Stand-up comedians tickling Singapore's funny bone

Kumar. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
Kumar. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
Irene Ang. -- PHOTO: RUNNING INTO THE SUN
Irene Ang. -- PHOTO: RUNNING INTO THE SUN
Sebastian Tan. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Sebastian Tan. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Dim sum dollies comprising (from left) Selena Tan, 43; Pam Oei, 42; and Denise Tan, 39. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
Dim sum dollies comprising (from left) Selena Tan, 43; Pam Oei, 42; and Denise Tan, 39. -- PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
Judee Tan. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Judee Tan. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Hossan Leong. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Hossan Leong. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Zulkarnain Sadali. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Zulkarnain Sadali. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Sharul Channa. -- PHOTO: STAN NGO
Sharul Channa. -- PHOTO: STAN NGO
Jinx Yeo. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Jinx Yeo. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Fakkah Fuzz. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Fakkah Fuzz. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Rishi Budhrani. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Rishi Budhrani. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

More stand-up comics are taking the stage here but life is not always a hoot as they have to figure out what makes Singaporeans laugh

Want a good laugh? Catch an up-and-coming home-grown comedian in action.

The stand-up comedy scene here is growing, with at least three weekly comedy nights springing up in the last four years. And the crowd at some of these venues has grown by as much as 10 times in the same period.

For example, the weekly open mic night Comedy Masala at The Vault bistro lounge in Circular Road sees about 200 people each time, compared to about 20 when it started in 2010 at the now-defunct Home Club.

A similar open mic night, Talk Cock Comedy, held by events company The Comedy Club Asia, draws about 120 people a night at the Blu Jaz Cafe in Bali Lane, up from 25 when it was launched in 2010.

Mr Heazry Salim, 39, The Comedy Club Asia's co-founder, says: "There's clearly a demand for stand-up comedy here. Laughter helps people to relax and unwind after work and more people are seeing it as an interesting way to spend their evenings."

Correspondingly, a new generation of funnymen (and women) - estimated to number about 25 to 30 - are taking to the mic.

In their 20s and early 30s, most of these newcomers have day jobs and began dabbling in comedy routines about three years ago.

Their evenings are typically spent performing wherever a stand-up comedy night is being held - usually at a bar or pub - to gain exposure.

One such up-and-coming talent is Rishi Budhrani, 30, who has been performing regularly since 2011 at Comedy Masala.

Last Tuesday, he told a finance executive in the audience: "Did you watch The Wolf Of Wall Street? That movie is all about sex, drugs and debauchery, and your life is nothing like that, is it?"

As the audience burst out in giggles, the executive shrugged his shoulders, smiling good-naturedly.

On Wednesdays, expect to see Budhrani at Talk Cock Comedy. And on Fridays, he will likely be performing at The Butter Factory's weekly stand-up event, Fridays With Fuzz. This is hosted by his friend, fellow stand-up comedian Fakkah Fuzz.

Budhrani, who runs a corporate training and events company by day, says: "I came into stand-up comedy as a personal challenge as it's probably the most difficult type of public speaking.

"But it's really grown on me. I enjoy the fact that I can share my views about the world and make people laugh at the same time."

Adds Fuzz, 27, whose real name is Muhd Fadzri Abd Rashid: "I love it when audiences get the jokes I write. These are based on my observations of life in general, and it's great when I can express them and am understood."

He used to work as a stunt performer at Universal Studios Singapore, but became a full-time comedian in February after securing his own regular gig with The Butter Factory.

"If you want to do something, you have to put your heart and soul into it," he says.

He declines to reveal how much his pay cut is after switching jobs and would only say: "I can still eat but, of course, cannot eat lobster."

While these comedians are coy about their rates, industry players estimate that a newbie can earn $800 to $1,500 to write and perform a 30-minute segment.

Bigger names can command $5,000 or more for the same job.

The new crop of comedians, who include Jinx Yeo, 34, Zulkarnain Sadali, 24, and Sharul Channa, 27, are all friends.

In fact, Budhrani is married to Channa, one of the few female comedians in the scene.

