Man at His Best

Haha, lah: A Look Into Singapore's Comedy Scene

A decade ago, it was hard to find a laugh in the Red Dot. Now there's almost too much comedy to take in.

BY Jonathan Evans | Jun 21, 2016 | Culture

As a refugee from London who fled overseas when the economy went down in a ball of flames, old friends often ask me what I miss most about the Big Smoke. My answer always comes down to three things. First, Thameside walks in the summertime: the sense of unfettered joy that greets the season is something to behold. Second, London’s music scene: like everything else, it’s now become a giant PR circus sponsored by a hair-gel company, but its breadth of gigs and venues is unmatched anywhere. But most of all, I miss the comedy.

I always admired comedians above all other artists. Theirs is that bravest, most altruistic of art forms: every performance a high-risk lottery of life-enhancing laughter or self-immolating sacrifice, where careers can be made or destroyed in a matter of minutes. At one time in the late-’90s, I’d be watching stand-up twice a week in seedy pub backrooms, clubs and West End theatres. The post-alternative, post-PC comedy world was a glorious, anarchic, unpredictable, uncommodified, unexpurgated mess that threw up now-legendary names—Al Murray, Jimmy Carr, Harry Hill—at unforgettable nights across the capital. 

Sweltering, clockwork-efficient, buttoned-up Singapore seemed like a place in need of a laugh back in 2008. I’d been hired to help produce the local edition of Time Out, an events magazine, in a city defined, at the time, by its uneventful-ness. Trying to get a handle on local culture meant unravelling a plethora of additional, equally perplexing ironies. A literal melting pot segregated by its colonisers into enclaves, it looked multi-ethnic without ever feeling multicultural. A rojak state settled by Malays, once governed by Brits and built by Indians, where everybody was, essentially, a foreigner—but where ethnicity, not individuality, was integral to identity. And yet, the most famous comic in this odd, pleasant, intolerant place was a hilariously bitchy Indian-Singaporean who’d honed his trade at Bugis’ Boom Boom Room and performed in drag.

Another irony: while the Western media continued to labour under the belief that the Red Dot was run like North Korea, in reality the performing arts were rarely censored. Local comedy, I quickly found, was a niche concern—not because of state intervention or a lack of talent, but because it was economically unviable in a mianzi culture preoccupied with profit, personal progress, saving face and a fear of failure.

Dim Sum Dollies & Sebastian Tan

The Singaporean stars of the time—Broadway Beng Sebastian Tan, Hossan Leong and the Dim Sum Dollies—reflected the self-mocking, slapstick-loving, gently satirical nature of the national psyche. It was all mild-mannered sketches and innocuous, clever, funny songs specifically targeted at a homegrown crowd. Yet, all three acts also starred in Dream Academy’s orgy of crass stereotyping, Sing Dollar!, a musical comedy from 2009 whose ugly overtones of xenophobia belonged on the Stomp comment board, not a public theatre. The exaggerated personality traits of comics can always be explained away as “hiding behind a character”—but comedy, intentionally or not, holds up a mirror to the popular mood. Like a riotous, overblown microcosm of Singapore at the time, racial profiling wasn’t just a hallmark of these scripts, but also their entire raison d’être.

Yet, the scrupulous censorship infamously doled out to television, cinema and the press seemed not to apply. The MDA had theoretically banned “Arts Entertainment” that might offend or cause hostility between racial and religious groups, or promote any “alternative sexual lifestyle”—but for better or worse, comedy seemed to slip through the net. 

It was not always so. In the mid-’90s, Rhonda Carling-Rodgers was a promoter at the tiny Riverbank Club on Boat Quay, the first club to offer international—largely Australian—stand-up. “Each routine was scrutinised by government officials for approval,” she recalls. “Having to explain jokes to uniformed officials was a surreal experience.” This was the year after William Gibson’s immortal “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” cover story had resulted in the countrywide ban of Wired magazine. Similarly, the artistic strictures of the time, Carling-Rodgers remembers, read much like the rules on sedition at Speakers’ Corner. “The ‘guidelines’ given were that there was to be no swearing, no jokes about drugs, sex or religion, no subversive political references and no ‘creating political unrest’. Who’d have thought a comic could be a threat to a foreign country?”

