“If you don't have something clever to say, don't say anything”— etch those words into the stratosphere like hieroglyphics.
Rishi Budhrani is squinting at the sun, as a dented can of Coke Zero is subconsciously subjected to various degrees of tension between his hands. The power that mantra inspires within him cannot be understated. Even as those words leave his lips, their truth takes hold of him. Brows furrowed, arms tense, the 38-year-old considers their import, measuring his whole life by the length and breadth of their meaning.
Whether or not you’re inclined to think of one’s trajectory as following the design of destiny, the conclusion is ironclad: Budhrani was built for this. This being comedy. Not the slip-on-a-banana-peel-and-fall-on-your-bum kind, but the incarnation of it that puts you on stage, facing an intimidating expanse of seats and where you’re armed only with a microphone and the truth you speak into it.
Truth. It’s how Rishi Budhrani became one of the most sought-after stand-up comics in Singapore, with a blast radius that includes Malaysia, Hong Kong, the United States, Australia, India and Sri Lanka—not forgetting stints on Comedy Central and Netflix. In all the excitement that surrounds his various accolades as a comedian, actor and host, Budhrani is quick to redirect the conversation to the beating heart behind all his success: his longstanding passion for being true to his muse and rendering it in a voice that is uncompromisingly his own.
His brand of storytelling— observational comedy with a nuanced air of provocation (touched with a glint of profundity and delivered with a disarming ease that illuminates lived experience)—recently brought him to the forefront of local consciousness when he co-hosted this year’s National Day Parade, and planted the flag for Singapore-born comedy alongside the Singapore flag. This elevation in profile was made even more tangible by his physical transformation into a newly bodied man, one he’s quick to affirm came as a result of some hard truths he had to accept, confront and deal with.
Haunted, pressured, inspired and ultimately blessed by truth, Budhrani stands more recharged and reinvigorated for the future than he’s ever been. One sunny day, at a coffee shop and beer garden in Siglap, we link up for a one-on-one about why heart is such a crucial ingredient to his art and life.
Rishi, let’s start by throwing it right back. You started your career working in your dad’s tailoring shop until you were fired, is that right? If we’re connecting the dots, how did that experience lead you to where you are today?
Damn! The thing is, I wasn't really fired by my dad because he didn't really bother to hire me in the first place. So, it was like I was fired before I was hired. He'd tell me to go out there and become a professional; a lawyer, doctor or engineer. As fate would have it, here I am, telling jokes to drunk people around the world, in attics and bars.
Connecting the dots, as a child, I watched my dad bond with and relate to people from all over the world right at his shop. He'd patiently listen, entertain them, and learn about their culture, politics and quirks. Even though he didn't leave his shop or Singapore much, it felt like he was travelling the world.
That's a big part of what doing stand-up gives me. I realise how my jokes have such a powerful currency that allows me to break different barriers with people. And that’s shaped my primary goal: to unite a roomful of strangers with jokes.
Did you choose comedy or was it the other way around?
I don't think I'm the only person who always wanted to make people laugh. Everyone likes being funny. If you're at the dinner table, everyone has a joke. Everyone has that “Eh, I tell you something funny, ah” anecdote. The difference is, some of us make it into a career.
For me, the turning point was when I was 17. I was watching a lot of Eddie Murphy. I went up to the drama club of the Indian cultural society at Tampines Junior College, and played the role of a corrupt guru doing Eddie Murphy jokes. That’s when I started writing jokes as well. Russell Peter's clips had started leaking and that was the first time, subconsciously, I went: oh, you can be an Indian person and become a global sensation with just jokes?
That's where it all started. I had this document on my computer called Cracks.doc, that became Cracks.docx, that eventually became Cracks.pages. It was just thoughts and jokes. One of the first jokes I ever wrote was about how men should pick the right kind of underwear. Maybe, that's when I chose comedy. But I didn't think it was a viable career path. I trained as an actor; I did a communications degree; I hosted Indian weddings [and] danced in Bollywood dance troupes, which is where I met my wife [Sharul Channa, also a comic]. There were four of us and we had genuine dreams of making it in Bollywood. So, I danced at weddings to pay my way through little luxuries like an upsized McSpicy meal and free-flow night at Hendrix Bar.
Sometime in 2011, I stumbled upon Comedy Masala, run by Umar Rana. I watched it two Tuesdays in a row, and at the next one, I brought out Cracks.docx – and I haven't looked back since.
With Cracks.docx in mind, would you say that what and where you're drawing material from has changed?
