story | Lian Szu-Jin, Staff Writer
photos | Daryl Chan
Perched on a high stool with a tall glass of beer, the chatter of after-work bankers and pulsing pub music in the background, I chatted with 41 year-old Umar Rana, founder and host of Comedy Masala, Singapore’s biggest and most popular weekly stand-up comedy show.
“I always knew that Comedy Masala was going to be massive—something very big that Singapore hasn’t seen. Which is why I started doing it in the first place,” said a proud Umar. Masala has been putting up shows every Tuesday night for the past seven years, and the show has been ranked among the top 10 comedy nights in the world by Traveller Australia. With an eclectic mix of international and local comedians taking the stage each Tuesday, audiences should be prepared for a night of zero-filter comedy and unadulterated laughter.
Comedy Masala is therapy. If you’re sick of pretence, censorship and itchy self-consciousness, this is the place for you. It is sometimes crude, always frank, and painfully witty; you’ll find the slightly intoxicated crowd as gripping their sides and guffawing at wonderfully clever jokes.
Umar always opens with the fact that he’s Pakistani, using his origin as a dual citizen of America with a Muslim background to spin some fun into what we would consider “taboo” topics on the street. Umar is a chockful of politically incorrect jokes, self deprecation and hilariously clever takes on current day issues. Be prepared to be offended, but in a good way. “It’s OK because we offend everyone at Masala!” joked Umar on stage.
If you’re sick of pretence, censorship and itchy self-consciousness, this is the place for you.
Umar moved to Singapore in 2007. Previously a banker, he eventually gave that career up to pursue his first passion— comedy. He runs Masala entirely on his own, from dealing with customer bookings to sourcing comedians and producing the show. He opened up about struggling in the beginning, having close to zero experience running a comedy show. His recipe to success is passion. “It’s always easier to pursue something you love doing. When you love something so much and you’re really passionate about it, you don’t tend to think of how difficult it is managing multiple objects. It all just rolls up into one big love and passion- it’s what you want to do. Also, working for yourself is a great thing.”
Apart from managing Masala, Umar enjoys being a comedian. “It’s a real rush being up on stage, bantering with the audience, making people laugh. I love improv and the live crowd.” Umar also gets to enjoy his own shows. “There’ve been some fantastic comedians who’ve come here like Alonzo Bodden and people like Dwayne Perkins who absolutely murder on stage. It’s a lot of fun watching that happen and just watching the audience react to them. It’s very electric, you know; that vibe, that feeling? That’s unmatched.”
Umar also believes strongly in developing the stand-up comedy community in Singapore, and this is a key motivation in providing the platform for local comedians to grow. “A lot of them have made their debuts over here, like Jinx [Yeo], Rishi [Budhrani] and Fakkah Fuzz. There are a lot of people who started at Masala, or used Masala as the launching platform for their careers,” said Umar.
Looking forward, Umar will be launching Masala in Pakistan this week—Pakistan’s first ever comedy show, no less—and hopes to turn Pakistan into the next Asian hub for stand-up comedy. “Pakistan is a very vibrant country, and very big. I want to do this for Pakistan as well, [and] change the perception of Pakistanis across the world. Like yeah, you know, Pakistanis, they do stand-up, they’re nice people, not all of them are f***ing terrorists.” Umar said, laughing.
However, Umar has his reservations about expanding Masala in Singapore. When asked why, he explained, “I don’t think the future is very bright for stand-up in Singapore. Over here, people are still too concerned about ‘can I say this or can I say that?’ The censorship makes people paranoid. More importantly, Singapore is very small. I keep trying to hit a target of an average of 120 or 130 people per show, but it’s difficult.” Umar explained that in Singapore’s small “ecosystem”, stand-up comedy has reached a saturation point where the pools of comedians and of potential audience members are the same.
Over here [in Singapore], people are still too concerned about ‘can I say this or can I say that?’
In fact, Umar sent out an email to his regular audience members in January about how he was close to shutting Masala down due to rising expenses and losing Masala’s property rights. “Surviving in this place is just not easy. Everything is frightfully expensive,” he wrote. When asked more about this, he said, “The comedy scene in Singapore has reached a plateau and I think it’s gonna start coming down. The number of people here isn’t enough. I’ve already seen numbers decreasing across all comedy nights and that’s a pretty worrying sign. What’s going to be left is just some comedy nights that kinda happen regularly.” Despite the setbacks, Umar has been determinedly keeping Masala alive in Singapore, with his weekly emails and exciting line-ups promising something to liven up your mid-week monotony.
In short, Masala is here to stay. They have shifted to Hero’s along Circular Road and—from what I experienced—appear to be a favourite amongst the locals and expats here. “The best way to learn about any culture is through comedy. Go to any city, any country. If you want to really learn what the people are about, go see a live comedy show! It’s an educational experience,” said Umar. “Lots of the expats have told me that when they come to Masala, they learn so much about local culture- the good, the bad, the quirks, and how Singaporeans would queue for things like Hello Kitties.”
Catch Comedy Masala every Tuesday night, 8pm @ HERO’S, 69 Circular Road, Singapore 049423. Tickets are priced at $18-22 for online early bird sales, $25 for adult walk ins, and $15 for students above the age of 18.