Hossan Leong

Almost a decade later, in 2003, Hossan Leong revealed that he’d been asked by the MDA to remove a song about Malaysia’s ex-prime minister from his Hossan Live! show, but refused. “We live in a society of paranoia,” he said at the time. “[We] couldn’t say this because ‘Oh, you don’t know who’s listening, and we’ll get put in prison’. I think we have to be brave about things.” And still, by the mid-noughties, the sole outlet for stand-up amid this climate of constraint—after the Punchline Comedy Club at Marriott Singapore’s Bar None folded in 2002—was The 1NiteStand Bar and Comedy Club in Clarke Quay.

I’d tried to grasp the particular context of local humour and appreciate it on its own terms, but all I really craved were the qualities that it so sorely lacked: subtlety, perceptiveness, originality. Salvation, of a sort, was on the way. Jonathan Atherton, the travelling man of comedy, had been in Singapore since the early ’90s, playing at clubs like Riverbank, and by the time he and Heazry Salim opened The Comedy Club Asia in 2008 at Colours by the Bay’s DXO club, comedically at least, Singaporeans were living in more liberal times. The shift was embodied by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow, which had started at The Substation before migrating to the DBS Arts Centre and becoming a sold-out annual fixture. There was clearly an appetite for this stuff, yet the majority of the audience was still made up of expatriates. 

Julie Englefield, then the Substation’s General Manager, explains why the culture surrounding stand-up was fundamentally incompatible with young Singaporeans’ way of socialising. “The typical audience member—in contrast to audiences in Australia, where comedy is often cheap, pub-focused and attended by young, rowdy crowds—is thirty-something and well-off,” she says. “For them, going to a comedy show is like spending a night at the theatre. They appreciate intelligence and don’t respond well to a set peppered with the F-word.” 

At The Comedy Club, Aussie transplant Atherton—with his shotgun delivery, vast repertoire of languages and extensive Asian experience—had long learnt to tailor his act to a local audience, and knew exactly how far he could go. But many of his imported comics simply regurgitated the same routine they’d trot out in Melbourne or London. While the delivery was refreshing, the subject matter—notwithstanding the odd wanking joke—fell flat in a Singaporean setting. It wasn’t until May 2009, and a new offshoot of Jami Gong’s TakeOut Comedy’s open-mic nights, that the city had an Asian stand-up night—ironically, at Gallery Hotel’s eM Studio, a riverside cubbyhole favoured by expats.

Rishi Budhrani & Fukkah Fuzz

In a Peranakan Place shophouse, Howl at the Moon brought in more foreign comics alongside a musical showcase, Duelling Pianos. Owner Kerry Ball, a veteran promoter who’d also helmed The 1NiteStand, understood the market better than most. “The type of comedy that I’ve been bringing in has been a lot more, for want of a better word, cutting edge,” he says. These chortle-fests chimed with the slow-burning cultural glasnost of the time—the proliferation of social media, a palpable shift towards open criticism of the government, the inaugural Pink Dot, Irene Ang’s parodic The V Conference and Ivan Heng’s W!ld Rice. An otherwise pessimistic Nanyang Technological University thesis from 2010, by Trisha Lin and Phoebe Tan, noted a fundamental transition in Singapore comedy: “Content censorship has gradually shifted from government regulation to social responsibility.” A local crowd was responding: these were alternative nights out in comfortable environs with a lower price tag. 

By October 2010, when Pakistani banker Umar Rana kickstarted Comedy Masala, Singapore stand-up had a foothold—the weekly “comedy underground” at the Home Club. I asked Rana about the hurdles he faced in those early days. “Initially, the challenge was finding a venue,” he tells me. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and had a clear vision for where this could go. Home Club was one of the places that had been recommended. I went over one night, met the owners, and we agreed to start Comedy Masala there.” 

