100 Hours of Humo(u)r – Hour 97: Comedic Heroes
Mandalay’s Moustache Brothers
By Dave Fox
Mandalay Burma (Myanmar)
“Hero” is one of my least favorite words for the simple reason that it gets bandied about so cheaply. People talk about “football heroes,” for example. You can run around a field with a ball? How very heroic.
Or plane crash survivors. Sometimes they get called “heroes,” when all they did was sit in their seat and (I’m guessing) freak out in ways I could never conceive of. Not to trivialize or sound cold-hearted toward people who live through such a tragedy, but there’s a big difference between bravery and heroism. I’ve had to do brave things in my life but I can’t think of anything I’d call “heroic.”
So I don’t use the term “comedic heroes” lightly. I’m not talking about Dave Barry or John Stewart. But last October, Burma, I met some true comedic heroes.
They call themselves the Moustache Brothers, though one of them is actually a cousin. At their home in Mandalay, 365 evenings a year, these three men in their 60s perform shows for tourists that, on the surface, seem like an amateurish mix of slapstick and Burmese-style Vaudeville.
But there’s more to it than that. In a country that until last year languished under one of the most oppressive military dictatorships on the planet, these men risked their lives to perform political satire. After one performance at a rally for pro-Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, two of them were arrested and sent to a brutal labor camp near the Chinese border where they spent unfathomable hours breaking rocks with sledgehammers – every day for six years – because they told jokes about their government.
They perform today under a sort of house arrest, said Lu Maw, the one English speaker among them. He explained to me that in Burma, even with its evolving reputation for having allowed democracy to take shape, they cannot do shows outside their house because Burmese law requires a permit for all public performances and government routinely refuses their permit requests. So they host shows for tourists each night in their basement, performing folk dances as well as telling well-rehearsed political jokes.
“While you’re in Burma, don’t steal anything, Lu Maw quipped during their show. “The government doesn’t like competition.”
And he told me while their house is constantly under police scrutiny, they will not stop performing. They have harnessed comedy as a powerful weapon, and, he said, as long as the outside world is keeping them in view, they don’t fear government reprisals. He was also quick to point out, however, shortly after a well-publicized release of more than a thousand political prisoners, that 500 Burmese citizens are still serving time in hard labor camps for speaking against the government. They are using their comedy to keep shining a spotlight on a system they insist is still cruel and corrupt.
Halfway through the 97th of these 100 Hours of Humo(u)r, I don’t have time right now to tell the full story of the Moustache Brothers. But as this entire weird event has been about learning about humor, reading humor, writing humor, and laughter, I thought the Moustache Brothers deserved a mention. They are comedians in ways most of us could never imagine. And their comedy is heroic.
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