Last week, we caught up with Suren Jayemanne, an up-and-coming comedian from Melbourne. He has been a practising comedian for the last four years, and has participated in major events such as the Melbourne Festival’s Comedy Zone. He now lives in Sydney, where he recently participated in the Sydney Comedy Festival to sold-out shows.
Critics have raved about his work, with The Weekly Review describing him as ‘a purveyor of truly magnificent puns’. SBS have also said that ‘He’s charming and engaging, carefully blending the topical with the ridiculous.’ Unlike other comedians, Suren has a unique perspective on multiculturalism and racism, having grown up in Melbourne but with Sri Lankan and Malaysian parents – he brings to light his experiences in his comedy, using humour to convey powerful insights into the nature of his experience.
Check out our interview with Suren Jayemanne below:
Or, if you’re having trouble hearing the audio, you can read a copy of our interview with Suren Jayemanne. For more information about Suren, and to keep up with his latest news, follow him on Twitter at @ or subscribe to his Facebook page.
All Together Now: Thank you for speaking with me Suren. So, the first question I have is how did you come to be a comedian?
Suren Jayemanne: I guess it kind of started by watching a lot of comedy. I used to watch the big Melbourne comedy festival galas on TV every year and from that, I went to go see shows at the festivals when I learned that there was more than just the gala and then I eventually kind of decided… like, I’d look around the room and see everyone laughing and I was like ‘Oh I want to try and do that’… And then I tried and now it’s been four years and yeah it’s been fun.
All Together Now: And in what ways do you think your work brings a new dimension to Australia’s comedy scene?
Suren Jayemanne: It’s pretty interesting I think because (pause) as I’ve said I’ve been doing it for about four years, I started out just doing jokes that came to me that I found funny, it’s a lot of wordplay, a lot of shorter jokes and now that I’ve got a little bit more experience, like I’ve still got a long way to go I guess, but I’m starting to feel a lot more confident on stage and I’m starting to talk more about sort of personal things, the way I see the world in light of my cultural background and how that kind of fits in with growing up in Australia so I think… The dimension that I have that is a little bit different is… You know, having been born in Australia but with a multicultural background, my parents are from Malaysia and Sri Lanka but I grew up in a time when there weren’t many Sri Lankan kids in the suburb that I grew up in, there weren’t a lot of Indian students starting to come to Australia yet. I was almost raised as just another white kid. There’s a lot of comedians that grew up in a community and they talk about their ethnic background, their role in the community whereas there’s a few people with a similar voice to me but I think its interesting the perspective of kind of growing up almost in between two cultures and wanting to find out more about both cultures… if that makes sense.
All Together Now: No, that’s amazing! How do you think comedy can be used as a tool for social change, changing people’s perspectives?
Suren Jayemanne: I sort of go back and forth on this issue a bit. Sometimes I get really inspired and feel that comedy is a really powerful tool in, at the very least, bringing to the fore issues and making people aware of issues. And then sometimes I go back and think ‘Oh no, at the end of the day it should just be entertainment, just trying to make people laugh.’ I think realistically, it probably sits somewhere in between, like the best comedians are the people that, for them, it’s not too serious, it’s kind of lighthearted but they do make you think. I think race and gender issues, those types of things, comedians have the ability to… they’re not being checked or censored by any… they don’t have to worry about who they’re working for, they’re working for themselves so they don’t have to be accountable – although to some extent there is accountability. For example, you’ve come to interview me at my work, my day job is as an accountant so there’s lots of disclaimers in this conversation so I’m very measured. If you had come to talk to me after a gig I might have been in my comedy mindset and told you a different answer. But I think comedy shouldn’t take itself too seriously and if it can laugh at itself, it can also be quite powerful in at least bringing issues to the fore.
All Together Now caught up, in an interview, with Jen Carnovale ahead of her appearance at the organisation’s 5th Anniversary event to let us know the background to her comedy work and why she is able to discuss topics like racism in a funny, receptive and easy manner with her audience.
Who is Jen Carnovale?
Interview transcript is available here.
All Together Now: Jen, you’re a comedian and you are going to be working with All Together Now on our Firth Year Anniversary [event], so we would just like to discuss with you a bit about why you wanted to be involved in the anniversary celebrations?
Jen: Well Jennifer Wong originally told me about it all and I think it is important. I like to talk about things on stage with comedy that I think need to be discussed and aren’t, and sometimes people joke off and pretend that they don’t–that they aren’t problems.
