Jest Causes

Whether it’s sassy political satire or pop culture references with a twist, comedians need to have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on locally and globally. Some of Singapore’s most beloved funny people give their take on Singapore humour, and how they keep the laughs coming.

By Tracy Heah

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“…Singaporeans are not particularly known for being funny.”

Michelle Chong: Actress, writer and director. Her movie Already Famous is currently in the race for an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

“Professional humour is a rare commodity that is high in demand in Singapore. To the outside world, Singaporeans are not particularly known for being funny (except for our Singlish and policies). Technology has had such an impact on entertainment. I have to thank YouTube and fans of The Noose who posted my characters’ — Barbarella and Lulu — segments online. The producers saw the huge number of hits they garnered and made them recurring characters. In the next five years, the industry will thrive even more and be more lucrative than it is now. I hope to be a billionaire then.”

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“When everyone is so tense and uptight, it makes it easier to take the p**s out of things.”

Selena Tan: Best known as one of the Dim Sum Dollies and founder of Dream Academy Productions, she recently produced the stand-up extravaganza Happy Ever Laughter.

“Comedy is hard work. I have a very supportive family and am blessed to have so many funny, generous people
around me who are my inspiration and from whom I can ‘steal’ ideas. I am still very much a ‘live’ theatre person so for me, I use social media as best I can to get people to experience the humour ‘live’. There is something wonderfully magical about being in a theatre and laughing with other people. I hope there will be a brand of Singapore comedy that can go global and people everywhere can understand what Singapore humour is.”

 

“Singaporeans so need to destress that sometimes all I have to do is scratch my armpit and they roll on the floor laughing.”

– Gurmit Singh

 

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“Is humour a trait that defines Singaporeans?”

Gurmit Singh: Best known for playing Singapore’s beloved bungling contractor Phua Chu Kang as well as hosting TV shows such as The President’s Star Charity and Singapore Idol.

“It will always be hard to be a comedian. I still remember my late Mom sighing when she found out I had signed up with then SBC (Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, now Mediacorp). She said, ‘Why did you do that? It doesn’t pay well and the job won’t last long.’ But she quickly realised she was wrong and stopped the lawyers from drawing up the deed to disown me. Just kidding! Is humour a trait that defines Singaporeans? If it were, then a lot of local movies would not have been censored or banned. And Singlish would not have been an issue to begin with. Oops! I may have said too much already and the Gahmen (government) men are on the way! It depends on who is making fun of us. I know first-hand that Phua Chu Kang  can make fun of ANYONE and get away with it.”

 

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“Yes… we are a funny people. It’s just that our image has always been focused on being ‘no-nonsense’, ‘hardworking’ and ‘disciplined’.”

Irene Ang: Founder and CEO of Fly Entertainment, Irene is an actress, host, motivational speaker and mentor.

“Within the Asian broadcasting industry, Singaporean comedians have been winning awards every single year, beating other countries which are perceived to be more lighthearted. So yes, I think we are a funny people. It’s  just that our image has always been focused on being ‘nononsense’, ‘hardworking’ and ‘disciplined’. We are definitely more ready to laugh at ourselves now. We’ve come a long way from the days of Phua Chu Kang — all the sell-out shows on the theatre circuit are comedies.

 

“I think we all need to understand what irony and satire mean.”

– Hossan Leong

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“People love to laugh, and love being entertained.”

Hossan Leong: One of Singapore’s most talented comedians, Hossan moves effortlessly between theatre and stand-up comedy, TV and radio.

“Being funny is not the challenging part for me. The hard work is going on shows and memorising lines. And movements. And choreography. And music! The truth is, I didn’t have a choice. I kena (got) kicked out of school, so I went into theatre and I am very thankful to have an interesting life and friends. They are always my inspiration when I write my scripts. I also have brilliant writers who push the humour meter higher every year — they continue to surprise me every time we start a new project. People love to laugh and love being entertained, so that hasn’t changed. But I think the opportunities to perform have opened up.

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“We all line up in queues with no idea what they are for… we’re hilarious.”

Vernetta Lopez: Starting out on TV’s Under One Roof, Vernetta is a radio DJ and recently stole the show in the sell-out pantomine Hansel & Gretel.

