SINGAPORE — In his 14 years as a stand-up comedian, Mr Rishi Budhrani has been called many things — not all pleasant. His most recent? A “People’s Action Party stooge” and an “imported foreign talent”, after uploading a video poking fun at a 2023 Presidential Election candidate.
But the 39-year-old has since learnt to roll with the punches, saying that there will always be people who will be upset at his jokes and disagree with him no matter what he says.
“But I believe that if you really want to connect with your audience, and you come from a real, honest and sincere place, then the likelihood of people getting offended is lower,” he said.
In an interview with TODAY leading up to his show “Artificial Indian”, which runs from Sept 29 to 30, Mr Budhrani reflected on his career as a comedian — speaking about where he draws inspiration from, how he treads the fine line between being funny and foul, as well as his recent presidential election videos.
The first Singaporean to win the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition, Mr Budhrani does not shy away from exploring what people would perceive as sensitive topics such as race and politics, for his content.
During the recent Presidental Election for instance, the stand-up comedian had posted several videos on his social media as part of his series the #therishireport — a political satire cum commentary.
The videos he made during the election touched on certain points that the presidential hopefuls had raised during their campaigns.
When asked what was the main driving force behind putting out such content during the election, Mr Budhrani said that it is important for youths now to know who their leaders are.
“We are in a phase in Singapore now where you genuinely have an opportunity to make a change to the society you live in, whether that’s by volunteering, getting involved in a non-governmental organisation, or by voting,” he said.
“How can you change the process if you’re not even willing to get involved in it? That’s my message.”
He urged youths to consume political content not just on mainstream media but alternative ones and TikTok as well.
“Watch it all and be a politically aware citizen in the nation you’re living in. Because otherwise, you are just going to sit back and complain? I’m saying go and vote and earn the right to complain.”
Pausing at this, he quipped: “If I run for office that will be my campaign slogan — ‘Earn your right to complain’.”
HUMOUR AS A DIGESTIVE
In attempting to make his audience laugh, Mr Budhrani often has to walk that delicate line between being funny and offensive.
He said that he always does his due diligence in obtaining the facts first — a result of his journalistic training in university.
“So I don’t go in with an agenda. I get the facts first and build my opinion based on that. So if my facts say this then my jokes are based on what the facts are,” he said.
“You can get upset at me but this is the mirror I’m holding up for you to see. So if you’re angry at that then you’re angry at that (fact), you’re not angry at me.”
When it comes to race for instance, the veteran comedian has seen various kinds of comedy such as those that make fun of different races using entrenched racial stereotypes.
“I try to avoid that. I feel like there’s being racist and then there’s mocking the ridiculousness of these racial stereotypes. I feel that I do the latter. So I hold up the mirror and sometimes people will laugh and say yeah that’s true,” he said.
To Mr Budhrani, humour is akin to “hajmola” — a popular Indian digestive made of herbs and spices.
“For things that are difficult to digest as a society, you lace it with humour and that makes it easier to go down,” he said.
Touching on the incident involving Singapore-born comedian Jocelyn Chia, who received backlash for making a joke about the Malaysia Airlines, Mr Budhrani said that the medium in which comedy is delivered matters.
“At the end of the day, some genres of content are meant to be enjoyed live and some genres of content are meant for TV and radio. The level of openness changes with each medium,” he said.
He had penned his thoughts about the saga in a commentary published in CNA in June.
During a “live” stand-up comedy, time is spent building a relationship with the audience, Mr Budhrani wrote. “During the process, the comedian reads the room, gauges what that group of strangers, in that moment and in that space, is ready for.”
But when an excerpt of a comedian’s routine is posted onto social media, the audience is “no longer that same group of people in that room”, he wrote. “The stakes have changed. And more importantly, the rules have changed.”
When asked if there was a topic he would never use for stand-up, Mr Budhrani said that he “does not consciously think of that”. Instead, inspiration for his work can come from almost anywhere.
“If something has occurred in the news, something you saw on the street and it is an original, authentic thought or experience that I feel can connect to an audience, then I think it’s fair game,” he said.
His career as a stand-up comedian had taken him to countries such as Australia, India and China.
He also wrote for a local television show in 2017.
But one of the highlights of his career was when he was invited to host the National Day Parade last year, which he said was a “big step” for local stand-up comedians.
“This is the nation’s birthday and if a comedian on live TV decides to go rogue… I mean, of course there are tanks and weapons and jets and all that, so I would be a bit conscious,” he said with a smile.
“But it was a big step for everyone involved to open the door for stand-up comedians. And I was very grateful because there are now comedians who are younger than me or from another generation going ‘wow, we can tell jokes in comedy clubs to 20 people on a Tuesday night and eventually one day perform for 25,000 people’.”
Despite his glowing achievements and popularity, why Mr Budhrani enjoys doing what he does comes down to a simple reason — bringing people together.
“People want to laugh but I think more than that they want to connect with each other,” he said.
“And I think the beautiful thing about stand-up comedy is that (it’s an) art form using laughter to unite a room full of strangers. It’s very hard to do, so I’m very excited and very grateful to get a chance to try to do that.”