But obviously racism in Australia is [a problem] and it is nice to sort of bring it to the forefront and to be part of it. I think it is important to be part of it, you know? It is easy to sit quietly and be like ‘Well I don’t think racism is good’ and all those types of things. But, unless you are actually doing something sometimes it is kind of pointless.
All Together Now: How do you then incorporate racism into your comedic acts or other taboo issues?
Jen: I like to talk about stuff people won’t talk about and so, I talk about things that have happened to me personally or my family and I just discuss it in a normal way like how we are talking now. I don’t like making them a big deal on stage because that doesn’t help to open the conversation up. So, I like to talk about bigger topics the same way I talk about going for coffee, cause then it is just speaking about it in an effortless way. That’s kind of how it should be brought up I think.
All Together Now: So, people are more receptive to the discussion then if you were, like, yelling or talking at them?
Jen: Yeah, I don’t like to scream it at people because I think, I mean what’s the point? Because if you are being that aggressive people who don’t agree with you are going to switch off to the conversation. So, if you just talk about it in a relaxed way at least it might trigger something in someone’s brain or they might talk about it with someone else or it just kind of puts it on the table as a conversation that should be had.
All Together Now: So, how have you personally dealt with incidents of racism in your life?
Jen: Well, we were talking about this before, I look white. I am white. I have European parents. They are from Hungary and Italy. They both came to Australia on boats when they were younger. And in High School one of my them very close male friends didn’t know that and I didn’t think it was a big deal…It came up one day because someone made a racist comment about someone else coming on a boat.
I said, “Oh, both my parents actually same here on boats you know?” And he found that at and he literally stopped speaking to me. And it wasn’t even casual jokey racism where you may question like ‘Oh he’s being silly and trying to tease me and it’s kind of hurting.’ No—it was…blatant! He was just like, “Oh my god! You are gross! I had no idea you were one of those people.” I was so young I didn’t know what to do with it.
All Together Now: It’s the shock.
Jen: Yeah! Cause I was like ‘If I’m getting this, looking how I look from someone who I considered quite a good friend…then what the hell is everyone else getting?’ Do you know what I mean?
All Together Now: Yeah, yeah.
All Together Now: It was weird. He’s a moron and obviously hated himself a lot but yeah I just didn’t know what to do with it. It was the weirdest—it was really odd.
All Together Now: It is very unusual when someone is so open and blatant about it.
Jen: Yeah, that’s what’s so shocking!
All Together Now: [It’s like] ‘What? I can’t believe this is happening?!”
Jen: In the beginning, [I was thinking] ‘Oh, it’s just a weird joke that he’s not letting go of?’ The logical part of your brain would be: Why would someone’s opinion of you do a 360 purely because something that doesn’t really matter to me? But then you realise: Oh it matters to them, in a really strange way that I don’t get in any way.
I just didn’t know what to do with it as a young person. It was just gross.
All Together Now: Obviously, how important do you think to the Australian society is to to have an open conversation on racism and how it is effecting us?
Jen: Very very important. ‘Cause Australians, like, mask it in other things. They try and mask it in humor and they try and–
There’s loads of, like, casual racism that happens. I mean I worked with a girl the other day who made some comment about Asian people. Like, and I was sort of stumped; like are you serious?
‘Cause it’s so common that people just say things that are inappropriate. So, unless you call them on it they don’t even notice. (yeah) And when I did, cause I was sort of quite shocked; are you seriously saying that to me? And then, I thought about it: ‘Even if she was jocking it is still doesn’t make it okay. It’s still totally messed up.’ You know what I mean?
All Together Now: Yeah, of course.
Jen: But, because we are so attuned to, like, ‘Well they’re just kidding when they say something completely horrible’ it sort of justifies it in some weird way. Which it doesn’t.
I think there needs to be, like, a shift in the mentality towards it…because you never know who’s around you never know…it’s, I mean, for the main reason that it’s completely wrong. But then–
One of the girls I work with, um, her mum’s from Malaysia [and] her dad is German. Looking at her you wouldn’t know her mum is from Malaysia. And we work in a place–er, at the airport, so loads of people come through. And you wouldn’t believe the amount of comments she gets that are racist towards just Asia, again, just the whole place.
And she just stands there gob smacked; just like, you know?
And it’s just done so casually. Cause they’re like, ‘Oh it’s harmless because it’s just between you and me, and you’re not Asian. So, who cares?’ It’s like, well not really! You know?
All Together Now: Yeah! Thanks very much for your time Jen and we look forward to seeing you at the Fifth [Year] Anniversary [event].
Jen: Thank you for having me.
Want to listen to the audio? You can do so here.