At the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan this spring, stand-up comedian Jocelyn Chia performed a routine that she had reliably included in her sets for more than a year, about the historical animosity between Singapore, the city-state in Southeast Asia where she was raised, and its neighbor Malaysia.
But when Chia and the club posted a clip from the April 7 set to TikTok and Instagram this week, it provoked a heated backlash. The 89-second video showed the comedian bantering with an audience member who volunteered that he is Malaysian. And it concluded with Chia’s making light of the 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with 239 people onboard.
Angry Malaysians flooded the comment sections on Chia’s social media accounts. The Comedy Cellar received 4,000 one-star reviews on Google almost overnight and its website was hacked, its owner said. TikTok removed a clip of the joke from Chia’s account, flagging it as “hateful behavior” and a violation of its community guidelines, according to a screenshot Chia shared with The New York Times.
Even Singapore’s minister for foreign affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, weighed in, condemning Chia and apologizing for her “horrendous comments” in a tweet noting, “She certainly does not speak for Singaporeans.”
The incident demonstrated the fraught line toed by comedians when edgy routines are removed from their natural habitats in dark, late-night, alcohol-lubricated clubs and posted to social media for all to see. Managers of the Comedy Cellar and the West Side Comedy Club, where Chia has performed, said they had received or been threatened with negative reviews as part of the backlash. Chia said that her family and friends had received hate messages.
At a club, “you can get away with saying stuff that’s kind of outrageous,” said Noam Dworman, the Comedy Cellar’s owner. “You can’t put that same moment into a small screen that you’re watching over morning coffee.”
But Chia, who performed this week in New York and has future gigs planned, said in an interview Friday that the fallout had not damaged her career. “I’m in no way canceled in America, in any sense of the word,” she said. “Now people want to come see me.”
Chia, who was born in Boston and held joint American-Singaporean citizenship until adulthood, was a lawyer who decided her true calling lay in stand-up comedy.
Her extended routine, which the clip abbreviated, mentions former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew and how he appeared to tear up in 1965 when the city-state was expelled from Malaysia “because he thought we were not going to survive,” Chia says in the video. “But then 40 years later, we became a first-world country. And you guys, Malaysia, what are you now? Still a developing country. Awww.”
Likening the 1965 rupture to a breakup, she imagined Malaysia trying to woo Singapore back and explaining it hadn’t visited because “my airplanes cannot fly.” Then she added, to laughter, “What? Malaysia Airlines going missing not funny?”
The complete routine has been one of her most successful recent bits, she said. “It gets raucous,” she said. “The full bit is well set up — I build up emotion.”
The set seemed to set off an international incident only after its appearance this week on social media. Following the backlash, Chia removed the clip at the Comedy Cellar’s request, then reposted it to TikTok without the club’s logo. That’s when TikTok removed it.
“I didn’t want the haters to think they had won and got me to back down,” she said. “Audiences at the Comedy Cellar see the best comedians and they love it, so how can I be embarrassed by it?”
Felicia Madison, the managing partner and talent booker at the West Side Comedy Club in Manhattan, said she had been threatened with negative reviews by fans who figured out that Chia had appeared there. “We’re a pretty new club,” she said. “When people want to see if they should go, they look at reviews.”
Dworman argued that the spate of negative reviews — which dragged down the Comedy Cellar’s overall rating before Google restored it — went beyond people exercising their right to be offended.
“You’re entitled to dislike it and complain about it, but they’re trying to make it too risky for me to allow this woman to speak onstage,” he said. “That’s not a refutation of what she said, or a thoughtful appeal to the fact that this is something she should consider was too hurtful. This is essentially using brute force to make the other side say ‘uncle.’”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.