Consider the three-act structure of stories: the first act is the set-up, the second tries to resolve the problem established in the first, and, finally, the third resolves said issue. Your basic joke bears similar hallmarks, except the structure of a joke can be boiled down to two parts: the set-up and the punchline.
Set-up: a patient tells the doctor that he feels like a panel of curtains; punchline: the doctor says, pull yourself together. Set-up: a cop tells a guy that he’ll need to conduct a drug test; punchline: the man says, “Cool. What drugs are we testing out?” And so on.
Here’s another: “Sam See walks into a bar…”
The bar in question is Singapore’s China One. Back in 2012, the now-shuttered venue was a Sino-inspired lounge that you had to climb the stairs to in Clarke Quay, a nightlife precinct in the city-state. Inside, overhanging lanterns cast a soft red glow over antique Chinese wood furnishings. You can hear the occasional collision of pool balls at the back of the room. On stage, the house band, Tabula, would usually play, but tonight… tonight is special.
Tonight is a comedy open mic, one that would jumpstart the trajectory of Sam See’s career from a fledgling open micer to the release of his own stand-up special, Coming Out Loud!
“It’s strange that international acts can come to Singapore and the audience will lap it up but when I go on stage with international material, locals won’t have it”
See had always wanted to be an entertainer. While he finds it uncomfortable to talk to someone face-to-face, talking to an audience from the stage with a mic in his hand came naturally to him. In secondary school, he discovered local comedy legend Kumar perform stand-up on YouTube.
“[Then] I moved on to British fare like Frankie Boyle, Eddie Izzard, Jimmy Carr,” See says. His dive into the rabbit hole of stand-up had him exposed to US comedians like Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Joan Rivers and even to the older generation like Moms Mabley and Don Rickles.
See thought that stand-up was something that he could see himself doing in the future. He would later participate in a queer talent show, where his act consisted of singing and a little stand-up (“The jokes were terrible and objectively offensive”). As long as he’s performing in front of a crowd, no matter the number, he was satisfied: “It was less of needing people to see me, than for me to perform. Even if there are five or 500 people in attendance, just as long as I get to do this, I’m happy.”
One of the contestants, a drag queen who goes by Miss Chilli, saw See’s act and asked if he wanted to accompany them to a stand-up open mic in China One. Called Talking Cock, the open mic drew comics, both tyros and veterans, who would hit the stage to test out their material. Although See’s first attempt wasn’t great, he did enjoy the experience. He’d return week after week, trying to better himself – but his act wasn’t working. There was something off about it.
“At the time, only my close friends knew that I was gay,” See says. “I didn’t want anyone else to know so I performed as a straight man.” His subterfuge was warranted: See hasn’t come out to his parents, so he was mindful that anything he says on stage in a public setting might flitter back to them.
The cracks in his armour showed. People started to suspect. Someone asked See, “Why not be honest on stage?” The repeated appearances on stage also aided his decision to drop the mask and be comfortable with who he was. See soon graduated from the weekly open mic shows to headlining shows and soon, he was hosting and organising his own comedy shows.
Joanna Sio, a Hong Kong comic who is now based in the Czech Republic, says that See is the only comic she knows who is willing to do a lot of “free jobs” in order to learn the trade. “Sam is very driven,” Sio adds. “He reaches out to get gigs and to connect with different comics. He doesn’t just talk, he gets the work done and takes comedy very seriously.”
In the span of eight years, See has amassed an impressive body of work – not only has he headlined internationally and run his own comedy shows, See was part of Singaporean TV’s first-ever comedy panel show, OK Chope!, and he opened for Australian comedian Jim Jefferies during the latter’s Asian tour as well as appearing on The Jim Jefferies Show.
In 2019, See conceptualised Coming Out Loud! for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it was picked by Edinburgh Live as the top 14 best Free Fringe shows and by To Do List as one of the top 50 unmissable shows of the Fringe.
Coming Out Loud! chronicles See’s… well, coming out, but it also covers his career in comedy. In October last year, the show was recorded at indie cinema The Projector for a special, which was released on August 8, the day before Singapore celebrated its 55th anniversary as an independent nation. And if a live recording wasn’t enough to put him on nerves, See’s jitters were compounded by the presence of his parents in the audience.
See’s parents are the kind of salt-of-the-earth folks who climbed out from a working-class background into a middle-class level of comfort today. The father travelled often for work and the mother was not only a teacher at his school – she was also See’s tuition teacher at home.
When he first started attending the comedy open mics, See had to skirt the issue of his intention to be a comedian around his parents. “They thought I was at the open mics just to watch the shows,” he says. Eventually, when they discovered See’s ambition to be a comedian, in true Asian parent fashion, they said that he better be the best at it.
And what of his coming out to your parents?
“My coming out story isn’t as glamorous nor inspirational as you might think,” See begins. “It’s… it’s just the worst way to come out to your family.
“I got horrifically drunk one night, came home and woke everybody up. My mum was so irate by this that she kept hitting me with a rolled-up newspaper. She was taken to another room to be consoled and left my dad with me. I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, so I told him that I’m gay. He didn’t know how to react and left. The next day, when I told my mum that I was gay, she didn’t talk to me for a whole month.”
