Being There

Standing up for laughs

John Lui raises some laughs from the audience but it is not easy, he says.
John Lui raises some laughs from the audience but it is not easy, he says.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Being a stand-up comic like Kumar is no joking matter but hard work

Kumar stands alone. Three times a week, the cross-dressing comedian tells jokes for over an hour to a pub crowd.

In our nation of close to five million people, he is the only one, local or foreign, who does stand-up, week in, week out.

We have comedians who perform scripted comedy in theatres but not anyone, foreign acts in town included, who has a club act of Kumar’s intense frequency.

He is, literally, one of a kind.

The other jaw-dropper is that the 41-year-old has fans who attend his shows weekly. This means that it is more than likely that they will have heard the same jokes but it does not matter. They still love him.  

Kumar is magic.

I had to know what it takes to make Singaporeans laugh. Was it possible for someone like me, a desk jockey with almost zero stage experience, to perform a passable stand-up session?

To see what the pros do, I took in one show at Kumar’s club, the 3-Monkeys Cafe at Orchard Towers, last month.

That Friday night, the 100-seat pub was the usual packed house. It was so crowded I shared a table with three strangers. 

Kumar came on in a swirl of sequins and feathers, mimed a disco number with two dancers, wrapped his elegant fingers around the mike and he was on.

Whatever stage presence is, he has it. His lean figure, made taller by his stiletto heels, commands stares. He knows this and strikes poses.

The 20-year veteran of the comedy circuit unreels his stories at a languid pace, making sure to act out the dialogue with physical movements. The crowd is mesmerised.

Ms Gwen Khoo, 50, owner of the 3-Monkeys Cafe group, says that Kumar has climbed to the top of a very slippery pole by being an all-round entertainer, not just a comedian.

It is one thing to command the attention of a theatre audience who have paid $30 or more to see you, she says. It is another to hold the gaze of chatty pubbers, brains buzzed from booze, who have paid $18, drink included, and who have the attention span of a gnat.

People here are willing to give anyone a chance on stage but as I learnt later, if something good does not happen in 30 seconds, you might as well become wallpaper.

Kumar’s material has very few of the typical “setup-then-punchline” mode. He mostly makes acid, one-liner observations about Chinese, Malay and Indian habits, and the things people do in the bedroom. He gives opinions on current events, such as the IR casino entrance fee. He breaks social taboos at an unsafe speed and his audience, giddy with freedom, laugh. And they laugh hard.

“Jokes are 60 per cent,” says Ms Khoo. The rest is connecting with the audience.

The reason comedy clubs in Singapore have come and gone is not that Singaporeans dislike live comedy. On the contrary, the sold-out theatre shows by the likes of Hossan Leong and Sebastian Tan, and the packed Kumar nights at the two 3-Monkeys outlets (the other is in Holland Village) point to a barely met demand.

The Western idea of the wry quipster, armed with only wit and a microphone, is not enough for the local crowd. They want a measure of celebrity with a dash of cabaret and the defunct clubs’ use of imported comics was not providing it. 

“Singaporeans want more comedy but it must be local,” Ms Khoo says. She reckons that another Kumar-like combination of name recognition, song-and-dance, oddball slant on life and talent for physical humour will be impossible to find. She wants such comedians so badly she is thinking of hiring aspirants and training them up, with Kumar’s help. 

She promises to slot me in for a five-minute set the following Friday, and we plan a dry run the coming Wednesday. She and Kumar will critique my performance before the big night rolls around. I go away to write some jokes.

They take a lot longer to write than I anticipate. I postpone the rehearsal by a week. A feeling of dread settles in my stomach.

Finally, I have enough material. Ms Khoo has advised me to write about what I know so I have rib-ticklers about my job, people I have met in my full-time work as a movie reviewer and my daily commute on the MRT.

Kumar, after watching my dry run, thinks it’s good, as does Ms Khoo, but I feel they are just being kind to the lamb just before it is led to slaughter.

“Speak clearly and always keep your mike in the right position,” Kumar tells me several times. It is a common newbie mistake to become nervous, causing the vocal chords to tighten. If you cannot be heard, you have not only failed at comedy, you have failed at the level below that: Not acting like a boob on stage.

Also at the dry run is veteran entertainer Nigel Mosbergen, who now runs his own entertainment consultancy, Encore!. “Dress up,” he says, running an eye over my crumpled office clothes. “The entertainer must always dress one level higher than the audience.

“And don’t worry about people staring at you. You won’t be able to see them because the lights will be in your eyes, haha,” he says cheerfully. This is meant to be reassuring, I think.

Friday night comes around. It is full, as usual. The crowd appears to be 90 per cent Singaporeans who have come from work. Kumar has arranged it so he warms up the crowd before I come on. What a wonderful guy – he is opening for me. 

He tells the crowd about the experiment and why I am here. My old friend, nervous sweat, decides to drench my new pink shirt and spiffy dark blue jacket, just to show me who the boss is tonight.

The first three minutes of my set pass with a few polite titters. No guffaws of the kind Kumar gets. The lights do dazzle my eyes and I start pacing, trying to fight the nausea that comes with knowing that everyone there sees you as an annoying bump on the road to Kumarville. The noise of chatter rises. My people are turning to chat with friends. My throat tightens.

Then the end of the ordeal is in sight. I save my strongest joke for the last. It is about the weird foreigners on the MRT train and I do the bit with appropriately silly sound effects. They laugh and before the chuckle dies away, I thank them and run away.

The world of pub comedy has nothing to fear from me, it seems. The few laughs I got were exhilarating because they were so hard-won. Like many others who had crashed and burned on the stand-up scene here, I had worried too much about the material and not enough about being a total act. 

If you think you can handle five minutes feeling like an hour, Ms Gwen Khoo of the 3-Monkeys Cafe is looking for you.