We are off and running in 2013 as Stand-Up For Kids is now in Thailand. Yes, that’s right! I am in Southeast Asia, one of the most enchanting, interesting parts of the world. I’ve come to know quite a bit about Thai culture, traditions, etc. and I have done my fair share of traveling around the “Land of Smiles”. The Thai people have a very lovely disposition. It seems that no matter what part of the country you visit, Thai people make eye contact with you and smile:) It’s rather comforting, if not perplexing, to see an entire nation of people who subscribe to this philosophy that every person with whom they come into contact deserves to see them smile and that every unsuspecting stranger should humbly smile in return. What makes it even more remarkable is that most of the Thai population has a standard of living that is far lower than what we experience in the U.S., yet the street cleaners, day laborers, people pushing rackety food carts, and just about every person you encounter, offers you a smile:)
Thais also love to laugh and get silly. Of course, this is perfectly suited for my personality because my mission in life is to bring laughter and smiles to everyone. After my first trip to Thailand about five years ago, I decided to teach myself to speak Thai so that I could communicate with the locals on subsequent trips, not to mention that I really enjoy learning another language and I thought that it would be fascinating to take up the challenge of learning something with which previously I was completely unfamiliar.
So my language prowess has allowed me to perform in Thailand on many occasions. I’m quite skilled in speaking Thai, and although I am not fluent, I can certainly hold my own. While Central Thai is taught in schools nationwide, about one third of the country’s population lives in the region referred to as Isaan; Generally speaking, Isaan is farmland, rice fields, etc. and the people there live in villages that seem like a trip back in time or something inside of a National Geographic magazine. People in Isaan also speak the Isaan language, which is extremely similar to Laos, the language of the neighboring country, Laos. Needless to say, last weekend when I was cordially invited to visit my friend Keng’s village in Mahasarakham Province in Thailand, I knew that I had my work cut out for me because the village residents normally speak Isaan; While they also speak Thai, I knew that the slang, colloquial language, and idiomatic expressions in Thai that I’m still not familiar with would make things a little more difficult to communicate.
From the moment we arrived at the market at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, the Isaan people stared at me in amazement because it is very unusual to see an American, or any other “farang” (the term that Thai people use to refer to foreigners) at the market, especially at the crack of dawn. But once I started speaking Thai with the people, it became instantly evident that laughter is universal in any language. Keng and some of her family members and I paced up and down the market aisles, talking and laughing with the vendors and buying insane amounts of exotic Thai fruits, vegetables, fish, and other locally grown products.
Once we returned to the village, the game was on……..Driving down the dirt road that served as the main artery in Keng’s family’s section of the village, scores of children noticed me and began gravitating to Keng’s childhood home. Only one foreigner lives in their village, so my arrival most certainly set off a frenzy of curiosity and excitement. Thai people are naturally very shy, but once you break down that barrier, you’ll find them to be the most engaging, polite, and friendliest people on the face of the planet. So the moment that I began saying hello to the elementary school aged children, I was not surprised that they were afraid to speak to me. Of course, once I turned on the charm and began speaking Thai and making some of the children laugh, the others began slowly gravitating closer and closer to the “performance area”, which at that time was the large area on the side of Keng’s house where everyone assembled to eat the massive amount of food that her family prepared. As a side not, Thai people are obsessed with eating, but I’ll save that topic for another time;)
Soon after I broke into some improvisational English games that included my usual silly antics, the children were fully engaged and asking for more. The intoxicating sound of their innocent laughter fueled me to continue uninterrupted for nearly two hours, until it was time to eat. Following a wonderful meal, I helped several ladies wash dishes in the plastic containers that were situated in the grass near the dining area. I asked the children if they could help transport the dozens upon dozens of dishes to the storage area and they were more than willing to help. Little did they know that once we finished, I would offer to buy them the ice cream of their store at a family owned village “shop” down the main dirt road. As I teach in my show, one must do good things and demonstrate solid character in order to live a fulfilling life. If only you could have seen the caravan of children following me to that shop in anticipation of a delicious dessert that served as a reward for their good deeds. It was truly a priceless scene!
The adults in the village were truly appreciative that I spent most of my time entertaining the children; At one point, during a ceremony that was taking place in the house, the children and I walked through the village to the nearby Buddhist temple, where they took me inside and paid their respects to the giant Buddha statue. The fifteen or twenty kids clung to me as if they were laying claim to their prized possession who had magically appeared in their village that day. We stopped at house after house and I would continue with my antics, much to the delight of the lovely children AND the unsuspecting villagers who were more than happy to see me drop by just to say hello and exchange pleasantries. As the weekend went on, I was continuously reminded of how lucky I am to have a special gift to bring laughter to people everywhere I go. It doesn’t matter where you are, what language you are speaking, whether people are rich or poor, white, black, or any other color for that matter, laughter is truly universal. The poor children of the village that I visited last weekend were begging me to come back at my earliest opportunity. In fact, it was so cute when one little girl asked me if I wanted to marry her older sister and teach English at the local elementary school! I respectfully declined the marriage offer, but I promised the children that I would return again. On Sunday night, as Keng and her two nieces and I were packing the car with our belongings, the children and adults took their turns hugging me and sending all of us on our way back to Bangkok (a six hour drive). As I got into the car, I heard one of the little children say, “We love him.” The truth is that I love them too:) Stand-Up For Kids rolls on…….
