When Canadian-born, now-Charleston-based comedian Neil Bansil first organized "The Most RACES Show on Earth!" - "MRSOE!" for short - as a stand-up comedy showcase, he was less interested in navigating the obstacles of political correctness than assembling a diverse team of genuinely funny friends and colleagues.
If you go
What: "The Most RACES Show on Earth!"
When: Saturday, doors open at 7 p.m. with the show starting at 8 p.m.
Where: Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St.
Price: $20, $15 for groups of six or more
For more info: http://charlestonmusichall.com
"All I'm really thinking about when I put these shows together is 'Who is the funniest?' " Bansil says. "At the end of the day, I want people to think, 'Wow, I just a saw a great show for very little money, and the comedians came from very different cultures."
A veteran stand-up comic himself, Bansil founded "The Most RACES Show on Earth!" in 2005. As a Filipino-Canadian-American with a rich and slightly goofy sense of humor, he was already well-experienced in dealing with racially themed material and multicultural audiences and rosters within the comedy scene of his hometown of Toronto.
As the showcase took shape and developed over the years, his main goal has remained consistent: he simply wants to make people laugh.
"The Most RACES Show on Earth!" has recently earned praise and success in the Lowcountry. The show has sold out shows at the annual Charleston Comedy Festival over the past three years.
"The whole mission is having audiences understand that funny is funny, no matter what race or culture you are," Bansil says. "I don't tell the comedians to do specific racial jokes or anything. I want each member of the audience to laugh at a comedian's material even though they're not their particular ethnicity. I want them to relate to the same thing. That's the main thing."
Comedic and racial diversity
Already in its ninth year, "The Most RACES Show on Earth!" stand-up comedy showcase will return to Charleston on Saturday for a big performance at the Charleston Music Hall.
Local rock/reggae/hip-hop quartet the Executives will serve as the show's house band, jamming before the kickoff and between sets.
"It's usually a group of people of different ethnicities sitting together in a theater - people who have never sat together for anything else - laughing at the same thing," Bansil says. "It's a unique shared experience. People realize that we're all not that different. Comedy is the main factor connecting everyone."
The "MRSOE!" bill will feature Bansil as the host alongside a diverse lineup of performers, including Toronto's Dave Merheje; Atlanta-based comedians Clayton English, Caleb Synan and Mia Jackson; New York-based performers Daniel Tirado and Cory Fernandez; and Greenville's Jason Farr.
It's a solid roster of accomplished up-and-comers in the indie comedy underground, with diverse comedic styles, personal backgrounds and geographic origins. Merheje is Lebanese-Canadian. English, Jackson and Farr are African-American. Synan is Jewish. Fernandez is Puerto Rican. Tirado is Peruvian and Polish-Canadian.
"To me, race is kind of secondary in this regard because I don't want to come across as preachy or anything," Bansil says. "I really just want to pull from the funniest comedians out there that nobody knows about. I want to discover new comedians, and I take pride in that."
Bansil was born and raised in Toronto. His parents were originally from the Philippines.
Bansil describes his childhood setting as "an educated and entertaining home," in which his mother worked as an immunization specialist and singer and his father worked as an engineer and real estate agent.
He earned an English degree from York University in Toronto before studying peformance and writing stand-up comedy at nearby Humber College. He worked for several years in the Toronto radio station scene as a traffic reporter and broadcaster while venturing into stand-up comedy on the side.
"My first time on stage was on April 14, 1997 - and I was horrible," Bansil says. "I was doing jokes that were somewhat racy. But they weren't malicious. There was almost an innocent sarcasm thing going on.
"I didn't know what I was doing at first, and it took me about five of six years for me to figure things out," he adds. "I'm still working on it now. You never quite figure out your style; in comedy, you always keep growing and developing your material. I just go up on stage and try to be as honest as possible through my jokes."
Bansil moved to Atlanta in 2006 shortly after getting married, and he landed in Charleston permanently in 2011. Currently anchored in North Charleston's Park Circle area, Bansil's day job is selling real estate.
"I'm from Toronto, which is such a multicultural city, perhaps one of the biggest multicultural cities in North America. We're able to sell out shows there, no problem. But in a city like Charleston, it's a challenge for me and the comedians because it's not so multicultural. Certainly, it's a very progressive city in a way with pockets of different nationalities and ethnicities, but they don't quite come together, for some reason or another. I want this show to bring all of them together, laughing together. That would be the ultimate accomplishment for me."
Ethnic humor and racially charged jokes are nothing new in comedy - not just in the United States, but around the world. Sometimes ethnic humor works well as light-hearted ribbing or insider anecdotes. Other times it can be mocking and painfully offensive.
Bansil finds sufficient artistic opportunities within the realm.
"The relationships between different cultures always are going to be relevant, and comedy is one of the true art forms that has the ability to tackle this issue head on," he states in the latest official "MRSOE!" press release. "There is shock value in the truth, but it's that initial shock that helps us to better understand one another as well as create dialogue."
As a writer, performer and host, Bansil prefers to work and maneuver along the edges of the traditional boundaries of racial/ethnic comedy, from the earliest "MRSOE!" days when the showcase mostly featured Toronto-based comedians through the recent years in which comedians of various backgrounds from all over North America have signed on to perform.
"No one in the professional world, even insult comics like Don Rickles or Lisa Lampanelli, are racist when doing racial humor," Bansil says. "Some people might take offense to their material, but I don't. They have a way of bridging that material, making it funny. Some younger comedians don't quite know how to formulate it. If it comes across as malicious, you can instantly tell."
Each of the performers in this week's show have plenty of experience joking about their ethnicity, religion and lineage. Some are downright playful when it comes to stereotypes and ethnic cliches. But, Bansil says, "MRSOE!" isn't about capitalizing on racial misconceptions, it's about tearing them down.
"The audience creates that line between funny and unfunny," Bansil says. "If a joke crosses that line, the audience simply won't laugh. To me, if a comedian can make it funny, I'm all for it."