“We all line up in queues with no idea what they are for, we wear boots when it’s 35°C out and we complain that the government is making us save money for retirement. We’re hilarious. When we complain about ourselves it’s all good. But if someone from another country says something about us, and it could be something we’ve complained about ourselves, our hackles rise, and we start baring our teeth. When I started out, there was no local yardstick for what was considered funny to a local audience. Now it’s a progressing level of funny you have to constantly keep up with. It’s about taking whatever you’ve got and finding the funny in it, as long as you respect the sensitivities. From train breakdowns to sex scandals, I try find an angle that can throw things off tangent and making things unexpected.

 

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“A good trait for a comedian to have is the ability to confuse people.”

Mark Lee: One of
Singapore’s most sought after Chinese-language comedians, Mark’s repertoire includes a longlist of TV shows and movies in both English and Chinese.

“A good trait for a comedian to have is the ability to confuse people. For instance, when you’re being serious, people think you’re funny and don’t believe what you’re saying. And when you’re telling tall tales, people believe you. It’s not an easy skill to master, but I’m lucky it comes quite naturally to me. You just always have to be quicker than the viewer, so they don’t figure out your punch line. I can rattle on for five minutes and then hit you with an unexpected punch line — it’ll be like you got thrown from the 10th floor! When I was starting out on the comedy shows on Channel 8, that’s all there was. There was no iPhone or iPad or Internet. If you wanted comedy, you had to watch us on TV, so it was easier to become a household name, to be recognised. These days, we have so many other options to watch comedy whenever we want. But on the local scene, it’s still the same faces.

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“Everybody wants to be a comedian nowadays…”

Hirzi Zulkiflie & Munah Bagha rib: YouTube stars Hirzi & Munah shot to fame with their sharp parodies of everyday  Singapore life. They made their stand-up debut last year to rave reviews and now have their own TV show on the Suria channel.

“Everybody wants to be a comedian nowadays, but let me tell you, it’s a hard life. Most of the time, you end up laughing at yourself, for yourself. Singapore is a society without one specific national identity. The ethnic divisions, class separations and the bipolar extremes of the conservative older generation and the younger liberal crowd makes it hard for any comedian to step up and say, ‘I know how to make them laugh’. The younger Singaporeans are slowly opening up. (Social media has) been a catalyst in  helping us reach out to the type of audience that we appeal to and is definitely one of our biggest driving tools. Great things will happen in our scene.

50-54_Comedians280113-22Kumar: Many credit the start of stand-up  comedy in Singapore to Kumar, our best-known drag queen. Despite having been on TV sitcoms and variety shows, it’s his ‘not-for-the-faint-hearted’ live shows that people love.

“It ’s not easy to entertain Singaporeans. They like to laugh AT you, NOT be laughed at.”

– Kumar

 

“My dad thought I would never make it, but my friends have encouraged me all the way. It’s not easy to entertain Singaporeans. They like to laugh AT you, NOT be laughed at. In the next five years, comedy will evolve to a higher level because we are more exposed to Western culture and we’re now having a bigger variety of comedy shows in Singapore. It is setting the stage for more newbies to come out and be heard.

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“Singaporeans want to let loose but don’t know how and where to do it because we are so conscious of what society will think.”


Siti Khalijah : Starting out in serious  theatre, she has progressed to comedic roles in serious plays. She took the leap to do a solo stand up routine last year in Dream Academy’s Happy Ever Laughter.

“I’m a Malay girl, which in itself is a rarity on the circuit, so I broach topics that are taboo outside my race and gender like the Obedient Wives Club. I can poke  fun at it so that everyone can laugh with me without  feeling conscious. I think Singaporeans want to let loose but don’t know how and where to do it because we are so conscious of what society will think. It ’s probably an Asian thing. Thanks to Kumar, we are not so hung up now. Some of the material we use today would have been considered racist back in the ‘90s, but I think everyone across the board has chilled out. My parents weren’t supportive of my career initially, but after a year, they sort of silently accepted it. I’m lucky because today, thanks to people like Selena and Kumar, the audience is already primed and wiling to be tickled. Today’s audiences are willing to accept local comedy in any form.”


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