Review of Laura Rivas’ Tiny Laughs
Tiny Laughs (2020). 30 minutes. Directed by Laura Rivas. Starring James Haley, Briza Covarrubias, Diana Olivia, and Andrew Ge.
Stand-up comedy is no easy feat. The amount of second-hand anxiety that I feel watching someone else stand in front of a crowd full of people with nothing but a microphone and a pre-crafted ensemble of jokes is a testament to this fact. Every single stand-up comedian, whether they are a seasoned professional or a first-timer, must brace themselves before any performance for the possibility that they will bomb. Stand-up comedy is not for the faint of heart, which is why you would be more likely to find me sitting in the audience than ever taking those daring steps onto the stage.
The pilot episode of Season 1 of Tiny Laughs not only gives us a glimpse into the life of a struggling, up-and-coming comedian (a tale that we have undoubtedly seen before), but it showcases the trials and tribulations faced by a struggling, up-and-coming, Asian American comedian, Jeff Chen, (James Haley). The stories of Asian American artists are sadly underrepresented in mainstream film and television. As an Asian American myself, I feel a sense of pride every time I see Asian American representation in film and television; I remember my grandma telling me how excited she was when Vanessa Hudgens got cast in High School Musical (“A Filipina on screen!”). So, not only do I appreciate the fact that the story follows an Asian American comedian, but I also love that Rivas and the rest of the creators did not shy away from Jeff’s ethnicity and the impact that it is sure to have on his career. Jeff not only has to deal with the anxiety of getting on stage to perform in front of an audience, but he has to perform in front of an audience that does not look like him.
Jeff is accompanied in his journey by Valentina (Briza Covarrubias), a queer, Latinx woman architect who is struggling to move up in her career. Valentina’s situation is an excellent example of the glass ceiling that women face in male-dominated fields. The complexity of Valentina’s struggles is emphasized through the introduction of a white, female co-worker, Meg, who is granted more success and respect than Valentina. We see different scenarios where Valentina gets steam-rolled and excluded by her coworkers. In one scene, there is one instance where Meg berates Valentina for not having enough money to go out to lunch, calling her “dramatic.” Although Valentina rarely verbalizes her frustration throughout the episode, we can see her internal struggle through close-up shots.
Jeff and Valentina have an underlying bond through their shared struggles, which is why they find it easy to connect with each other. While the audience can see that they are fond of each other and supportive of each other’s career endeavors, I would have liked to see them connect on a deeper level. The on-screen chemistry between Haley and Covarrubias is real and raw; I could really see the internal struggle and depth of both characters through their performances, and as the show evolves past the pilot, I hope to see more and more scenes between our two main characters. Most of their dialogue involves small talk and lighthearted flirting, but I feel that their bond could have been stronger with an acknowledgement of their similar positions, both in work and society. We hear both of them talk about their professional and personal struggles and desires to minor side characters, and I think that seeing this information shared between our main characters would have strengthened their bond. I look forward to more scenes between them and to seeing their stories evolve and mature as only TV allows characters to do.
One of my favorite interactions in the episode occurs while Jeff is scoping out an open-mic night. A spectator of Asian descent comes up to Jeff and identifies him as the one Asian comic on the list for the night, stating that “seeing an Asian comic on the list is so damn rare.” Jeff is thrown off by the comment and he tells the man that he doesn’t feel ready enough to perform quite yet. Enabling Jeff’s hesitation, the man thanks him for “not ruining it for the rest of us.”
I like the scene because it draws attention to the complexities that people of color face in the entertainment industry. Jeff is not only under pressure to make a name for himself in the comic world, but he also carries some of the burden for the rest of the Asian community. This exchange between the two men does justice to this point in a subtle way.
One of the aspects of the show that the filmmakers excel at is their world-building. Before each scene, we see different closeup shots of background objects and scenery that set the tone throughout the episode. Most of the episode consists of medium or wide shots, giving audiences more information about our characters and whatever situation we may be finding them in. They also feature long shots that fit the tone of the show admirably and make it resonate with comedy classics like The Office or Parks and Recreation. These camera choices and the uplifting score complement the writing and acting to really bring this story to life.
I found Tiny Laughs to be enjoyable, raw, and relatable, and I can’t wait to see the rest of the show. We are given a genuine introduction to our main characters, and there are performances from real stand-up comedians mixed in throughout the episode that were delightful to see. I am excited to see where this show goes and how they will continue to unpack these lovable and relatable characters.