Channa, who is currently on tour in India, where she is performing with Indian stand-up comedians Aditi Mittal and Atul Khatri, says: "With comedy, I can be myself. I'm in-your-face by nature, so comedy is the perfect fit for me."

Of course, life is not always a hoot. The rising talents say the biggest challenge they face is having to figure out what their audience finds funny.

Fuzz says: "Every crowd is different. Whenever I walk into a club, I have no idea what the audience likes. I can only sense this when I'm onstage, so everything has to be done on the spot.

"I always keep two or three go-to jokes as a safety net so I can move the set forward."

Most of them seem to chart a similar path to the limelight. They typically start out by getting stage time at open-mic nights. They might then be invited to events organised by nightspots or comedy groups, to perform alongside international acts.

If they bring in the laughs, they will be asked to perform at corporate functions such as dinner and dances and family days.

For most of the newbies, their biggest show so far has been the second instalment of Happy Ever Laughter, which was held at the Esplanade Theatre in April and drew more than 22,000 audience members. It sold about 60 per cent more tickets than the previous edition in 2012.

Produced by theatre company Dream Academy, the event had them performing alongside veterans such as Kumar, Hossan Leong, Sebastian Tan, Judee Tan and Selena Tan, who is Dream Academy's founder.

Says Zulkarnain: "I felt so honoured that Selena gave me five minutes on stage. All I've done so far are a few open mic nights, YouTube videos and song parodies. Compared to the veterans, I still have a long way to go."

Seasoned comedians here mostly started off as stage or TV actors.

When contacted, all cheered the fact that new blood is joining the scene.

Says Judee Tan, 32, who performed with Fuzz, Budhrani and Zulkarnain during Happy Ever Laughter: "It's refreshing to see them in action. They seem more spontaneous and reactive compared to people like me who started off as actors.

"As an actor, I sometimes feel the need to have a 'character' to fall back on even when I'm doing stand-up comedy. It's great that they have used the bar scene to hone and develop their own comic persona."

Says Kumar, 46, who performed for 13 years at the now-defunct club Boom Boom Room first in Bugis Street and then in Far East Square: "Performing in bars is the hardest because people can talk and heckle. You might also be competing with the drinks for the audience's attention.

"Once you can handle the bar scene, you can handle any sort of audience."

That said, he acknowledges that the scene is more competitive now, with new forms of entertainment such as online programmes vying for eyeballs.

"It's a totally different ball game now," he says. "There are more platforms but also new challenges."

Irene Ang, 45, who co-created the stand-up show The V Conference, which was performed every year from 2007 to 2010, adds: "Stand-up is very challenging. It's just you onstage and there's only your material to fall back on."

Her advice? Just be yourself. Tell your own story and remember that you don't have to put somebody else down in order to be funny.

Expect the laughs to keep coming in.

In December, the Dim Sum Dollies cabaret act will put on a full-length comeback show combining stand-up comedy with skits and musical numbers.

About 10 per cent of its tickets, priced from $48 to $118, have been snapped up.

Ang confirms that The V Conference will also return next year, themed around Singapore's 50th birthday.

"We would love to parody the many historical characters in our nation's history - from Sang Nila Utama to Ah Meng the orang utan," she teases.

"Now that Singapore is almost 50 years old, it's time to look back and laugh at all the funny things that happened along the way."

Audiences can also expect a third instalment of Happy Ever Laughter to return in 2016.

All this will delight comedy fans such as Mr Karl Khan, 32, who watches stand-up comedy shows here about once a month.

Says the marketing executive: "I've been to famous comedy venues such as Dangerfield's Comedy Night Club in New York. But now, some of the offerings in Singapore are just as good, if not better, because local comedians are just as sharp and witty as their foreign counterparts.

"As a fan of stand-up comedy, I'm eagerly awaiting the many shows in the pipeline."

bang@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Cheryl Mui


THE NEWBIES

RISHI BUDHRANI, 30

Known for: His humourous anecdotes, teasing social commentary and witty mocking of racial stereotypes. He once joked that while drivers in other countries clear the way for ambulances, drivers in Singapore will follow the ambulance and let it clear the road for them.