What about the government? “There were no constraints at all,” said Rana. “We were just another act at the club, and Home Club was renowned for being the best venue for live and up-and-coming acts. Singapore has a very supportive arts, theatre and music scene, and I think the nurturing approach of many organisations has been the key to success.” In fact, the only cautionary note has been from Masala itself, on Rana’s weekly mailers (“Warning: mature audience only. Entry strictly restricted to 18 years and above”). And did he struggle to find performers? “There was no issue with the talent—many of us had already been doing the weekly open-mics with TakeOut Comedy.” 

These were heady days for local and regional comics. Audiences, too, were just getting used to the idea of standing for two hours to watch strangers gleefully toy with OB markers and make them laugh. Soon, Masala was bringing in audiences numbering over 100. Rana used his banking acumen to keep costs down, and his own improv experience to bring in the talent. “Masala didn’t start flying in comedians to headline until the first anniversary, and the performance fee for visiting comedians is low. So based on venue participation, sponsorship and the cash contribution, it was possible to put on excellent shows at very reasonable prices.” 

Samuel See

Home Club’s all-comers-welcome ethos and under-the-radar profile fostered a loyal cult following. I had wonderful nights here—as funny as any London club—at shows headlined by world-class iconoclasts like Papa CJ, Paul Ogata and Tim Tayag. But crucially, Masala also acted as a soapbox and springboard for local gagsmiths. Singaporeans who are now big names—performers as diverse as Jinx Yeo, Sharul Channa, Rishi Budhrani, Sam See and Muhammad Fadzri Abdul Rashid, aka Fakkah Fuzz—all debuted or honed their chops at Masala. Yet, more was to come with The Comedy Club Asia’s intimate Talk Cock nights at Blu Jaz Café and The Comedy Pimp’s regular showcases. “It’s a bit in your face,” says British promoter Quill Potter of his now-defunct Comedy Pimp showcase, “but the thing about comedy is that you should take risks. You shouldn’t play safe.” The scene was growing in stature and maturity. Boundaries for self-expression, and for the art form itself, were coming down. 

Ex-Esquire contributor Yeo, 35, the most idiosyncratic of Singapore’s new crop of performers, says his comedy career started almost by accident. “It kinda snuck up on me. I first signed up for a comedy open-mic to overcome my stage fright,” he admits. “I thought I would just do it once, and then move on. But I enjoyed my first experience enough to sign up a second time, then a third, and so on. Then I started getting offered paid gigs, and then they gradually became more frequent. I probably became a professional stand-up comedian before I even realised I was one.”  

Singularly among his peers, Yeo soon built a comic brand out of self-deprecation, wordplay-loving one-liners, and deliciously wry deconstructions of Singaporean life’s little absurdities, assiduously scrutinising his own performances by videotaping them and later playing them back. “I realised I needed to find my own unique voice, instead of becoming a carbon copy of someone else,” he tells me. His unassuming onstage demeanour—marked by a no-frills sartorial style, a penchant for whimsical detours and self-styled “geekery”—is matched by real-life modesty. “Just a couple of months after I did my first open-mic, I got the opportunity to open for [US stand-up] Rob Schneider. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but due to beginner’s luck, I did well. A few months later, I entered the Hong Kong International Comedy Festival and finished as first runner-up. So I’ve had milestones that were confidence boosters, but at the same time, they’re kinda like acing a primary school exam. Then you progress to the next phase and discover how little you really know.”

Sharul Channa & Jinx Yeo

Although few would call him controversial, Yeo has touched on sacred cows, such as government policy and familial tradition, in his act. Yet, he has rarely faced either forewarning or finger-wagging censure. “I once did a fundraising show to raise money for cartoonist Leslie Chew,” he recalls. The online comic-strip artist had been arrested on charges of sedition in 2013, but was subsequently acquitted. “The venue asked me to steer clear of political jokes—understandably, they didn’t want any heat from the authorities. Sometimes, I’m asked to stay away from potentially controversial material when I perform at corporate events. But other than that, I haven’t heard of fellow comics in Singapore being cautioned about content.”

