George Chan is the director of stand-up comedy extravaganza Happy Ever Laughter, but that doesn’t mean the 41-year-old stage veteran considers himself funny. ‘People laugh at me, but not with me,’ he says, sheepishly fl ashing his trademark toothy grin. ‘I think lots of people look at me and say, “Why is George directing this? He’s not very funny, right?” But I think the secret to comedy is precision and timing – deciding exactly when the chuckles are, when the belly laugh is, when to leave space, hold back and make the audience beg for more.’
Chan knows a thing or two about precision and timing. After several years on Broadway, where performers can’t afford to miss a step, he moved on to choreographing high-profile shows such as Into the Woods and serving as a judge on The Dance Floor, Singapore’s answer to the American dance-show competition, So You Think You Can Dance. In 2008, he made the leap to theatre directing with the comedy revue The Hossan Leong Show 2, which proved to be such a hit that he now directs comedies almost exclusively, from The Hossan Leong Show 3 to Crazy Christmas and, now, Happy Ever Laughter.
Risk-taker that he is, Chan is unfazed at the fact that most of the show’s cast has never done standup. ‘We’ve got some of the best people in Singapore,’ he says. ‘Some people think standup is just improvising, throwing down onstage. But mostly you know what you’re going to say. It’s not that different from a comic monologue. Frame the jokes through rehearsals, decide where the laughs and the pauses are. You just need to be a master of precision, of drama, to do it well. And all these people are.’
Indeed, the list of stars featured in the show reads like a who’s who of Singapore comedy: from standup and stage vets Kumar, Selena Tan (Dim Sum Dollies) and Sebastian Tan (Broadway Beng) to local TV titans Gurmit Singh (Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd), Moses Lim (Under One Roof), and Michelle Chong and Chua Enlai (both of The Noose). Also taking part are YouTube stars Munah & Hirzi and award-winning thespian Siti Khalijah, among others. Each will do ten to 15 minutes of solo standup.
Cast member Judee Tan, 31, star of both The Noose and a range of local stage shows, admits to feeling a bit jittery at the prospect of doing standup for the first time. ‘I’ve done monologues. For those, it’s a bonus if it’s funny. But I’ve heard it’s a rule that standup must be funny every 30 seconds.’ Deepening Tan’s sense of unease is the fact that, like her fellow cast members, she’s responsible for coming up with her own material. ‘So people can kill me for it if they don’t like it,’ she deadpans.
At least she’ll be on familiar ground, having written herself a character who’s a ‘foreign talent’ – a ‘China-nese’ woman, as she puts it – to distinguish her from a Singapore-born Chinese. ‘I’ve played China-nese characters before, but this time it just happened. During the photo shoot, before we’d confirmed ideas for the scripts, (producer) Selena Tan said to style me as a China-nese girl. So we decided to just develop my script along those lines.’
The character may owe her creation to chance, but Tan does have strong views about what she sees as the growing prevalence of anti-Chinese immigrant sentiment here. ‘Why discriminate against them? There are people I don’t particularly like from any race,’ she says. ‘There’s a stereotype that China-nese are boorish, crass villagers. But I much prefer that to locals and foreigners with colonial, anti-Asian hang-ups. Plus, I know lots of Singaporeans who are worse than China-nese. I was trying to get into a cab and this Singapore auntie rushed in front of me and screamed at her children to get in before I could. Am I in China? I’m not in China.’
Tan’s Happy Ever Laughter character would never dream of behaving in such an uncouth manner. ‘She’s a refined, girly Shanghai diva, a cheongsam-wearing songstress like those from Teresa Teng’s era, embodying everything beautiful and feminine,’ Tan says. ‘She might have some quirks that people call stereotypical China-nese, but she thinks they’re just common sense.’
On the other hand, maybe her character’s not so prim and proper after all. ‘Lots of my favourite bits were edited out because they were supposedly bordering on offensive and vulgar,’ says Tan, who was also asked by producers to prepare a different character and script ‘just in case’ – so there’s a chance audiences won’t get to meet her diva at all. ‘It was all mild to me,’ Tan says, eyes widening in mock surprise.
‘Humour is so subjective. Sometimes I worry, what if my stuff’s not funny, what if, what if, what if? But in between those what ifs, it’s who gives a f**k, who gives a f**k, who gives a f**k? I think people should come in with an open mind. If you come in judging, you’re not going to get your money’s worth. If you allow the performer to have fun, you’ll be able to have fun, too.’
Happy Ever Laughter is at Esplanade Theatre from 27 Jun-8 Jul.