Stand-Up for Singapore

Published on 29 February 2016

Now that big names like Margaret Cho, Kevin Hart and Russell Peters have brought their comedy routines to sell-out crowds here, can homegrown aspirants expect to attract similar numbers?

BY JO TAN

This year is a big year for Singapore comedy,” observes Rishi Budhrani, a Singapore stand-up comedian who boasts numerous laugh-making laurels, including winning the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition 2012.

“A bunch of us [homegrown comics] just did an all-Singaporean line-up show at India’s biggest comedy festival, and the response was excellent,” says Budhrani, who is also the first Singaporean to perform at Comic Strip Live! in New York City. “In the next few months, Jinx Yeo will be the first Singaporean to take a one-hour solo show to the Perth Fringe.”

Yet in Singapore, big solo shows by homegrown funnymen and women are few and far between, despite a clear demand for laughs. This quarter alone, our island hosted numerous international comedy queens and kings like Kevin Hart, Russell Peters and Margaret Cho, with ticket prices costing up to hundreds of dollars. Singaporean comedians get a significantly shorter, and much less lucrative time in the local limelight: most regular stand-up shows are in intimate venues featuring foreign guest comics as headliners, with Singaporeans serving as support acts, if at all. Even if there is an all-local line-up, each comedian usually only performs a 10-minute set.

IT’S SHOWTIME! Umar Rana is the founder of Comedy Masala, arguably Singapore’s biggest and best weekly stand-up show which features both foreign and Singaporean comedians. PHOTO Wilson Wong

INSIDE JOKE

To some, the disparity can be surprising. “Local audiences love a good joke as much as anyone, but they have a definite soft spot for material based on Singaporean content,” says the aforementioned Yeo, another award-winning comedian who has performed all over Australasia. “Singaporeans have our own unique culture and quirks, and when someone ‘speaks our lingo’, there’s an ‘inside-joke’ feeling that amplifies the laughter.”

So why don’t most Singaporean comics get more stage-time in their own country?

“International stars are often an easier sell. Partly it’s just human nature — we expect the wise man to come from the top of the mountain, instead of living among us at the bottom,” says Yeo. “But also, some Singaporean comics may just not be ready for a solo show, because Singapore’s comedy scene is relatively new. Generating material is a long process. You first come up with an idea, then structure it into a joke, then test it out on audiences, then refine the material according to
what works.

“There is a lot of trial-and-error involved, so for beginners still trying to find their voice, it’s not uncommon to take a couple of years to come up with their first 10-minute set that works consistently. The one-hour show I will be performing in Australia took five years to put together — which is the entire time I’ve been doing stand-up comedy.”

Umar Rana, who founded weekly stand-up comedy platform Comedy Masala, agrees. “Singapore’s stand-up comedy scene as we know it today, with open mic nights and more regular comedy gigs, only dates back to about 2009. Before that it was almost non-existent, and for the first year or two after, there were very weak gags. Comics only start finding their persona after years of performing extremely regularly, and not just in Singapore, because even now, there isn’t that much of a steady platform here to really work.

Comedy Masala is the biggest weekly show, with many of the rest being open mics with amateurs getting friends in to support them. If you practice at that sort of night, you’re never going to improve to the level of the global stars being invited here. In fact, many people who do open mics for six months, then call themselves comedians, are actually doing the scene a disservice. If their performances are your first exposure to Singaporean stand-up comedy, you’re not likely to come back.”

BUILDING THE SCENE

Thankfully, an increasing number of Singaporeans, like Yeo and Budhrani, have been crafting comedy in different countries, in no small part thanks to shows like Comedy Masala.

“I’ve always been booking Singaporeans to perform as support acts on the same night as foreign comedy legends and learn from them. These weren’t always acts from Britain or America: Comedy Masala was the first to invite good comedians from the region, like Malaysia and the Philippines and Hong Kong, who then got to know and started inviting comedians from Singapore to their countries. That’s how a regional scene is built,” shares Rana.

“In recent times, comedians have an international network to perform in and develop their exposure to the rest of the world. That’s essential for stand-up comedy, which is often based on observational humour. Nowadays, I’d say the funniest out of all Comedy Masala’s comics are the Singaporeans, and Singaporeans like Fakkah Fuzz and Jinx sometimes headline our shows.”

Yeo is indeed finally armed with a solo show, even if Singaporeans won’t be the first to experience it, at least in this complete form. “If jokes were cars, then Singapore is my factory, while other countries are the showrooms,” explains Yeo. “Because I live and perform in Singapore most of the time, this is where I do my trial-and-error to work out my arsenal of material, and often make a mess in the process. This means local audiences have already heard chunks of my one-hour show before — a piece here, a piece there — and people don’t like to hear the same jokes again. Accordingly, I’ll be taking the finished show to Perth and Adelaide, then to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.”

This doesn’t mean we won’t get to see solo Singaporean stand-up shows here in future though: comedy hotshot Fakkah Fuzz will be performing a one-hour show here sometime this year, and Budhrani believes there is potential for others to do the same. “It’s a two-way street. Local comics need to keep creating new content and make sure we give the audience something fresh and good every time, if we want to be approached for headline spots. Similarly, show organisers need to take risks to let local acts headline, maybe make some mistakes, and get better along the way. Everyone needs to work together to build a better comedy scene.”

For now, Singapore comics will continue taking their shows on the road all over the world, and are happy enough that foreign funny-folk are being invited to Singapore, even if it’s for shows and fees that dwarf theirs. Says Yeo, “Going to watch them is a great way to observe how these seasoned pros apply various tricks-of-the-trade. This inspires my work as well.”

Comedy Masala Weekly Stand-Up Comedy Show is on every Tuesday from 8-29 March at Hero’s (Circular Road).

CREAM OF THE COMIC CROP Jinx Yeo (left) and Rishi Budhrani (right) are among Singapore’s leading stand-up comedians who have performed all over the world. PHOTOS Stan Ngo from Dragonshutter Photography (Jinx Yeo) & Wilson Wong (Rishi Budhrani)

CROSS-CULTURAL COMEDY The Asian comedians at Comedy Masala perform sets which crack up both local and expatriate audiences. PHOTO Spectrum Photography

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