Hardcore ‘Pore

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Everything is a circle. The Malaysian rains feed the Singapore River, which wends toward the sea. Evaporation brings the moisture skyward and the circle continues. My Singapore comedy journey follows a similar path.

Before I performed in Singapore, the only thing I knew about it was that an American teenager was caught vandalizing cars and subsequently punished by having his butt whipped with a bamboo cane until he bled. That, and also chewing gum was illegal.

It surprised me, then, when I was offered the opportunity to do comedy there in 2004. After all, what sort of crowds could I expect to encounter in a country where laws were enacted to make children bleed and deprive them of the joys of bubble gum? As it turns out, a place like that starves its audiences for fun and they were some of the best crowds I would come across. The now-defunct 1 Nite Stand comedy club, which was located along the Singapore River at Clarke Quay, was my introduction to the awesomeness of the Lion City.

The 1 Nite Stand was Singapore’s only proper comedy club, and even then it was just one weekend a month. Offering international comedians, the Stand allowed Singaporeans the chance to regularly see professional comedy from abroad. Some ago, the club had offered Australian comedian Jonathan Atherton the chance to move to Singapore and become the club’s resident comic. Shortly after moving from Brisbane, however, the Stand closed down and Atherton found himself out of a gig.

So Atherton picked himself up by the bootstraps and opened his own comedy club, The Comedy Club Asia. This is where I first met him, five years after my first Singapore experience. Atherton’s club wasn’t a traditional four-walled enterprise, but rather it was a series of roving shows taking place one week every month. A night at the British Club, one at the Dutch Club, a couple of nights at a local nightclub; it seemed the perfect way to avoid the fate of the 1 Nite Stand. His shows have come to draw laugh-hungry Singaporeans en masse, as well as visiting celebrities. Lady Gaga snuck in one night to catch the show. Once, when I was performing at The Comedy Club Asia, the Harlem Globetrotters stopped by for a night of laughs.

While in Singapore during that 2009 trip, my friend and comedian/club-owner Jami Gong came along with me and taught an introductory stand-up class to hopeful comics. Among the aspiring first-timers was Umar Rana, an intense Pakistani ex-patriot. He proved to be one of the most promising acts that night, and I would run into him again.

I returned to perform at The Comedy Club Asia again a year later, happy to see its growth and the growth of the audiences, as well. Since the last time I had been in Singapore, Jonathan Atherton had grown his business and collaborated with partners in Malaysia and Indonesia to do a longer string of international shows in the region. Atherton also began to cultivate the local, advising Umar Rana on Rana’s new Comedy Masala open mic. Smart move, since Atherton now had a pool of comics at the ready should he need one for his shows at The Comedy Club Asia.

Such is the great quality of audiences in Singapore that Rana was able to guide Comedy Masala into a real juggernaut itself. The weekly Masala shows were gathering regular sold-out crowds numbering in the hundreds at its Home Club location along that magical Singapore River.

Paul Ogata, Papa CJ, Harith Iskander, Jonathan Atherton, Ronnie Chieng and Kumar. Backstage at the Esplanade Concert Hall, 2011.

Pleased about the wonderful state of comedy there, I left Singapore thinking it couldn’t get any better. Then it did. Late in 2010, Atherton and his partners set out to do a huge theater show, featuring top Asian comedians. Its first incarnation, The Kings and Queen of Comedy Asia, sold out the 850-seat Singapore Conference Hall. He then took the show to Kuala Lumpur and sold out an even larger venue. He called to get me on the next show in 2011.

The second Kings and Queen show went bonkers and we ended up selling out two nights at the 1600-seat Esplanade concert hall, and then two more nights in Kuala Lumpur. Singapore is truly a country in the mood to laugh, and I have made it a mission to supply those laughs as best as I can.

Enter Umar Rana. (Or, rather, re-enter Umar Rana.) He and a partner began branching out to better feed the nation’s hungry appetite for comedy. Aside from the regular Comedy Masala shows, Rana brought me in to do an hour-long set, supported by local comedian Fin Carew and my friend Jami Gong, at The Arts House, the former home of Singapore’s Parliament.

What’s that, you say? The country’s former seat of government now a venue for comedy? Well, yes, but also for plays, poetry readings and other performances. The chairs in The Arts House still have attached to them the brass name tags of politicians who last sat in them. You can totally sit in the chair of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

As I sat in the room before the show, it hit me: in these very chambers is where the law against bubble gum was enacted. This is where it was decided to use corporal punishment on teenagers for graffiti. This is where, for over 40 years, all the laws of Singapore were passed. It was a heavy moment. Can you imagine doing comedy on the floor of the United States Capitol? I suppose politicians do enough of that on the regular in Washington DC.

See, everything is a circle.

(I return to Singapore on October 1 for the 3rd Anniversary of Comedy Masala & October 2 for an hour-long solo show at Mink.)

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