Comedy Masala's Kuah Jenhan. Photo: Wilson Wong
Widely recognised as an American invention, stand-up comedy has a rich history that dates as far back as the mid-1800s. Today, however, the art form is no longer confined within the minstrelsy venues where it used to be performed; stand-up comedy has travelled far and wide, eventually finding itself along the sandy shores of Singapore. While it may have been venturing into uncharted waters back then, stand-up comedy has slowly - but surely - embedded itself in the local culture; it has now become an integral aspect of a nocturnal and largely underground entertainment scene.
Nonetheless, the migration of stand-up comedy was a slow process, and the wait for its uncertain arrival left the comedian, Umar Rana, bewildered. “When I first moved here, I used to lament the fact that a nation which has progressed in every way did not have a stand-up comedy scene. There were shows by (fellow comic) Kumar, who did and still does cabaret performances, but there wasn’t any pure form of the art around. I knew I could make a difference,” shares the Pakistani national who moved to Singapore to be a banker.
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Umar used to perform for Take Out Comedy, a Hong Kong-based comedy club that helped introduce the concept of open mic nights in Singapore. When the club closed down, he took it upon himself to continue its legacy, eventually creating Comedy Masala in late 2010. The development of the show inspired the difference that he spoke about - within a time span of merely two years, ticket sales picked up tremendously, and an audience of eight gradually became 200, reflecting the exponential growth in popularity of local stand-up comedy.
Comedy Club's Fin Carew
Singaporeans, however, are not just supportive of local humour in this day and age; they are also demonstrating an appreciation for international comedy. Jonathan Atherton, an Australian comedian who migrated to Singapore five years ago, acknowledged this trend, and attributed it to the advent of social media. “You can’t underestimate the obvious social phenomenon which is YouTube. The two things that people look for the most on the internet are pornography and comedy, and Singaporeans are watching international comedy and loving it,” he comments before breaking into laughter.
Upon realising the potential of creating something that is “for everybody - locals, westerners and everyone in between”, Atherton forged a business partnership with Heazry Salim, an expert in the matters of finance. In 2007, the duo launched The Comedy Club Singapore (the local leg of The Comedy Club Asia), which not only features the best of local talents, but also invites foreign comedic heavyweights to perform at a show called Talk Cock Comedy.
A Comedy Masala performance
The success of stand-up comedy would not be possible without the calibre of talent that currently exists in Singapore. Rishi Budhrani, who would be sharing the limelight with (fellow comics) Fakka Fuzz and Jinx Yeo in the upcoming stand-up comedy show, Sons of Singapore, belongs to this new generation of promising performers. “I think we are part of a revolution of sorts. When I first started out about one and a half years ago, there would only be about 30 to 40 people at the regular venues where we’d perform. Now, we get to perform for a full house and even have to reject people at the door sometimes. People are actually coming back and paying money to watch local comedians, and that’s very encouraging,” he enthuses.
Beyond the commercial success, the true indication of a revolution lies in Singapore’s ability to laugh at itself and be laughed at. Kumar, the stand-up comedian who is well known for his on-stage drag queen persona, has been pushing buttons for 21 years, particularly when it comes to mocking the Singapore culture. “I like to talk about the idiosyncrasies of locals on stage. We (Singaporeans) do things that we don’t realise are wrong or funny. But I have to make a point so that people won’t just take me as a frivolous comedian. I need to have knowledge about the issues I talk about so that people can relate and laugh, and more people here are ready to laugh now,” he shares.
Jonathan shares similar sentiments and rather succinctly, says, “In the end, people want to laugh about their own lives. I do believe that Singapore, as a nation, has reached the level of maturity where it’s prepared to have a bit of a laugh at itself and not consider it an insult. That means, Singapore, as far as I can tell, has really come of age.”
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