Oh, yes. Definitely. The thing that takes the longest to realise is that your comedy has to be your perspective. A lot of comics fall into the trap of just trying to be funny and when they do that, they lose authenticity. I was lucky in that sense because I didn't start when I was young. When I went onstage to do stand-up, I was 26. By then, I had done a significant amount of acting and hosting, so stagecraft wasn't something I was afraid of. But I did take some time to find my voice.
Something that made an impact on me during this time, was performing at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. I won the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition and the prize was some money and a few spots in the United States. When I did my three minutes at The Store, the booker came up to me and said: “You're the kid from Singapore? Funny stuff. But I want you to remember that we're not looking for who can be funny in three minutes. We looking for who can be themselves in three minutes.” That opened my eyes a lot. I stopped figuring out what people were laughing at and searched myself for what I found funny and how I could convey that. Once I figured that out, I realised I could tell jokes about anything, like, for example, the subtle racism of mathematical problem sums.
Would you say that your comedy has influenced your sense of masculinity or vice versa?
I don't think for me, that one defines the other at all. I mean, I share my perspectives as a heterosexual man. But other than that, I don't actively seek to strengthen my masculine persona through my stand-up, which is based on anything but that. I joke a lot about how my wife roasts me all the time. I frequently create and write situations where she has the upper hand.
I feel that if the joke is funny and if the story is interesting, people will laugh. Your act doesn't have to scream bravado.
What's a line you won't cross in comedy?
Roasting audience members based on their physical appearance is not my jam. I'll joke about my own health, but I don't know if pointing out someone else's physicality will get a laugh. If you don't have something clever to say, don't say anything.
When I do crowd work, I have to bring a different angle to it. I must have something intelligent and creative to say, even if I'm pushed into a corner. I remember doing a show in China, in a university town. It was a weird show. There was a drunk guy who was being a nuisance all night long. I asked a Chinese guy in the crowd how, in his childhood, his parents would threaten him if he was being naughty. I told the crowd that my parents would say that God is watching me. And he had slip of the tongue: he said his parents would say the Black man would come for him, but what he actually meant was that the bad man would come for him. The drunk guy, who was Black, became angry and asked me to get off stage. There was a ruckus. So, I had to turn the room around. I didn't want to mention race or colour. So I said: "Who wants this guy to keep quiet so I can carry on my show?” The crowd was in my favour and I went on with it. That night cemented my philosophy of not taking cheap shots. It was a defining moment.
What's your stand on 'controversy' in comedy?
In Singapore, race is something you can't escape talking about in comedy. It's the nuance you bring to it that counts. I always say I can out-write people who imitate overseas comedians’ takes on race and swap out the races with the ones in Singapore. For me, it's about writing about an authentic experience. I've talked loads about my experience within Indian culture and growing up in an Indian family. If something happened to me, I'll talk about it. Authenticity and nuance are the best ways to navigate difficult or divisive issues in comedy and public discourse.
If you're not referring to lived experiences, if you're copy-pasting jokes from other comedians, you're taking a shortcut. And those shortcuts don't last very long.
And when it comes to you as Rishi Budhrani the comic, are you ever aware of how the audience perceives you?
Definitely. I'll give you an analogy: it's like bungee-jumping naked.
The first set I did felt like that. The irony of stand-up is that the more time you spend on stage, the more you get comfortable with it, and the less comfortable you feel when you're not on there. When I was preparing for Exposed earlier this year, which was my first full hour after the pandemic, I loved it. It's like going to the gym. The reason physical training appeals to me is that you have to work for it. What most people see is the final show or the final photoshoot, not the months of hustle, all the open mics, all the sacrifices, you dying on your ass, jokes failing and people thinking you're not funny.
And just like going to the gym, stand-up makes you develop muscle memory. But you have to keep at it. If you haven't done it for a long time, you can't just jump into it. Someone like Dave Chappelle goes on the road for six months before he records a new special, just so he can perfect his material. That one recorded hour has gone through so many edits to become what you're watching now.
Let's talk about your own physical transformation and the rigour that was necessary to make it happen. What awakened that part of you?
It was pandemic fatigue and losing my best friend. 2020 and 2021 were horrible years. I lost someone really close to me and with the stress that came with that, came binge drinking and eating. For a large part of my adult life, I've dealt with grief and loss by processing them as a comic, in front of an audience. During the pandemic, I didn't have that outlet.
In October 2021, I ran into my trainer, EJ. Some friends of mine recommended him and he had coincidentally attended one of my shows. I told him: “Let's do this, man.” My goal was to be featured in a fitness magazine and then we realised that Men's Health was no longer in publication here. So, we decided to work just because. The grind of it appealed to me partly because it demanded the same work ethic as stand-up. You make sacrifices; you stay consistent, and eventually, it's worth it. My life changed.
