For the past five years, local gal Jocelyn Chia has been performing as a professional stand-up comic, through shows that she admits range from awful to awesome. She splits her time between New York and Singapore, and is in Singapore to perform at the Magners International Comedy Festival, starting 15 March. She tells us about what mum thinks of her job, what not to say to a comedian, and who she’d like to have in her audience.
My very first dream job was to be a teacher. I would stand on a stool, writing against a real board, “sharing knowledge” with my imaginary students… You can say that desire to share continued as my next ambition, was to become a journalist. I was an intern at The Straits Times, 8 Days, etc. and it was during this experience – while I was interviewing someone – that I distinctly remember secretly wishing to be on the other side of the table, to be the one that’s interviewed; to be the one who has an opinion to share. This desire to “share my opinions” actually landed me my first op-ed where I wrote about “How political correctness is clamping down on freedom of speech.”
I studied law in Georgetown University in Washington D.C. and went on to practice law in one of the top 10 firms in New York City, as a corporate attorney, specialising in mergers and acquisitions, yup! Living the dream as a good Asian egg, you can say, mum and dad were definitely proud of me – up until then at least. And one fine spring day, I attended a stand-up comedy show, not realising it will uproot my entire life.
Aziz Ansari was the headline act – and I don’t remember what the joke was, or who I was with, I just remember that whilst everybody was laughing, I was crying in my seat; it wasn’t even, a laugh-cry. It was a sad-cry. The show was over and I went back to my usual programming.
It wasn’t until I found myself crying again, at another stand-up comedy – this time it was Jon Laster who had the privilege of making me weep – that I confronted what those tears really meant. It’s anger, envy, longing, and desire, all rolled into one. It hit me – hard – that this is what I want to do with my life; to stand up there and share, perform and entertain.
And so I did it.
Today I am a professional comedian. It took me years to be able to boldly announce that I am a comedian, so please let me have this moment.
For the first few years, I didn’t feel good referring to myself as a comedian at all. I would say I jumped from a hobbyist/apprentice comedian to the leagues of a professional comedian, by my estimation, only some time last year.
The definitive factor? Money.
When I started out, it was not unusual to only be paid $5 or $10 (yes, I’ve gotten those) per gig. I remember celebrating when I got paid $100 for a show. Maybe it’s the Chinese Singaporean in me talking, but money is a benchmark of success for me – only when I saw that I was getting paid good money to do what I do, did I consider myself a professional. Of course other benchmarks include being amongst experienced comedians I respect in the community – as a marker of “moving up”, and getting call-backs, etc.
As for embracing my Asian heritage and image, some Asian comics definitely do capitalise on that – to great effect – for sure, but I was given the advice by mentors starting out, to not rely on that. So you can say yes, my heritage does inform my humour, but definitely do not want to do the “Asian guys have small penises” and “Asian girls are really subservient” kind of jokes. I can be self-deprecating, but I don’t want to denigrate my race.
People have commented that my brand of comedy is considered a “New York style”, which is not surprising, after all, I consider New York City home now, and my comedian and performance coach and mentors, colleagues and friends are mostly from or based there. My style, as NY-style is often compared to, is a style that emphasises strong writing. It is impatient, brash, and fast-paced, as compared to say the “Los Angeles style”, where the emphasis is on acting and performing. My comedy influences include Mark Normand, Sam Morril, Andrew Shulz and Michelle Wolf. I want to name those who are not necessarily well known by the general public, but who are respected by the community.
I actually think there is a social pay-off to be funny as a guy, but almost a negative social pay-off to be a funny female. It might sound old fashioned, but for me at least, men are still intimidated by a funny female (might explain why I’m still single) but that’s a story for another time.
Meanwhile, my parents – mum especially – absolutely hate my new job. My parents came for my Comedy Central taping last year and on the way home my mum asked: “Is it too late to go back to law?” If that’s the case, you might ask, why do I still do it? Because the high I get from a great show is unlike any feeling in the world.
Just last week I was invited to consider teaching comedy, and it’s something I’m seriously considering. Brings me back to my original dream job!
Little fun feedback for my fellow Singaporeans, we are known to be one of the hardest audience to get a laugh out of! Comedians who have come through Singapore will actually warn fellow comedians: “You know that joke of yours that will usually get you a 100 decibel laugh? Well, it will only get you a 60 in Singapore.”
Could be that our culture is more reticent… For instance, I know if I see some expats in the audience, it’s going to be a fun show. But if it’s made up of mostly Singaporean Chinese, it could be a quiet show in that they won’t laugh-out-loud as much but rather “um-chiou” (dialect for a silent laugh). I’ve had friends say that, “yeah, we were laughing on the inside” and I’m like “that is not helpful.”
Check out her upcoming show at the Magners International Comedy Festival, happening 15 & 16 and 21–23 March @ Clarke Quay Singapore. Tickets at comedyfest.asia