He is also an actor, host and laughter yoga instructor. He married fellow comic Sharul Channa last year.

Got into comedy: Through stand-up show Comedy Masala three years ago.

He says: "Comedy is just tragedy plus time. If something hurts you now, it can be funny if you look back at it after some time. The first time I went onstage, it was like bungee-jumping - naked. I had to take a few shots of whisky before I got the courage to go on."

Catch him: At Gypsy Comedy once a month at Moshi Moshi Bollywood at Cuppage Plaza. For more information, go to G Comedy Singapore's Facebook page at facebook.com/pages/G-Comedy-Singapore/271437436341308.

Also appears at Comedy Masala (admission is $15 for regular guests and $10 for students, including a free drink) at The Vault every Tuesday at 8.30pm, Talk Cock Comedy (admission is $10) at Blu Jaz Cafe every Wednesday at 8.30pm and Fridays With Fuzz at The Butter Factory at 8pm (admission is $15, which includes one standard drink).

FAKKAH FUZZ, 27

Known for: His energetic sets and ironic humour. During the Comedy Masala event at The Vault bistro lounge last Tuesday, he joked that when he heard how home-grown actress Fann Wong might name her unborn child after the player who scores the winning goal in the World Cup final, he prayed for Saudi Arabia to get through the preliminary rounds. It would make for an interesting name, he thought.

The former stunt performer at Universal Studios Singapore has been doing stand-up comedy full-time since February.

Got into comedy: Through open mic nights at various pubs in 2009.

He says: "Every time people ask me which was my best gig, I always say 'the next one'. At every set, there's always one person who doesn't laugh and it becomes my entire mission to crack that guy up."

Catch him: At Fridays With Fuzz at The Butter Factory every Friday at 8pm.

JINX YEO, 34

Known for: His observational and self-deprecating humour. He once joked that Singaporeans are so obsessed with exams that his parents freaked out when they found out his blood type is B+.

He is a freelance copywriter by day.

Got into comedy: Through Comedy Masala in 2010. He opened for Emmy-winning actor Rob Schneider's stand-up act before a crowd of about 1,400 at Suntec City in 2011. He has also performed in Australia, China and Hong Kong.

He says: "The hardest part in stand-up comedy is dealing with distracted audiences. I sometimes have to single out distracted audience members and milk them for comedic effect - just to get their attention."

Catch him: At his own monthly comedy show Comedy Kampong at Hood Bar and Cafe in Victoria Street. For more information, go to his Facebook page at facebook.com/JinxYeoComedy. Also appears at Comedy Masala, Talk Cock Comedy and Fridays With Fuzz.

SHARUL CHANNA, 27

Known for: Being one of the few women among the new generation of local comedians. Some of the topics in her sets include relationships and women's issues.

Once, she spoke onstage about asking her father whether he would save his wife or ex-girlfriend if both were drowning in the river.

His reply: "I'd leave both in the river and get a new wife."

She is also an emcee, actress and runs an entertainment and education business.

Got into comedy: Through stand-up comedy show Comedy Malasa three years ago.

She says: "Comedy is a male-dominated industry and you need a strong assertive personality to stand out. In the end, it's not about whether you are male or female, but how funny you are."

Catch her: At Comedy Masala, Talk Cock Comedy, Comedy Kampong, Fridays With Fuzz and Gypsy Comedy.

ZULKARNAIN SADALI, 24

Known for: His in-your-face approach, where he has no qualms turning his observations into jokes. A senior community manager at a social media agency by day, he has parodied several songs on YouTube.

For example, he changed the lyrics to the Lady Gaga song Born This Way three years ago to tell the story of a soldier having trouble adapting to military life. He is very active on Twitter, where he often tweets jokes and witty observations.

Got into comedy: After he passed his namecard to comedienne Selena Tan last year when he went to watch Kumar's performance.

He later sent Tan some comedy samples and she gave him a five-minute slot during the stand-up comedy night Happy Ever Laughter, produced by Dream Academy, in April.

He says: "I don't think of myself as a professional comedian. I'm just a guy who loves to tweet funny observations and write the occasional song parody."

