Comedian Sam See will be in Edinburgh this August but here he plays the Merry Lion in Singapore.
Scots comic Scott Agnew suggested Sam See from Singapore talk to me.
So we chatted via Skype…
Sam See at home in Singapore yesterday.
JOHN: Your show is called Coming Out Loud. Good title, because the audience knows what it’s going to get.
SAM: (LAUGHS) Dick jokes for an hour!
JOHN: Is there an elevator pitch for the show?
SAM: An openly gay comedian coming from a country where free speech and homosexuality is illegal… Expect dick jokes.
JOHN: Can you say free speech is illegal in Singapore?
SAM: No. In Singapore, I can’t say that free speech is illegal in Singapore. If you criticise the lack of free speech while you are here, you will be… erm… It’s a lovely irony.
JOHN: Is being gay totally illegal in Singapore?
SAM: Yes. It’s 100% illegal. The law itself is as vague as possible. It is basically the old-school English sodomy laws. It is illegal but…
JOHN: So how can you talk on stage about being gay if it’s illegal?
SAM: Because I am not yet popular or famous enough. On stage I always say I am gay. But, if they try to arrest me, I can say it is a character and then they would have to prove I’m gay which… well, good luck to them.
JOHN: So doing this chat with me could get you imprisoned…
SAM: It depends… They would need to prove I have done something untowards with another gentleman…
JOHN: You can say you are gay provided you’ve done nothing about it…?
SAM: Kinda. But, if you are on-stage saying it, they can still fine you or arrest you for homosexual propaganda or propagating that homosexuality is positive.
JOHN: Anyway, Coming Out Loud at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Why?
SAM: A lot of Edinburgh regulars recommended I should give it a bash – Martin Mor told me: “Come over, Sam, do the full run, go crazy and lose money.”
I guess I have to. It’s the Hajj. It’s the Mecca for comics: we all have to do it once in our life. But I don’t understand how people can do it for 10 or 20 years: a whole month!
JOHN: It’s addictive.
Sam is gearing up for Edinburgh with a tour of South East Asia
SAM: I am doing a whole run shows around Asia before it. I am gearing up to play outside my comfort zone.
JOHN: You started performing comedy in 2012…
SAM: Yes. The comedy scene is Asia is less than ten years old.
JOHN: I presume, if you are gay, you can’t play China?
SAM: I can, actually. I have played Brunei, if you can believe that!
JOHN: Did they reverse the law about stoning people to death if they are gay?
SAM: It’s on hold. The law is technically not in effect but it has not been repealed. In very heavy Moslem areas like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, I have to be really careful. If I play there, I try to play in embassies like the British or American so I have that clemency of being on international soil.
JOHN: Remembering this is going online, is it just a problem with Islam?
SAM: No. Myanmar is heavily Buddhist and they set people on fire. In China, they put people in re-education camps. There are heavy beliefs in this part of the world: whether religious or atheistic.
There was a chief from the UN who came down to Myanmar to investigate the Rohingya crisis and the chief Buddhist monk of Myanmer called her a slut and threatened to have her raped… Remember this is a man of peace.
JOHN: How do your audiences react to a gay comic?
SAM: They have changed over time. They don’t mind hearing about it; but not too much. When I first started, it was a combination of me not knowing how to tailor the material for the audiences and the audiences not being ready to receive such information. But I have become a more competent performer with time and they have grown with time.
Sam See or Woody Harrelson? You decide.
JOHN: People get pigeonholed. Who do people compare you with?
SAM: I see myself as a much longer-form Joan Rivers, more into storytelling and less insults.
JOHN: Joan Rivers? So acid-tongued.
SAM: Yes, acid-tongued, hopefully fast on my feet. But I’ve had comparisons to John Oliver; I’ve had Trevor Noah. For some reason, Woody Harrelson once.
SAM: I have no idea why. He is not known for his stand-up comedy!
JOHN: Are there many gay comics in Singapore and surrounds?
SAM: No. I am the one openly gay comedian. There are two who are closeted and one bisexual, but she is more into poetry than stand-up.
JOHN: I presume no-one is admitting to being lesbian?
SAM: None of the locals. There are some expats who come to Asia, do stand-up and say: “I’m proud to be a lesbian.” But then they move on.
JOHN: Things must be getting better. You have been on TV in a weekly Singapore panel show OK Chope!
SAM: No-one had really done the panel show format in the region before. There are variety show formats but not the traditional UK-style panel show. Host, regular panellists and rotating guest panellists.
JOHN: Did it work?
SAM: It was a mess, because it was a topical news show where we were not allowed to talk about news because… well… it’s Singapore.
It was a one-hour show transmitted live, with a zero second delay.
JOHN: Jesus! A zero second delay?
SAM: Yes. I am not kidding.
JOHN: This was actually transmitted? It wasn’t just a pilot?
SAM: Yes, a full season… 7.30pm prime time, before the watershed.
JOHN: Double Jesus!
SAM: We all managed to drink in the afternoon before we shot it.
JOHN: Did the TV company get nervous after Episode One?
SAM: Oh yes. Every week, we would have one of the government censors watching us from a booth. He would give us a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.
JOHN: But, if it’s live, it’s too late…
SAM: Well, too late for the show but not too late to put us in jail.
JOHN: And it ended because…
SAM: We made fun of the then Prime Minister of Malaysia who had been accused of being a thief and we made jokes about it and somehow he watched that episode.
JOHN: And the result was…?
SAM: He called our Prime Minister who took us off the air.
JOHN: So the series ended before it was due to end.
SAM: It happened on the last episode at the end of the season.
JOHN: So was someone being intentionally provocative?
Sam See addresses his audience
SAM: No, that whole segment had actually cleared the censors. It was just that, at the time, Malaysia was having an election, so they needed a scapegoat and a way to look strong. If they can get the neighbouring country to formally apologise to them, it makes them look powerful and in control.
JOHN: Do you have a 5-year career plan that starts in Edinburgh and ends in Las Vegas?
SAM: Well, it starts in Edinburgh and then I am in talks with some folks over in the United States for representation.
JOHN: Presumably, like performers everywhere, you want to move to the US.
SAM: I don’t know. I think I would like to move to one of the other countries, but I would still make Singapore my home base because (a) it is my home and (b) the tax rates are better. (LAUGHS)
JOHN: I suspect Donald Trump thinks Singapore is somewhere in South America.
SAM: No. He knows where we are, because he started the North Korean treaties here.
JOHN: (LAUGHS) You should play North Korea!
SAM: You joke, but some of us have been thinking about it for a while. You just have to find an embassy that’s crazy enough to go along with the idea and just play it on embassy soil and don’t make jokes about the North Korean government or mention South Korea.
JOHN: Getting in might be a problem. And let’s not even fantasise about getting out. Singapore doesn’t have an embassy there, does it?
SAM: We can enter North Korea visa-free.
SAM: Yes, we can just walk in on a holiday.
JOHN: Bloody hell!