“I didn’t want anyone else to know I was gay, so I performed as a straight man”
In 2016, See was roped in to be part of a local comedy panel TV show called OK Chope! Filmed and telecast weekly, See and other local panellists like Najip Ali and Rishi Budhrani would joke about current events. It was a steady paycheque, and See’s profile rose until Najip poked fun at then-Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak.
Offence was taken, and Najip had to apologise on TV for the gaffe. That led to the axing of OK Chope! “When that show was cancelled, I fell from [my parents’] favour,” See says. “Even after the appearance on The Jim Jefferies Show, even with the international tour, even with the release of my special, it still wasn’t good enough in their eyes.”
But with his parents at the taping of Coming Out Loud!, it must mean they were cool with his homosexuality, right?
“They said they loved the show so I thought that I broke through to them,” he answers. “But when I told my dad about filming him for the promo, he had a look in his eye that I would only describe as fear.”
See’s father asked if he could abstain from saying that he liked the show or if he could not mention that he was okay with the messages behind it.
“I thought I had come so far with them, and now I’m back to square one. I’m back to where I was in like 2012. The difference is, now they know that I’m gay and they are still not cool about it.”
Despite the setback, See can’t afford to stop. He’s not a household name, he’s not making enough coin. The taped special was supposed to be released next year, but the pandemic threw a wrench in his timetable. All things considered, See decided to release it now because he figured that by the time the world emerges from the pandemic, he’d have new material for the stage.
“I could put up my special for free but I did spend money and time on this, and it’s worth putting behind a paywall.”
Now he just needs to see whether the gamble pays off.
Here’s a foolproof way to make God laugh: just tell him your plans.
The deal was that in order for See to advance in his career, he’ll leave Singapore at the end of the year for Los Angeles. However, with the pandemic, those arrangements were scuttled. See considers himself a “ribald comic”, although his material isn’t. It skirts on being blue yet there’s nothing outrightly lewd. “I use innuendo,” See says, “I’m only risqué in Singapore but elsewhere, anywhere in the world and my stuff is considered PG-13.”
His material clicked with overseas audiences, the overwhelming validation making See feel a certain kind of freedom. It gave him an enormous burst of confidence: “I can say boldly that you can take any self-proclaimed local comics and put them and me in any country and I can outperform them 100 per cent of the time.”
That’s not to say that See isn’t willing to compromise. He has, but when it comes to his sexuality, that’s where the compromise stops.
“I’ve seen people who say ‘be true to yourself’ and, in that same breath, remain in the closet just to make some cash. They will only come out when they are further down in their career. I understand why you have to do that, but stop telling kids to be proud of themselves when you wouldn’t do it. That’s hypocritical.”
His intransigent stance has garnered opportunities that he wouldn’t have gotten if he were straight. See has built a special out of it; it’s how he got on The Jim Jefferies Show; it’s how he connected with the internet. Sure, it’s also cost him many gigs; he can’t say that one choice is better than the other, but, at least, he can sleep at night knowing that he made the right one.
And despite an ardent fanbase in Singapore, they can only take him so far. “It’s a small pool of supporters,” See says. “Not at the level of [Singaporean comics] Fakkah Fuzz or Rishi Budhrani.”
Fuzz and Budhrani have material that appeals to a huge audience, a denominator far larger than See’s niche following. Then again, See has always written jokes for an international crowd. It’s not an elitist bent – it’s just something that he feels comfortable joking about.
“It’s strange that international acts can come to Singapore and the audience will lap it up but when I, a local, go on stage with international material, the local populace won’t have it,” he says.
The Aussie comedian Brendon Burns once told See that from his observations of his set, See often chooses the path of most resistance – See is queer in a place where it is borderline illegal, his sets are frowned upon and he doesn’t pander to the masses.
“I’ve seen people who say ‘be true to yourself’ and, in that same breath, remain in the closet just to make some cash”
On stage, See wants to be the best version of himself, yet that’s not to say he hasn’t resorted to playing for easier laughs. “I feel that some Singapore audiences, who can’t relate to queer people, might react better if I don’t act ‘gay’. Some [queer] comics might use that stereotype, [that’s fine but] personally, I won’t proceed with that.”
Is there anything else that he finds grating in the comedy scene?
“Uncreative jokes,” See says without missing a beat. “I’m not the most creative comic in the world but if I can telegraph the ending to your joke before you can or if the joke ends on some tired racial punchline, then you’ve failed. Also, it’s not funny if a guy dresses as a woman on stage – it’s not drag, it’s just some dude putting on a dress for laughs.”
See didn’t know how guarded the Singaporean comedy scene was until the pandemic hit. When the bars and clubs were shut down, See resorted to organising stand-up shows online. Other than comics, he wanted to bring in performers of other media. “Magicians, singers, improvisers… I love it when the lines get a little blurred.”
He sees stand-up as a democratic platform. While there are some who think that a true comic is one who performs only stand-up, See believes other acts should be allowed their share of stage time. “The whole point of comedy is that it’s open to all. We could learn so much from them but instead, we’re cutting them out because they didn’t pay their hard dues of sucking at an open mic for so-many years?”
See has arrived, but now the question is whether he can continue. If anything, this affront just bolsters his determination to make it when he’s overseas, in a place where his multitudes can be contained and be appreciated.
And, by God, wouldn’t that be a splendid punchline when he makes it big.
Coming Out Loud! is now available at Sam See’s website