One of Singapore’s most prominent standup acts, Sharul Channa is currently on her India tour and recently performed in Delhi. She speaks to Bulbul Sharma about jokes that have a global reach.
In 2017, Sharul Channa became the first Singaporean woman to perform a solo standup show. She is currently in India, on a 14-city tour that began with a performance in Mumbai on 3 August, and will end on 1 September, in Hyderabad. Channa speaks to Guardian 20 about the challenges of being a full-time female comedian, and what inspired her latest show, Sharul Channa is a Pottymouth.
Q. How did your professional journey as a comedian begin?
A. I have been a standup comedian for eight-and-a-half years. I was trained in theatre at the Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore, with a three year diploma in acting. After which, I pursued my degree in communications from the University at Buffalo. The plan was to become a theatre actor, but one fine day I found myself standing outside the first-ever open-mic night in Singapore, and the organiser of the show persuaded me to jump up on stage and try doing a three-minute set since there were no women performers at that time. After trying my hand at it, I was hooked. I found it very liberating to be my own writer, director, performer and producer. Also, that instant validation of a performance excited me.
Q. You are the only full-time female comedian in Singapore. Did you face any challenges when you started out?
A. Yes, I had to fight the stereotypes that female stand-up comedians have to face. I had to work hard to become a good comedian and not let people judge me by their preconceived notions. After a minute of your being on stage, people should be able to look past your gender and listen to what you have to say. That’s where the decision is made if you are actually funny or not. If the answer is yes, then nothing can stop you.
Q. How do you define your style of comedy?
A. I think I follow the American style of comedy. I don’t have a specific style but I do love to act out my bits on stage. I love to speak about my experiences, observations, women’s issues and also jokes on relationships.
Q. What are the pros and cons of being a comedian in a place like Singapore?
A. When you live in a city like Singapore, you have to make sure that you can perform for people of all nationalities and backgrounds. You end up writing international jokes that can travel everywhere. That is the biggest advantage. The disadvantage is when you live in a city like Singapore, you have to perform at your best at all times as you don’t know which international producer might be watching you. There is a lot of pressure there.
Having said that, there are many more pros of being an Asian comedian. There are so many topics pertaining to Asian culture and its idiosyncrasies that haven’t been touched or tackled. Our culture is so diverse and we could educate and entertain people with so many of our quirks.
Q. You are married to the comedian Rishi Budhrani. Do you help each other with the content?
A. We don’t help each other, but we do sometimes run our jokes past each other to see what works and what doesn’t. Rishi is my biggest supporter and also my biggest critic, so I trust his word on my work.
Q. Where do you derive your content from? What is your creative process?
A. I make sure that I observe people when I am out and about, and keep writing notes either on my phone or notebook to make jokes using this material. I dedicate some time to write everyday and then hit the open-mic to see what works. Sometimes, I find jokes on stage. Ad-libbing on stage sometimes helps with finding some comedy gems.
Q. Creating content for a global audience needs a lot of research and cultural awareness. One must know which topics and subjects an audience might be sensitive to. Do you consider all this before you begin touring?
A. I make sure I find out what is current in the news in each city. The questions I ask are: “What has gone viral recently? What are people upset about? What are people sensitive about?” I also try to find out the demographics and the gender ratio in the city.
Q. There still aren’t many female comedians in Asia. What do you think is the reason for that?
There are many talents coming up, but as every profession needs time to be perfected, many of these comedians are taking time to become good at what they do instead of making fame their priority.
Q. Tell us about your influences.
A. Ellen Degeneres, Jerry Seinfeld, Umer Shareef, Chris Rock, my parents.
Q. How did the show, Sharul Channa is a Pottymouth, happen? What inspired it?
A. I was performing at a stand-up show called Happy Every Laughter and the media was in to watch it. I had cracked a joke on the local paper in Singapore and one of the writers from the paper was sitting in for the show. I think she got offended and called me a “Pottymouth” in her review. I loved that name so much, I kept it. I am a pottymouth but you need to give me a bit of discretion as I am from Singapore. I am a sanitised version of a pottymouth.
Q. You are currently on tour in India. How does it feel to be here, performing for an Indian audience?
A. It feels great to be performing in India. Each city is different. They laugh at different points. Indian audiences are one of the most loving and vocal audiences ever. Indians love to be entertained and I love to entertain, so we have a common goal there.
Q. What are your upcoming projects?
A. I am shooting for a Channel News Asia series called, Rishi and Sharul Try. Additionally, I am performing a one-woman dark comedy monologue called Crazy Poor Sita, which is based on low-income women in Singapore trying to bring up their children single-handedly. This is happening in Singapore on 14 September 2019.I am also securing gigs in the Philippines, Indonesia and other parts of Asia in the coming few months, where I will be performing Pottymouth by Sharul Channa.