leila’s phone call with her mother (who is animated as a talking photograph), but it’s also fuel that helps her battle her next round of doubters. Those include a marketing mailer stuck to her fridge featuring a smirking dude interrupting to ask why Leila is rehearsing all this “not relatable” material.
“The heckling is a combination of comments said to Katie and I in real life by men,” Poon says. “Those comments invade your psyche and become part of when you doubt yourself. Maybe no one said it to you in three weeks, but it’s your demons thinking back on those unsolicited comments.”
Without spoiling the film’s climax, let’s just say Leila’s paper skeptics prompt her to rethink her inner circle—real or imagined. That theme harmonizes well with Poon’s decision to recruit an entirely Asian American crew for Crouching Comic, which she says started as a “wild idea” and turned into a “magical experience.”
Assembling a communal film production by artists of color is in keeping with the CINE / SEEN programming, which will also feature the premiere of Portland filmmaker Ali Godil’s short film American-istan, plus recent work by Shariffa Ali, Joe Bowden, Ashley Song, Evan Benally Atwood and Robin Vada Song.
“It did sometimes make things harder,” Poon says of putting together the Asian American crew. “Some of the people were not as experienced as if I just hired someone I knew. But I think it was worth it, because it was truly an unprecedented Portland crew. We didn’t do it to brag about; we did it for us.”
SEE IT: Crouching Comic screens at CINE / SEEN at the Hollywood Theatre. 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-493-1128, hollywoodtheatre.org. 7:30 pm Friday, April 1. $10.