From your lens, what would you say are the tangible benefits of really watching what you put into your body?
If you do it right, you can consistently eat whatever you want. Previously, I was living life with cheat days and in excess, with a whole lot of erratic crash diets. I strongly don't recommend it at all. If you're diligent about eating healthily, you can be like: “Okay. I can afford this char kway teow and these couple of beers today.” Once it's a part of your lifestyle, it makes you sharper overall, and ready for anything.
Has looking better changed you in any meaningful way?
I don't think looking better has changed me as a person. It's the discipline around it that changed me. It made me more aware of where my boundaries were. When I was eating clean, I'd have people rock up to me and say: “You eating that, ah? How long can you do this for? It's not sustainable.” After a while, I went: “Yo. Stop. If I'm not asking you for your opinion or judging you for what you eat, why are you judging me?”
I got a little more firm with my boundaries. Previously I'd just laugh things off, but I'm now more protective of my space, and cautious about whom I let in.
One other thing I'm wary of is becoming preachy. I'm never going to dictate someone else's diet.
The thing about this transformation of sorts that makes me the happiest is that there's factual evidence that people around me are inspired by my journey. EJ and I worked together on this and the moment we released our transformation photos, the calls came rolling in. A lot of the people who inquired were those I used to see at 4am at the club. Now, they're at my gym at 7am. They're like: “If Rishi can do it, so can I.”
Has it affected your dynamic with Sharul?
It's been great. She has been working with EJ as well. She's working towards her goals, which are different from mine. A big part of being on a fitness journey involves learning about yourself, your body and your mind. Just like how no two bodies are alike, no two people are alike. Sharul and I are very different. Her approach to fitness and lifestyle cannot be the same as mine, because of the type of people we are.
Her journey has more dance in it. That's what she likes as well. She's become an awesome pole dancer. I can't even get on the damn pole! She picked it up during Covid-19 and she's been mastering it since.
That's fantastic. Before we end, I'd like to bring you back to comedy. From your vantage, how ready is Singapore for comedy?
I think Singapore is very ready for stand-up comedy, very ready—you’ll be surprised at how ready Singapore is. Who may not be ready is the censorship board. There’s a sense of fear over what people might complain about. A big part of the discussion is medium. If you put out material on free-to-air radio and TV, or on the Internet, all of which are mediums where it’s so easy for things to be taken out of context, you can say that nobody here is ready for comedy. On the Internet, even the cleanest comic can be taken out of context. If you want to look for something, you’ll find it.
But when it comes to stand-up, in a theatre with 2,000 people, Singapore is more than ready. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. People have purchased tickets to hear some jokes, not for a TED talk or something else. Part of the administrative process requires you to submit your jokes to a body that flags certain words. But the good thing is, you have a chance to explain yourself, and if you’re lucky, your joke will pass. Comics have to get that dialog going and build a bridge with these government bodies. It’s our job to let them know that we’re not here to overthrow the government or disrupt the peace—we just want to make people laugh.
There were a few officers at my latest show and they understood what I was doing; they were cool with it. That’s a great first step. Singapore is in a good place for stand-up. The audience is mature, travelled and educated enough to enjoy a good laugh and not be fake-outraged. The ones that are easily outraged don’t go to comedy shows; they stay at home and hide behind their keyboards.
Lastly, is the idea that comics are actually sad, depressed people a cliché or a somewhat-truth?
There might be some truth to it, but not in the way that people expect. For me, the sadness comes from two things, the first being the lows of not being able to do it versus the highs of actually being on stage. That dip is very strong. Imagine getting off the stage, where you've just killed it for an hour, with a full house at the Esplanade. Then you come home, and you're alone. It hits you hard.
The other aspect that might contribute to such feelings is the constant chase for the next laugh, which is the next high. Any addiction brings about a corresponding sense of depression. And if that addiction is people's laughter, there's no quick fix.
As I've gotten older, I've learned to balance it out and separate what's on stage from what's at home. But it gets scary when the act starts when you get offstage, and you're only yourself when you're onstage. You spend so much time being real, raw and vulnerable onstage that when you're not on, you run the risk of feeling a little lost. That's something a lot of comics deal with.
This story was first published in the November 2022 issue of Esquire Singapore.
Creative Director & ProducerVanessa Caitlin
Fashion EditorGordon Ng
PhotographyShawn Paul Tan
Associate Creative ProducerHazirah Rahim
Photography assistanceMelvin Leong
Production assistanceDavid Bay