Catch him: On Twitter at @mdzulkar9. On his outfit for this photoshoot, he tweeted: "Asked to wear yellow... was suggested blue pants but blue + yellow = Ikea uniform."


THE VETERANS

HOSSAN LEONG, 44

Known for: Being the affable Singapore Boy, the title of his stand-up comedy routine in the 1990s and 2000s.

The 20-year veteran of the local entertainment scene can switch accents effortlessly, play the piano and dance up a storm.

Through four editions of his stand-up comedy gig The Hossan Leong Show, he has riffed on topics such as Singaporeans' kiasu mentality and Japan's wackiness.

He says: "The new comedians grew up watching comedians on YouTube. I grew up watching sitcoms such as Friends, Seinfeld and The Golden Girls. We are very different, but there's still a lot we can learn from one another."

Catch him: At this year's National Day Parade at The Float@Marina Bay, where he will be one of the five hosts. He is also currently hosting the third season of the quiz show We Are Singaporeans on Channel 5.

JUDEE TAN, 32

Known for: Her shy giggly character Dr Teo Chew Muay (TCM), a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner who appeared in the musical revue Crazy Christmas in 2012 and last year. TCM once said Western doctors are bad because they cut you up and subject you to treatments for animals, such as "cat" scans.

She says: "TCM is actually part of me - the most shy and awkward part. Sometimes my friends catch me behaving like her.

I just retort: 'She is me, so of course I can behave like her'.

Catch her: In next year's re-run of her one-woman show Nu Men: The Wild Woman Sings. The sold-out show was staged last month at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

DIM SUM DOLLIES comprising Selena Tan, 43; Pam Oei, 42; and Denise Tan, 39

Known for: Their big, bold and brave attitude. The trio decided on their name because dim sum is delicious, comes in threes and means "little pieces of heart" in Mandarin.

Denise Tan replaced original member Emma Yong, who died in 2012 of stomach cancer.

Selena Tan says: "The audience for stand-up comedy is definitely growing - I guess living in Singapore is stressful and people just want a release. I hope more comedians can come forward because everyone has something fresh and unique to say."

Catch them: In their full-fledged comeback show Dim Sum Dollies - The History Of Singapore Part 2. It will be staged at the Esplanade Theatre from Dec 11 to 23. Tickets cost $48 to $118 from Sistic (go to sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555).

SEBASTIAN TAN, 40

Known for: His persona Broadway Beng, who sings Broadway melodies only to break out into Hokkien jokes ever so often. He also played Frosty The Snowman in last year's Crazy Christmas revue produced by Dream Academy.

He says: "The scene here is growing but it's still a long way from more developed markets such as Britain and the United States. Most of the current stand-up comedians also sing, dance and act. Kudos to the new ones for trying to forge a different path."

Catch him: At his upcoming Broadway Beng movie, billed as a "uniquely Singapore" musical comedy. It will be filmed next year.

IRENE ANG, 45

Known for: Her breakout role as Rosie Phua in the Channel 5 sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd. Since then, she has done numerous corporate gigs and founded talent agency Fly Entertainment.

She says: "When I first started doing stand-up comedy, I was so nervous and got a writer to help me come up with material. I soon realised the material didn't sound like me, so I didn't use it. I just talked about my anxieties and nervousness - the audience loved it."

Catch her: In next year's instalment of the stand-up comedy show The V Conference. It is themed around Singapore's 50th birthday and might feature several historical characters.

KUMAR, 46

Known for: Being Singapore's best known stand-up comedian, who also cross-dresses in sequinned gowns and fancy jewellery.

He says: "In the past, people weren't exposed to much comedy and many establishments didn't want to take a chance on a comedian. But now, new comedians have to compete with new types of entertainment on the Internet. It's a totally different ball game."

Catch him: At The Kumar Show at Chameleon Lounge Club in Dempsey Road on Friday and Saturday, from 10.30pm (admission is $55, which includes two hours of free-flow drinks). He also performs at Hard Rock Cafe in Cuscaden Road every Monday from 10.30pm (admission is $20, which includes one drink).