Comedians (clockwise from forefront) Imaan Hadchiti, Nik Coppin, Sarah Jones and Jason Chong will be performing at the Magners Singapore International Comedy Festival
Comedy fans are spoilt for choice this weekend as there are two new stand-up comedy festivals in town.
From tonight till Saturday night, the inaugural Magners Singapore International Comedy Festival and Singapore Comedy Fringe 2014 will feature the talents of close to 70 comedians between them.
The Magners festival has brought in 38 international comics from countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States and the Fringe will focus on Asian talent. The majority of its 30 comedians are from the region, including Malaysia, India and Singapore, though comedians from Australia and the US will be featured too.
The Fringe is organised by Mr Jonathan Atherton, 52, and Mr Heazry Salim, 39, founders of the six-year-old Comedy Club Asia which promotes the stand-up comedy scene in Asia with monthly events in Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
Mr Atherton says: "Comedy in Singapore was very much about English humour and the audience was all angmoh when we started. Now at least half of them are Singaporeans and we have Singaporeans on stage telling jokes too."
He adds that local audiences "have really embraced comedy and we wanted a festival that showcases local and regional talent".
One of the Magners festival organisers, Briton Quill Potter, 45, was planning a comedy festival with Comedy Club Asia. But differences in opinion on who to bring in and how to market the event led to their split last year.
Mr Potter says: "Our festival is at Boat Quay, a heavily expatriate area, so we decided to target more of the international market with shows that are widely relatable and which would appeal to expatriates and locals."
He moved to Singapore 12 years ago and specialises in organising comedy events in the region. He is organising the Magners festival together with Mr Matt Bennett, 46, managing director of Magicrock events company.
In addition to the traditional format of stand-up comedy shows, the Magners festival includes improvisational shows such as Joke Thieves, in which comedians perform one another's material; or Shaggers, where they talk about their sex lives or the lack thereof.
After the split with Mr Potter, the founders of Comedy Club Asia decided to plan the Fringe on their own.
Mr Atherton says: "We didn't know he had continued planning his festival until February this year and by that time, we had already booked our venue." The Fringe's shows will be held twice nightly at DBS Arts Centre.
He admits that having two festivals in such close proximity is a bit strange and adds: "There's enough room in the market for everyone to have a good time. Between the two festivals and the comedy theatre show Happy Ever Laughter at the Esplanade, there must be 100 comedians working in Singapore this week. It's pretty wild. The consumers are the winners here."
Happy Ever Laughter by Singapore actress- producer Selena Tan's Dream Academy Productions features 13 stand-up comedy performers, including Kumar and Hossan Leong, and newcomers Fuzz and Zul, both of whom were groomed at the Comedy Club Asia.
Despite their split, organisers of the Magners Singapore International Comedy Festival and Singapore Comedy Fringe maintain that there is no bad blood between them.
Mr Potter says: "It's good because it means there's more word about the festivals, more choice for consumers and everyone wins."
Mr Atherton adds: "I hope we will all have a great festival and maybe we can work together next year."
Local comedians and comedy fans are thrilled at the prospect of having so many comedy acts. Singapore comedienne Sharul Channa, 27, who is performing in the Fringe, says she is looking forward to what she calls the comedy world's "United Nations meeting" here.
She says: "Singapore has become a port for comedy and for the first time, we are piecing together the Asian comedy community. I'm looking forward to seeing the kinds of jokes people crack, to watch and learn, and make connections with other comedians so that we can do shows in other countries and learn about different audiences."
1. Magners Singapore International Comedy Festival
NIK COPPIN (Britain)
The 41-year-old British comedian is nervous. Though the bachelor has been making audiences laugh for 15 years and visited Singapore a couple of times, this will be his first stand-up show here.
He says: "I'm always a little apprehensive doing shows for the first time for a completely different audience. My jokes could get completely different responses than what I'm used to."
His solo show, titled Mixed Racist, is about his mixed race heritage (his mum is English and his dad is from Barbados), his experience growing up in England and the legal battle which ensued when an Australian radio presenter allegedly misinterpreted one of his jokes, called him a racist and threw him out of the studio a few years ago.
Coppin will perform tonight till Saturday night at 7.45pm at London Bar at Boat Quay. He says: "There are lots of different cultures in Singapore, but not many black people. I hope to bring a bit of my life and how people react to race in Australia and the UK. I think it is a relevant, interesting and funny show."
SARAH JONES (Australia)
When Jones, 31, wanted to be a ventriloquist, she discovered there were not many professionals around.
The Melbourne-based comedienne says: "I had to study it in books. It's a bit of a dying art form."
Ventriloquism is a stage craft that dates back to 18th-century England. Performers are able to "throw" and change their voice so that it sounds like their puppet is speaking while their own lips rarely move.
It is a difficult skill to master and one which baffles fans. The comedian, who is single, says: "A lot of people, especially the older ones, think it's a gift to have a double voice, rather than a learnt skill."
She has performed her comedic-ventriloquism for adults and children around the world, including Australia and Britain, as well as on cruise-ships from the Middle East to the Pacific Islands.
