Comedians are today’s philosophers and comedy tends to reflect society’s current culture and political climate. As satirist Alan King once said, “It’s a distorted mirror in the fun house.” And if that’s the case, then Singapore’s house is in absolute disarray.
A casual browse through the local comedy creators on YouTube will reveal that we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to content. Fortunately, a few creators have started writing clever routines and sketches with an Asian slant that are as funny as they are thoughtful. One of them, The Benzi Project – the name is a portmanteau of its creators Benjamin Kheng and Hirzi Zulkiflie – has been generating some buzz. We chat with the duo about the self-funded channel and the state of comedy in Singapore.
So, why do you think the local comedy scene is so bad?
Hirzi: It’s supply and demand. The generation that first went on YouTube was us, and we grew up with ’90s sitcoms and a Mediacorp format of comedy. Unfortunately, the majority of it was Chinese-driven narratives, which is why you get racial rhetoric and slapstick jokes. We found it funny at that point in time. But, comedy evolves with the times, as do narratives. The first wave of YouTubers produced content that consumers wanted. Now the challenge is to introduce Western-style content with an Asian flavour into Singapore.
Ben: I’ve always wanted to be a part of the solution and The Benzi Project is a chance to do that. It’s almost disappointing if you have a platform and don’t try to use it. With regard to the local scene, I completely understand why most folks structure their video content that way. It’s just a wise business choice and you can’t knock on that. From a statistical point of view, they are all successes.
Do you feel that comedy is dead?
Hirzi: Comedy is a coping mechanism as much as it is a way to address specific issues in society. The issue with comedy and how it has evolved over time is access. Back when social media wasn’t in existence, comedy was in the house of the comic. If you wanted to consume his comedy, you went to his house, and that meant that you respect everything he had to say. Even if he made fun of you at your expense, you’d be okay with it because you paid for it and you knew what you were in for.
The problem with access now is that people online take offence without realising that they are in the house of the comic. And it’s tricky because comedy needs to evolve with this development. Of course, there are smart ways of addressing specific issues and one of it is what we call reverse-punching.
I wanted to get your thoughts on the brownface incident.
Hirzi: Let’s break it down. Yes the e-pay advertisement was racist, but is it illegal? No, technically, because it didn’t incite hate. This is when you deconstruct the body of work for what it is. Now, with the case of the e-pay ad, you always ask yourself, when something is seemingly racist, what is the appropriate reaction to it? When I saw the ad, I wasn’t furious. I just thought that it was distasteful.
To be fuelled with rage and charge at people is not the appropriate reaction. We could have used the advertisement to create conversation. It’s so sad because I can empathise with your frustration. This is not the first time a minority has tried to voice its concerns. I just wish she had done something different.
If your purpose was to illuminate the cause, then you’ve failed because all you did was polarise the audience. Trump’s campaign was based on that, on making people pick sides and that’s dangerous.
Ben: As a member of the Chinese population, I think it’s just my time to listen and understand. We’ve done enough damage over the past few years. I understand the reaction of both sides and sometimes Chinese people need the subtlety of a car crash to wake up and recognise their bigotry and racism. But you cannot devalue how something makes people feel.
Let’s go back to The Benzi Project. I understand it’s self-funded.
Ben: [laughs] We relied a lot on “friendship rates”, but it still cost us a lot of money, which is why we had to halt activity. Many people have asked us about going onto [funding platform] Patreon but I don’t want to disappoint our patrons. We felt a little sad to stop production because we still had a heap of ideas.
Hirzi: Actually, we are currently working with Comedy Central Asia on a partnered series, Stand-Up Asia. We’re hosting it and interlinking the gig with our comedy. It’s a bit like Saturday Night Live, where you host and also take part in the sketches.
Ben: We’re currently in pre-production now and will go into full production in October. It’s a great relief because honestly, we’ve been bogged down with the cost and the logistics and all of that, so it’s great to be freed up to focus on the comedy and the writing.