Monday, 15th July 2024

Monday, 15th July 2024

From haha! to a-ha!: How a moment on a school stage led to a career in comedy

31 May 2024

Mr Rishi Budhrani discovered his love for the limelight when thrust upon the school stage for a CCA performance. He has been performing to bigger and bigger audiences since, from co-hosting Singapore’s National Day Parade to delivering the laughs on the international comedy circuit.

Loud cheers rang out at the Tampines Junior College hall as a tall and lanky teenager danced on stage.

Dressed in a bright orange robe with a microphone in hand, Mr Rishi Budhrani was taking a big step out of his comfort zone. The 17-year-old, who had been playing football and tennis all his life, found himself performing indoors for a change.

He had joined the Indian Cultural Society, his third choice of CCA, after failing to get a spot in the two sports CCAs.

Still, he never imagined he would be cracking jokes on stage as a host of the society’s annual cultural showcase.

But the teen, who was a big fan of Canadian-Indian comedian Russell Peters, rose to the challenge.

Something stirred in him that eventful night.

“It was the first time I remember trying to write jokes and perform them for the public,” he says. He liked the idea of making people laugh. Today, the 40-year-old enjoys a successful career as a stand-up comedian who performs internationally.

Mr Budhrani hosted the President’s Star Charity event in 2023 (above and below).

From school stage to dreams of Bollywood

One night was all it took for Mr Budhrani to get hooked on performing. And boy, did he dream big – he began setting his sights on breaking into Bollywood.

While in National Service, he co-founded a Bollywood dance troupe called TezDhaar, Hindi for Razor’s Edge, with a friend from Tampines Junior College (the college has since merged with Meridien Junior College to become Tampines Meridien Junior College). The group would take on dance gigs at weddings and festivals.

“I loved performing, acting, dancing, and wanted to be a Hindi film star one day,” he confesses.

To fulfil his dreams, he pursued a minor in drama and performance at the National Institute of Education (NIE) while studying communications at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Mr Michael Corbidge, his lecturer at NIE and then-Associate Artistic Director at the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), noticed his star factor.

He encouraged Mr Budhrani to do more with his acting talent and audition for The Young Company, a two-year training programme at SRT.

Mr Budhrani did not have the luxury of time or money – he was still studying at NTU — but he heeded his lecturer’s advice; he applied for an acting scholarship to cover the training fees.

The leap of faith paid off – he was one of two recipients of the ExxonMobil Acting Scholarship in 2008.

Calling his two years at SRT a big game changer, he recalls attending acting workshops with veteran actors like Kevin Spacey and talk-back sessions with Ethan Hawke.

“I was able to train under professionals and perform live theatre at a different level,” he says.

The experience gave Mr Budhrani a glimpse of a day in the life of a performing arts professional. But it was his six-month internship at a video production house in 2007 that cemented his decision to pursue the performing arts full-time.

He spent the bulk of his internship doing behind-the-scenes production work for Sling HD, a channel on Singtel’s entertainment service Mio TV, before working on a pre-recorded game competition on the channel. 

While hosting, he noticed that he was making the live audience laugh with his jokes and quips, and the feeling was electrifying. It dawned on him that he was not content being backstage. And he no longer wanted to perform as a hobby or side hustle.

“I realised I needed to be in front of the camera,” he says.

Then came regular gigs at a comedy club

After graduating from NTU in 2009, Mr Budhrani opened a training and events company with his wife, Ms Sharul Channa. The couple had metat TezDhaar and had bonded over their mutual love for performance.

But he had not given up on his Bollywood dream, attending auditions in his free time.

At that point, comedy was just an interest. Moreover, the local stand-up scene had up till then comprised mainly of homegrown comedian Kumar and international acts. But he noticed how the entertainment scene was shifting, and more spots were opening up in clubs for aspiring local comedians.

By then, Mr Budhrani had amassed a long document of jokes – saved as “cracks.doc” on his laptop – since that fateful night in junior college. He knew it was time to test his humour on a live audience.

He started attending open-mic on Tuesday nights at local comedy club Comedy Masala. One night led to another, and he soon landed a regular spot at the club.

He went on to open shows for international acts at The Comedy Club Asia (Singapore). In 2012, he took home prize money of $5,000 at the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition.

He decided to spend the money on a ticket to New York City. There, he found success, taking stage at famous stand-up venue Gotham Comedy Club, also home turf for comedy heavyweight Trevor Noah.

“And from January 2011 till today, I have been on a stage somewhere in the world every week of my life,” he says.

Hosting to bigger audiences

Is there a serious side to the comedian? Yes, when he does political satire.

At NTU, Mr Budhrani had trained as a journalist and was versed in current affairs. When he took part in the local Channel 5 comedy show OK Chope! that focused on current affairs in 2016, he found a way to convey heavier topics in a light-hearted fashion.

During COVID-19, he launched The Rishi Report, bringing news on the political scene to the audience in bite-sized jokes and exaggerated parodies.

Using comedy to explain current affairs allows him to discuss important societal issues in a funny and accessible way, he says.

“I hope that [my jokes] get people to think about important issues while laughing.”

In 2022, Mr Budhrani became the first stand-up comedian to host the National Day Parade. When he was first approached by the parade’s creative director and long-time friend Adrian Pang, he was confused as the parade was normally hosted by actors or radio personalities. “Adrian asked if I would be the ‘I’ in his CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others),” he recalls with a laugh.

Mr Budhrani (right) enjoyed collaborating with his co-hosts at the National Day Parade in 2022.

Mr Gurmit Singh, a long-time host of the parade, advised him to experience it once in his life.

Mr Budhrani is glad he took on the challenge. While stand-up is usually a solo pursuit and he’s entirely in control, hosting the parade was a high-octane collaboration with his co-hosts and so many other parties in full view of the nation. “There’s nothing like it,” he says.

One thing remains on his wish list: performing at the Singapore Indoor Stadium as a Singaporean comedian on stage. “I want to let Singapore know that these are our talents.” And he’s not joking.