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Thursday, April 12, 2012

'Punchlines' by Oliver Phommavanh

 Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:
As long as you can make a girl laugh, she'll go for you, right?

Well, unless you're a seriously weird teenager like Johnny Khamka.  Surviving high school is hard enough, but how on earth can he get his childhood bestie, Josie, now a seriously hot teenager, to take him seriously?  The answer is to keep her laughing.  But when Johnny decides to take comedy seriously, he's suddenly at risk for not being funny at all.

From the talented and funny author of Thai-riffic! And Con-nerd comes another LOL story about surviving your teens.


Johnny Khamka has a funny bone that just won’t quit. When Johnny takes the stage and hears peals of laughter, he knows he’s right where he’s meat to be, doing what he was born to do. He inherited the funnies from his father, who MCs all the Laos and Vietnamese weddings in their neighbourhood – only difference is, Johnny intends to take his routine on the road, not be relegated to wedding receptions.

When nothing else in his life is going right, Johnny can always rely on himself for a laugh. At the moment, he’s struggling with the fact that his best friend (borderline cousin, really) has gone and got herself yet another boyfriend. Josie and Johnny’s fathers met in Villawood – and they’ve been best friends ever since, with Josie and Johnny growing up together and their families practically merging into one. Shortly after Josie got her braces off, Johnny (and every other guy in the universe) took notice of her as more than just a friend . . .  and he has been pining ever since. Now they’re in year 10, and new guy Ken is the latest in a string of boyfriends Josie has been torturing Johnny with.

But everything could be about to change. There’s a nation-wide hunt for Australia’s funniest teenager, and Johnny’s just signed up to compete in the tryouts. If he gets into the semi-finals, Johnny could then take the stage at the Opera House in the finals (and maybe get 10 billion hits on YouTube in the process?!). Maybe Johnny will be the new Anh Do, and take the comedy world by storm . . .  and finally get the girl?

But when fear of bombing creeps in and stage fright takes over, Johnny’s quirky, self-deprecating act takes a nasty turn. What lengths will he go to for a good laugh?

‘Punchlines’ is the new Australian YA novel from Oliver Phommavanh.

I read Oliver Phommavanh’s second book, ‘Con-Nerd’ last year and really enjoyed it. He wrote a fantastic coming-of-age book about cross-generational rifts and family pressure, and I promised myself I'd chase up any other books he wrote. Lo and behold, ‘Punchlines’ dropped into my lap and it was as good as I knew it would be.

Johnny Khamka is a second-generation Laotian who has found his calling at a young age. He loves comedy – Seinfeld is his hero and YouTube his addiction – and Johnny is never happier than when he’s making other people laugh. Johnny’s humour is sweet and self-deprecating, bordering on cheesy (and nearly drifting into dad-joke territory) but delivered with such carefree abandon and goodwill that his funny is infectious:

This just got real. I have the audience hypnotised. Kadir’s speech never happened.
‘My topic is identity so this is all about me,’ I say. ‘I’m single, but my friends call me desperate. I wish girls would just call me back.’
A few girls groan in perfect harmony. They don’t know I exist anyway. Most days, it feels like I go to a boy’s school.
‘I know I’m not good-looking. My chin looks like a map of the Pacific islands. I've got volcanoes erupting on my face, forming pus-clouds large enough to stop planes flying.’

Johnny is in year ten and apart of the Bad Bugs trio with his two best friends, Jeffro and Razeal (Bad Bugs being a group nickname that they haven’t been able to shake since year seven). A nation-wide hunt for Australia’s funniest teen kicks off and Johnny starts to take his comedy seriously. He sneaks away to a local comedy club to get some stage experience, but finds a big difference between delivering acne-themed punchlines to fellow teenagers, and sweating through a full set in front of sceptical adults. As Johnny gets increasingly self-conscious and afraid of bombing, his act takes a nasty turn and his friends find themselves the butt of his jokes.

Oliver Phommavanh has written another quirky and fantastic coming-of-age Aussie tale. Johnny is a fantastic protagonist – gangly, acne-riddled and hopelessly in love with his best friend. Johnny’s crush on Josie is part of the driving force behind his comedic yearnings – if he can’t be the tank-shaped super-jock Josie seems attracted to, then he’s going to try his hardest to get her attention another way. I thought Johnny’s crush was very sweet, but I did wish that Josie was slightly more worthy of his attentions – he’s such a nice guy, but she came across a little vapid. I feel like we needed another chapter, in which Johnny confronted Josie about her two-sided behaviour with him and her friends (and she had a chance to redeem herself). I really loved Johnny’s two best friends, the Bad Bugs boys – Jeffro and Razeal. These two were total crack-ups, and together the trio were adorably geeky!

As well as crushing on Josie and competing for Australia-wide funny fame, Johnny hits a speed-bump in his rise to the top when his dad is less than enthusiastic about his comedic pursuits. Working at a failing photo shop, Johnny’s dad knows a thing or two about entering into a dying industry – and he’s concerned that Johnny is setting himself up for disappointment with this fame game. But Johnny’s dad has other reasons for being concerned about his son’s need for the spotlight. I really enjoyed reading the family tension between Johnny and his dad; they used to have a really close relationship (both being funny men), until Johnny revealed his comedic ambitions.

‘Punchlines’ definitely lives up to its title – there were some moments when I was LOL-ing like crazy. Johnny’s jokes may be gloriously cheesy sometimes, but Phommavanh has a very wry and sharp sense of humour;
‘You could be on TV,’ Alice says.
Dad frowns. ‘How many Asians do you see on TV?’
‘There are heaps on Border Security.’ I go to the fridge and peel off the permission note. ‘This could be my launch into the laughosphere.’

Oliver Phommavanh has written another fantastically funny young adult novel. Johnny Khamka is a gangly-great leading man, and his comedic plight is both refreshing and entertaining.

5/5

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