How Singapore is finally learning to laugh at itself

How Singapore is finally learning to laugh at itself

Singaporeans are a joke -- or at least more are trying to be, as stand-up comedy comes out of the shadows
Comedy Club Asia
LOL: Stand up comedy acts are keeping Singaporeans laughing out loud.

You should always know better than to sit down next to a stand-up comic, and answer a question about your T-shirt.

“Have you ever wondered about your name being Luke, and the fact you wear a Darth Vader T-shirt?” asks Singaporean comic Wayne Cheong, a glint in his eye. “I just thought maybe you had father issues?”

In a nation-state derided for being serious and self-censoring, a new wave of funny guys is now willing to stand up and make fun of themselves, their mothers and their people -- whether they’re ready for it or not.

Popularized in London and New York, while the scene is still small in the Lion City, open mike comedy has been growing steadily and Singapore’s new generation of comedians are using the opportunity to riff off each other.

“It’s become something now where all the comics start to feed off each other -- it creates a really good show for the audience,” says Vernon Lewis, a Los Angeles native who’s a regular on the local comedy circuit.

“There’s no barrier to entry, you just go up there. Even if you really, really suck, there’s still three minutes of stage for you," says stand-up comedian Tris Xavier, who feels local audiences are ready for more intelligent humour and not just slapstick gags and “Phua Chu Kang” (local sitcom) characters.

“You see that as well in the kind of comics who are coming to perform for open mikes –- they’re intelligent, they’re incisive,” says Xavier.

“They don’t resort to cheap buffoonery, they go to the meat of the subject. The appreciation for this kind of comedy is growing in Singapore.”

Leading the charge is stand-up comedian turned promoter, Jon Atherton, who has big plans for Singapore’s new breed of jokesters.

The self-described “Minister Mental” for young stand-up artists and his Comedy Club Asia ( team are bidding to push Singapore’s stand-up comedy onto a world stage.

Kicking off shortly will be a series of purely local nights. Billed as “Talk Cock Comedy,” and slated for launch at BluJaz Café in late July, Atherton hopes through these nights, he can nurture artists capable of touring Asia.

And in November, Atherton’s Comedy Club Asia will team up with Radio 91.3 to launch “Stand Up for Singapore.”

Playing on the old national song of the same name, the competition will seek to unearth the country’s best open mike comedian. Aside from bagging the title, the winner will be flown to Melbourne, to perform for a week at Melbourne’s Comics Lounge, alongside some of Australia’s best stand-up talent.

“Singaporeans want to hear their voice -- I remember it used to be the same in Australia when people thought Australians only liked American movies or British TV shows,” says Atherton. “There’s a lot of issues here that no foreign comedian could possibly touch on.”

“Our vision is to create a viable circuit in Southeast Asia for international comedy -– and to nurture local talent in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and hopefully eventually Indonesia.”

Meet the cast of funny guys who are standing up and lampooning themselves all for some laughs.

Comedy Club Asia Singapore has good reason to thank multilingual Jon Atherton.

Jon Atherton

Atherton’s self-described “comedy affair” with Singapore dates back to 1994 and The Riverbank Club on Boat Quay, the first club at the time to offer international stand-up comedy.

Featuring mostly Australian talent, he says touring involved journeying out for two weeks, staying in a local apartment. At the time, the only other live comedy in town was drag comedienne Kumar at the Boom Boom Room, delivering a more cabaret style.

“I was bought out to do it, because the promoter had heard that I spoke Malay, and could get by in Hokkien, and spoke Thai, Indonesian, Japanese and Hindi –- so they thought I’d be great for the market," says Atherton. "I fell in love with Singapore, especially for performing. I had some of the best gigs of my life, right at the beginning of my career.”

Having moved with his family almost ten years ago, clocked up credit card debt and literally sold his camera to pay for the Comedy Club’s first visiting artists, he now sees Singapore as being ready for its own home-grown stand-up comedy stars.

“I think it’s a measure of the confidence of a nation when we want to hear our own voices, being funny, being critical, or just commenting on our lives.”

Comedy Club Asia Comedian Wayne Cheong: Keeping a straight face as he coaxes out the laughs.

Wayne Cheong

Singaporean Wayne Cheong has been doing open mike comedy in Singapore for a year, having first tried it for six months in Los Angeles. Returning home to Singapore to find a surge in popularity for stand-up was a pleasant surprise.

“I only found out about it when I returned back," says Cheong. "And I was amazed that they have open mike here, letting people try out jokes and stuff.”

What jokes he would only deliver in L.A., but not here?

“Mostly American-centered ones, like tear-drop tattoos, or the civil rights movement. Coming back here, I had to adjust, and tried to tap into colloquialisms. But I found that hard to do -- so I tried to make it general, things that everyone will relate to -– like relationships, death and stuff.”

So it’s really quite depressing?

“Well, that’s me.”

Tris XavierTris Xavier: Stand up comedian and spotlight hogger.

Tris Xavier

Xavier admits part of the motivation of trying stand-up was to hog the limelight.

“I got started because I’m kind of vain, I like to hear myself perform onstage," he says. "In college, I used to act, and the scene is difficult here as an amateur. Whereas stand-up comedy was the one that allowed open mikes .”

He popped his stand-up cherry in January last year, in front of a seething audience of around five people.

“At ten o’clock we had to move out, and then the dancers would come on. It was that kind of place.”

“It was a learning experience. At the time I thought, well, this is the state of comedy in Singapore. Don’t get your hopes up. I’m glad to say that I was wrong –- and a year later, our open mike nights routinely get 100 people on average."

“It’s nice to see that kind of change and more people coming out.”

Xavier says Singapore stand-up differs from the style of comedy served up on Singapore television sitcoms.

“My jokes aren’t slapstick. And if you give the audience time, they understand. Among many of my friends, slapstick doesn’t work any more -– they think it’s kind of tired and used. You do want something different.”

Vernon Lewis Vernon Lewis: No one is safe from his ripping humor when he takes the stage.

Vernon Lewis

While audience members are fair game, black American comedian Vernon Lewis says the first target is himself.

“This was Wayne Cheong’s fault, I got this joke from Wayne. He said he met a black guy in the States, who robbed him. So I got up and asked, “How many people in the audience have never been robbed by a black guy? Raise your hand?” He then pulls out a fake gun. “Now, give me your wallet!”

“The best thing about being a comedian is being able to laugh at myself. I laugh at where I’m from. I know that Americans are out of shape, we don’t know about geography. The comics here are learning to do that too.”

“Being able to make fun of themselves, and have fun with it. Singapore’s a cool place, there are things great about it, and some things wrong. But it’s all funny.”

Lewis believes that through humor, Singapore will find a voice to explore even some of its touchier subjects.

“It’s possible for them to express themselves, to be independent on stage as a comedian,” says Lewis.

“They can almost say what they want, because it’s comedy, it’s satire. They’re not trying to get people to start a coup, they’re trying to get people to relax -– and not think about the bills, or how much the ministers are getting paid. It takes people away from what they’re thinking about.”

New Zealand-born editor and writer Luke Clark is working on a series of features on Asian scene-changers, from B-Boys and underground musicians, to photographers, designers and environmentalists.

Read more about Luke Clark