I was performing at a school last month and suddenly, I broke into an improvisational routine about runway models and Barbie. Over the years, I have often done this on stage, both during my kids show and my adult show. I love to perform my classic routines, but I also enjoy the freedom that I have on stage that allows me to do “stream of consciousness” stand-up. It brings out so much of my energy and inner thoughts and it is so wonderful for the creative process. In fact, many of the funny, insane thoughts that I have on a daily basis swirl around in my head and I subconsciously write routines on a daily basis. The moment of truth arrives when something bothers me enough to the point that I have to “unleash” it on stage and usually those moments are purely magical. They are unadulterated, uninhibited, and very much like a train running off the tracks. Those stretches on stage are high-powered, electrifying, and without any kind of comedic boundaries in the sense that, unlike tried and tested comedy routines, there is not a planned beginning, middle, and end. The routine has been written in my head and now it is simply my vocal cords and physicality that take over. So, enjoy this brief glimpse into my heart, mind, and comedy soul. The children sure did! Bye for now…….:)
So Stand-Up For Kids performed at five South Florida schools this week (Egret Lake Elem., Stephen Foster, Coconut Creek, Pembroke Pines Charter Central Campus, and Belvedere Elem.) as part of the 21 schools tour for October and November. What an amazing week of terrific shows, smiling faces, and great memories as I continued to visit schools that have never seen the show, one in which a former bully acknowledged that he was changing his ways, and a campus where a little boy stood frozen as he saw me enter the cafeteria in advance of setting up for the day’s special event.
No matter how many times I show up at a school where I’ve never performed, it never ceases to amaze me how curious the children are to know what they are about to see and who I am. It’s just so funny to hear their questions as I am hauling my sound equipment and things into the cafeteria. “Are you a magician? Do you like pizza? Why do you have such curly hair?” hahaha……..I always have such great banter with these kids, partly because it’s my nature to never pass up an opportunity to inject my silliness into a conversation with a child and also because it’s just so much fun to hear brutal honesty from children.
Sometimes their honesty makes me laugh and other times it leads me to believe that the message that I am conveying to them in my show is really resonating in their minds. As I walked into a school this week for a performance, a group of kids were walking into the cafeteria and upon noticing me, one of them stopped suddenly, looked over at me, and said to his classmates, “Hey, I remember him. This guy is hysterical!” As a comedian, there is nothing more comforting than knowing that you are “pre-sold” to your audience. Needless to say, those kids were ready to laugh before I even broke into one of my high-energy stand-up routines. Of course, as often as I hear kids say such heartwarming things like this, it’ll never get old to me. The fact is that everyone likes compliments:)
But the comment from this week’s shows that still sticks out in my mind came from a boy named Caleb. After asking the audience for a volunteer, I randomly chose him from the audience. He definitely held his own in the wake up of the comedy frenzy that I directed his way, everything from improvised comments (honed and perfected from years of stand-up in clubs, colleges, theaters and every type of venue imaginable) to kid-like gestures and movements that I employ to raise the hysteria, all the while weaving my life skills concepts in and out of the insanity. Caleb had such a great time joining me onstage that after the show, he made sure to be the first one in line for an autograph, as well as to suggest that I should come to perform at his church!
As I continued to sign for scores of kids and converse with others while my hand scribbled my namesake across tiny bits of paper, on the backs of notebooks, and on grammar homework worksheets, Caleb made sure to tell me something that will forever leave a lasting impression on that day for me. He said, “Mr. L., I used to be a bully.” Now, my show’s focus is on life skills, character, and being a successful loving person in life and I really believe that a positive approach to teaching kids about self success is paramount, but upon hearing his comment, I simply replied, “What happened?” He went on……..”I decided to change.” I said, “That’s good, Caleb. I’m proud of you. Please remember everything that I talked about today.” “You really should come to my perform at my church”, he pleaded. “I know that they will love your show.”
Finally, it was time for him to go back to class so I bid him farewell and jotted down my blog address for him again because he said that he needed it for a friend. I told him that I was going to write on my blog about my performance at his school and he excitedly asked if it would be posted tomorrow. I promised him that I would mention him on my blog and his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree! At that moment, I noticed another class of children filing out of the cafeteria and one of the kids said to his teacher, “Can you bring this guy back next year? He is hysterical!” And the beat goes on……………:)