'There's been a cultural shift': Nina Oyama in conversation with Hannah Diviney

Nina Oyama first broke into comedy in 2012 as a rising star. Now, she's a master of her craft with multiple TV shows Utopia, Taskmaster Australia, and Deadloch under her belt and a new standup special: Nina Oyama - is Coming.

Australian comedian and rising star Nina Oyama has seen the Australian comedy scene evolve far beyond the misogynistic days of when only one female comic was allowed at festivals.

She's now taking her third standup show Nina Oyama - is Coming to this year's Melbourne and Sydney Comedy Festivals. When discussing her new show with Missing Perspectives, Nina noted "I’m a millennial, I’m part Asian, I’m queer. It’s rude. Don’t bring your kids or grandma, unless your grandma is cool."

Here, Missing Perspectives Editor-in-Chief Hannah Diviney talks to the comedian and TV writer about her journey so far, the cultural shift in Australian comedy, and her upcoming new show that you definitely shouldn't bring your grandma to.

So Nina. When you first started your standup comedy journey, where were you initially learning from? 

Oh, wow. A lot of podcasts. I loved WTF with Marc Maron, Jimmy Pardo. I loved CollegeHumour.com. They had a visual podcast where they would upload sketches that they had made during the week. That was really formative for me because I got to see a lot of early comedians like Chelsea Peretti, who’s now on Brooklyn 99 and Donald Glover, who’s now Childish Gambino.

I loved this incredibly problematic show called Opie and Anthony, which at the time was super sexist, racist and misogynistic, but they had this incredibly rotating cast of Amy Schumer, Dave Attel and Rick Del Gado – it was of its own specific era. 

But really, you had to go and look for stuff if you wanted to find out about stand up comedy - you couldn’t just go on Netflix and watch comedy like today. There also wasn’t a lot of comedy on YouTube - I think I watched a few Rove Live spots on YouTube. So I had this other source – a weird guy I met at an open mic who had all these USBs. He one day just tipped them on the ground, and was like put these on your computer. And it was just comedy album after comedy album - and that was kind of my comedy education. 

Since you first started in 2012, what have you seen change in the world of comedy? 

There’s definitely been a huge cultural shift. There are so much more women and people of colour doing comedy now. When I was growing up, I had so much internalised misogyny because I was the only woman in a lot of places and it was so toxic. It’s so nice to [now] have other women in comedy, I just didn’t have it when I was 17, and any other woman in comedy was like “my enemy”, and I had to be better than her. 

Because there was only one spot. 

Exactly. Now we have so many more comedians, a diversity of voices, and different people that you can be like. And not everyone thinks that being a misogynist is a punchline anymore, which is great. 

I would imagine that a lot of people would expect you to use your marginalised identity [as part Asian, queer and a woman] as a basis for your comedy? How does that inform your jokes? 

It’s sort of inescapable in a way, because I move through the world like this, and people react to me in a certain way, which is not how they’d react to a straight white guy. So every single joke I tell is from the perspective of someone that moves through the world differently, and that’s inherently political. That said - a lot of what I say is really dumb and I make heaps of jokes about my pussy. I like to be silly, and say silly stuff (Nina smiles a cheeky smile). 

So, I have a bunch of questions about how you actually put together a set. Is there a difference between how you put together jokes for standup versus television? 

Standup has never been my main thing – it’s almost like my childhood best friend. You’re friends with this person as a kid, you go to high school and develop different interests, and I now love acting and scriptwriting. Standup is this thing I return to because I can. But my goal is not to be the best standup in the world – my goal is to be a good, entertaining person for an hour. 

So for my third standup show, I wasn’t really planning on ever going back to standup, but my agents were like, you should do it. I had about ten minutes of material, and I needed to generate another 50 minutes over a period of 3 months.

It was intense - I wrote down a couple of pages of joke ideas, one-liners, premises, punchlines, stories - and then wrote 3 pages a day for a week, until I had 21 pages of illegible nonsense that I could understand. 

Then my agent’s booked me a trial show in front of an audience, I put my notes in a document and added some subheadings, weaving together a story, and doing trial shows, riffing, and then you see how the audience is responding. 

I record all my shows, the next day, I listen to them back, and then weave in any new punchlines or thoughts I had, that’s what would go into the next show. I think of it like making a sculpture. First, you make the clay, then when you’re doing the show, you’re sculpting the clay each night. I think I’m in a good spot now - there’s still a bit of recarving to go - but the script is basically what it’s going to be. 

What does it feel like as a comedian when you see a joke go down like a lead balloon? 

NO: I had one joke in my show that I thought was funny, but sometimes there will be this thing where you’ll have a new joke, but you’ll approach it so timidly, that you won’t sell it. Part of being a comedian is selling a joke – you’re like a used car salesman. You’re like “look at these jokes every night! They’re still funny - aren’t they!” But if a joke doesn’t go down well, what I’ll do is try and rearrange it, or see what it goes after. There’s a thousand ways to tell a joke, so if you believe in it enough, you’ll find a way. 

How would you describe “Nina Oyama - is Coming” to people who are coming to you for the first time? 

It’s an hour of me talking about my pussy. Anyone who doesn’t want to come off the back of that, I don’t want at my show. But it’s more than that - I’m a millennial, I’m part Asian, I’m queer. It’s rude. Don’t bring your kids or grandma, unless your grandma is cool. 

Catch "Nina Oyama - Is Coming" at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (27th March to 21st April 2024) and the Sydney Comedy Festival (22nd April to 19th May 2024).