"Older generations have a bit of nostalgia about it, but most of the younger people haven't seen ventriloquism before. The idea of a talking puppet is creepy to them. There's a lot of mysticism about it and it is exciting for people to see for themselves," she says.
She will perform her show, called Sarah Jones Does Not Play Well With Others, on Friday and Saturday at 8.45pm at The Mens Room in Circular Road.
It is about how she herself became a ventriloquist - she started her career as a professional stage magician before moving on to puppetry and ventriloquism in her late 20s - a story she tells with the help of six puppets, including a resentful toy cat and an old smelly sock.
She says the best ventriloquists allow audiences "to suspend belief and get invested in the crazy characters and antics that are happening in front of you. Puppets don't need to adhere to rules of anything, like gravity, science or morality. You can get away with a lot more".
IMAAN HADCHITI (Australia)
As a teenager, Hadchiti wondered what he could be when he grew up.
But standing at only 1.016m tall and with no chance of growing any more because of a rare genetic condition called Rima Syndrome, he thought he might be suited for the world of entertainment.
So for the work experience that his school had assigned, he started to shadow Australian comedienne Monica Dullard, who encouraged him to pursue comedy.
Says the 24-year-old, who is of Lebanese descent: "She brought me backstage at live TV shows and radio shows, showed me the ins and outs of comedy. I haven't seen her since, but I still remember her helping me out."
With her help, he was only 15 when he won a competition called Class Clowns for comedians under 18. Since then, he has been a professional comedian, touring and doing stand-up comedy shows in Britain, Europe and Australia. This will be his first show in Asia.
Titled Evolution Of Imaan (pronounced e-man), it is about his development as a comedian. It starts with stories about his childhood and teenage years and reveals his thoughts and observations on religion, how humans think and act and his own diminutive stature. He will perform at 8.15pm at Boomarang Boat Quay on festival nights.
The bachelor says: "It's a relaxed show about heavy topics. I think comedy is the best way to approach heavy topics. If you go into these conversations with gusto, if you are too serious, people might think you're arrogant. But if you are relaxed about topics like religion, they are more likely to laugh with you."
2. Singapore Comedy Fringe 2014
HUNG LE (Australia)
Before he was a comedian, he was a busker, playing the violin on the streets of Melbourne at 15 years old. Then he joined a musical-comedy troupe in the early 1990s.
"I wanted to tell my story about growing up in Vietnam, jumping on a boat and going to Australia as a refugee, and people liked it. I've been doing it ever since," says the bachelor, who escaped to Australia with his family at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 when he was nine.
His act, which he performs as part of the Happy Endings show on Saturday at 9.30pm, revolves around humorous travel experiences and what it was like to be one of the first Asian kids in Australia.
One of his favourite stories is what happened when his mum made one of her first visits to the local supermarket. "My mum went to the store and came back with a box of cornflakes, which had a chicken on the box so we thought it was chicken.
"My mum made us cornflake and soy sauce sandwiches to take to school, and of course, all the kids laughed at us, but my dad ate cornflake and condensed milk sandwiches for 15 years. I think he liked it," he recalls.
HARITH ISKANDER (Malaysia)
Harith, 48, likes telling people he has the best job in the world. "My job involves going to a coffee shop, reading a newspaper and getting my ideas from there or from watching the people around me," says the comedian, who compares his style of humour to American comedians Eddie Murphy and Jerry Seinfeld.
"My act is all observational comedy, giving people a funny slice of life," the married father of two adds.
He got his start in the early 1990s when a friend, a hotel general manager in Kuala Lumpur, invited him to tell his funny stories during music breaks in the hotel lobby lounge. From then on, he was invited to perform at clubs and private parties until he was able to pursue stand up comedy full-time in 1996.
He says: "I didn't do it seriously at first. It didn't strike me as a job or career or anything because I was having so much fun doing it." He will perform as part of the Malaysian Mirth Mafia with three other Malaysian comedians tomorrow night at 9.30pm.
SHARUL CHANNA (Singapore)
There are not many female faces in stand-up comedy, particularly in Asia.
"There are maybe 10 female comediennes in Asia, and only three or four travelling around the region," says Channa, 27, who has been doing her stand-up routines in Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai, Hong Kong and Macau for the past 1½ years with a show called Comedy On Heels.
Her husband Rishi Budhrani, 29, is also a stand-up comedian. She adds: "It is an opportunity to let audiences know that women can be funny too. The stereotype is that we are coy and shy, and we laugh while covering our mouths. But we have a lot of things to say and we're ready to talk."
Her show, together with the work of five other comediennes tonight at 7.30pm, will cover topics such as race and relationships, including how Asian men depict women - "You're a keeper, but after you're married, you're a house keeper".
She says: "It is about addressing our experiences as human beings, important issues we face, not just tampons and periods."
Which jokes she tells depends on the demographic of her audience and she likens each show to a date.
"When you first sit down, you want to find all the common ground and then you start talking about your differences.
"You are forming a relationship for the next two hours," she adds.
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on April 23, 2014. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.