It seems incongruous that while even the mention of genital regions or a raised middle finger on late-night television gets bleeped or pixelated, this most provocative of art forms remains virtually immune from the morality overlords’ meddling. Is comedy now done purely on trust, I ask? “I don’t think it’s necessarily a trust issue, but rather there’s a certain self-selection that takes place with audiences who come to comedy shows,” Yeo reasons. “If someone is easily offended, they probably wouldn’t spend a couple hours of their evening and pay the ticket price for a comedy show. So comedians have the leeway to do material that might be considered controversial in other settings. And that’s how it should be.” 

Oddly, censorious attitudes now come not from government watchdogs, but the army of online commenters among the general public. Even the mild-mannered Yeo’s performances as a guest headliner, and at his own monthly show, Comedy Kampong in Bugis, have faced the wrath of Facebook’s keyboard warriors—brickbats that he puts down both to inherent Asian conservatism and the late development of stand-up. “I get heaps of angry comments from people who clearly don’t understand that the content is light-hearted humour, instead of a serious lecture,” he rues. 

I ask him why Singapore has been slow to embrace stand-up. “Singaporeans err on the side of caution in terms of what they say in public, and it’s hard to be funny when walking on eggshells. Many people still view comedy way too seriously, taking offence at jokes that, by definition, weren’t meant to be serious in the first place,” Yeo says. “It’s ironic to see the cognitive dissonance, where Singaporeans claim they want freedom of speech—but then, when they hear controversial opinions being expressed, they turn around, file police reports, and ask the authorities to get involved, [as with] the Amos Yee saga. Conservative Asians need to learn to stop being ‘speech Nazis’. Free speech is meaningless unless it also protects controversial viewpoints.”

Kumar & Umar Rana

These are sentiments that would resonate with Channa, the feistiest of all the new comics, yet she’s quick to point to the ethnic makeup of the crowd. “Watching the stand-up scene evolve in the past five years, the interesting change has been the racial demographics of the audience,” she says. “In any scene, if the locals start filling up a room, you know you’re moving in the right direction. [Now there is] almost a 50-50 ratio of Singaporeans and expats.” The diversity of the local scene has taken many other surprising new turns. Channa, like her husband Budhrani, is a Singaporean-Indian; whip-smart, risqué Sam See is one of a small number of openly gay comics who stole the show as he hosted a recent Talk Cock session, interacting brilliantly with a gaggle of drunken Indian spectators. Late last year, a Philippine laughter club, the Clowns and Cronies—Pinoy Comedy Bar, opened on Mosque Street. 

Vestiges linger of the old reliance on painting broad racial brushstrokes. The most popular visiting comics, Canadian-Indian Russell Peters and American-Japanese Paul Ogata, bring their outsider-on-the-inside perspective to sell out arenas and clubs with scattershot skits on Asia and Asians. Orion Perez, a dapper Filipino, channels a vast array of international accents to hilarious effect; the irrepressible Fuzz’s act centres on his Malay identity. The important difference now—as with Budhrani, Yeo and Channa—is that race is no longer used as an end in itself, a prop for reinforcing division, but as a vehicle for affectionate digging and, just as often, self-mockery. Singapore’s comics are probing much deeper, lampooning authority and societal norms, and laughing at themselves—making their comedy not just insular, but also inclusive and universal. 

Even a decade ago, when the “sterile” label was still common, I found this city—with its socio-linguistic quirks and esoteric laws—an inherently funny place, both funny ha-ha and peculiar. The ongoing evolution of Singaporean comedy, from the slipstream to the spotlight, is one that I’ve been fascinated to witness. “Strangely enough,” Rana tells me, “in Singapore, there is a higher promoter-to-comedian ratio than anywhere else in the world. A lot of comedians are running shows. If you were to ask me, ‘Where do I see the future of comedy in Singapore?’ That answer will surprise many.” Who needs London?  

From: Esquire Singapore’s June 2016 issue.