REVIEW: Ken Cheng – Best Dad Ever

Cheng’s comedy draws humour from the most unexpected places

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“Adding butter makes everything more appealing. Case in point: butternut squash.”

Ken Cheng’s species of comedy is infectious; his deadpan pedantry, delight in language-play, deconstruction of the absurdity of normal situations, and ingenious use of lists and graphs characterise his intelligent, yet broadly appealing, style. So far it’s working for him pretty well: he was a finalist in the 2015 BBC New Comedy Awards, wrote and directed 2015’s Footlights International Tour Show: Love Handles, and the ‘intricate’ nature of his standup has won him widespread appeal. He’s also had a spot of BNOC-ity after pretending to be a Cambridge fresher in a series of parody videos.

After dropping out of Cambridge to become a professional poker player, he’s become a well-known and well-liked player on the Cambridge comedy scene, appearing in enough smokers to be at risk for emphysema. The crowd at Ken Cheng: Best Dad Ever reflected his comic ubiquity; most had seen Cheng before, and the atmosphere at the ADC at 11pm was friendly and jovial, if mildly drunk.

“Why did you move to London?” “I decided I was too happy and wished to be deeply unhappy.”

Colin Rothwell briefly opened, in an erratic but energetic performance that produced room-wide laughter when his pacing fell right. Rothwell is a comic dramatist and storyteller more than anything, and came into his own with a farcical drama about Cambridge’s Aldi reopening, including a respectable impression of the Queen and a clever quip on the Bechdel test.

Then Cheng started up with his hour-long one-off special, and at first it slotted nicely into his usual style; deadpan, polished but not over-rehearsed, and more complexly woven than might be immediately given credit for – jokes and threads from previous ‘bits’ resurfaced at points throughout the show, usually in a laudably unpredictable fashion. He started off with deconstructing the show’s premise – a Toblerone with ‘Best Dad Ever’ written on it, and why that is an irrational concept – and clearly felt at home, taking minor technical blips in stride, and confronting any mistakes in his material with frank self-deprecation, which just made the audience laugh harder.

“Sentimentality must take a back seat to geometric practicality” – a phrase that could be Cheng’s life motto

It didn’t take long for Cheng to break the lists out, which I will maintain is likely the best part of his comedy, due to just how natural and easy it feels; once Cheng hits upon an ingenious premise, the comedy just unravels from it, and Cheng only needs his light touch of acerbic wit to make the audience fall about in laughter. The intersection between observational and analytical comedy is an incredibly fruitful one. Premises to his graphs and lists this time around included ‘sugar/fat debate’, where fat was shown to lose out in most popular idioms (a ‘sugar daddy’ is infinitely preferable to a ‘fat daddy’); a description of things colourblind people can’t enjoy (‘the Bangladeshi flag’ had me in stitches) and the crucial need for the butterflies in ‘butterflies in my stomach’ to be alive (otherwise the meaning changes from ‘I am anxious’ to ‘I just ate some butterflies’).

Warning: not colourblind-friendly

In the latter part of the show, Cheng gets more introspective; he talks in depth about his isolated childhood and distance from his family, and how that drew him into a love for the abstract and the fantastical. It was thoughtful, sometimes edging into melancholy and dark, and I’ll admit to on occasion feeling uncomfortable. It was a level of intimacy and introspection you wouldn’t otherwise expect, but I was quietly fascinated, and he kept drawing wit almost mercilessly out of these objectively ‘unfunny’ topics with his unrelentingly sarcastic delivery; his difficult father, his arguments with his mother, an uproariously funny verbatim extract from one of his fantasy stories as a young child (including some…unorthodox plot development).

Then, in a flourish both heart-rending and impressively unexpected, he closes off the beginning section on the Best Dad Ever Toblerone, a section we all forgot was unfinished; he found said Toblerone in his father’s office, tying into the previous thought that he might have an unknown half-sibling. And for a second, we all just sat there in silence.

Best Dad Ever is, at times, positively anti-funny, but the laughs last night still kept coming, even from lines that were objectively not comic but Cheng made them seem so with his near-professional delivery. Equally, I liked the touch of pensivity, once I got past my instinctive flush of discomfort. The show closes off with Cheng emptying bags of his old soft toy lambs, the protagonists of his stories and games as a child, and ending on a note that I think I’d like to end on as well; sometimes real life isn’t funny. Sometimes escaping into fantasy for a time is the way we keep humour and joy in our lives.

And that’s okay.

4/5 stars