Sam See: The Life of Singapore’s Most Travelled Comedian
Finding and making laughter, wherever he goes.
In a time where so many of us are trying to find where we belong, local comedian Sam See has found a love for performing on the road. There are plenty of you who are planning your revenge travels. Sam goes a step further. To him, what better way to see the world than to hone your craft when you’re on the road? His tours and his travels were his second calling in his career in comedy, at a time when many stand-up comedians in the Singapore comedy scene are only beginning to dip their toes overseas (or over the causeway, at least.)
So the moment pandemic restrictions were lifted, he set sail. After his month in Edinburgh for the city’s Fringe Festival, he embarked on his European tour. In just three weeks, he performed in 12 cities. And it’s not just the gleaming, popular capitals. He performed in Olomouc, Krakow, Brno, and Kaiserslautern—places you’d need to Google to even begin knowing where they are. Due for the UK again this July, he tells us why he still tours abroad, even if it hasn’t always been easy. Read on.
*The conversation below has been edited for clarity.
When did you realise you wanted to start travelling as a comedian?
It was back in 2017. The TV show I was working on had just been pulled from the air, and because of the controversy that surrounded it. I couldn’t get any work either as a performer in clubs or for corporate dinners and dances. I had to work as a bartender in the local comedy club to make ends meet, and I kept seeing all these international comedians perform every single week.
These were people who had flown in from across the globe, like the States and the UK, over 15 hours of travel to perform 30 minutes of comedy in a bar for decent pay and free booze. Seeing them do that as a guest in a country while I was born here and now cleaning their cups, I realised I should at least try my hand in touring, since I wasn’t getting any love in my home.
What was your first tour like?
My first proper tour was in 2018, titled The Self Destruction Tour. It was me and Justin Heyes, a comedian from the UK based in Kuala Lumpur at the time. The name came from the fact I liked to drink and he liked to smoke; his posters were covered in alcohol and cigarettes. It was also called ‘self-destruction’ because no one else in the region had ever organised an independent tour before. Most tours were done by one or two organisers who had connections with clubs and hotels, whereas we went through local bars, comedians on the ground and friends.
We did 6 countries, 14 dates over 20 days, and it was exhausting and mentally challenging. We ran into local elections, which killed our audience numbers. We had shows cancelled, being bumped from being headliners to being opening acts and hosts. We also had to share rooms, which after 20 days of being with someone who isn’t your spouse or partner, can get really annoying. However, it was the happiest I had been at that point, being able to get out there and be appreciated and recognised by strangers who had no reason to support or like this outsider.
Why do you continue to travel across the world to perform comedy?
I had travelled outside of Singapore as a performer before this. But after that first tour, I knew that my future in comedy lay outside of my homeland. Aside from the fact I didn’t have to cater my material to audiences that were sometimes predisposed to only appreciate a certain style of humour with a limited understanding of current events and culture. By travelling, I began to grow my own worldview. To see how others live, eat and make laughs for overseas audiences was and continues to be a breathtaking experience. I continue to travel because if it brings you joy, you should continue to seek it out, and I find joy everywhere else in the world.
So now you’re heading to the UK for three months, and your stays there have been getting longer there, how do you go about settling down?
You’d have to tell me, I’m still figuring it out! I’ve never been overseas for an extended period of time like that, and this will be my longest time away from home. I’ve never lived anywhere else before, which as someone on the cusp of 30 sounds ludicrous, almost childish to not have all this information. But in Singapore, the culture is to stay with your parents till you physically buy your own place.
Learning to live in a foreign land in your own space after never having done it in places familiar to be in. That is a huge learning curve, but all that comes with the territory of being a live performer. I’m just going to have to knuckle down and understand how the heck a long-term rental works.
Then how do you make sense of the places you go to with the short time you have?
That is the saddest thing about touring, it’s that on some occasions you will have less than 24 hours in a location. A great example is when I played Milan in 2019. I had been booked for the gig last minute, clearly as a replacement, so I had to fly in at 7pm and fly out by 6am to return to my tour schedule. In that time I spent more of it at the performance venue, having to eat a hamburger because the restaurant was ‘American themed’.
By the time the show ended and wrapped it was 1am, which meant by the time I got to the hotel it was 2am, I got to rest for 1.5 hours before having to head back to the airport and fly off. At that time I only had the car rides to experience Milan, and the people there, so I had to milk every second of chatter and observation I could take in a culture, not just for myself, but to add to my performance. It’s about appreciating the little things, and I never want to lose sight of that.
Then you’re now set for a month in London and another in Edinburgh. What are your favourite haunts in each of those two cities?
In London, I do love heading for a bite at Parsons, a pricey but delightful seafood restaurant in the heart of Leicester Square, and for a cheaper eat I’ll head to Misato for a plain Japanese curry, and maybe when I was there it was winter and that made the warm roux so much better, but it tasted like one of the best Japanese curries I’ve ever had. You also can’t go wrong with any show at the Soho Theatre.
In Edinburgh, Union of Genius is a delightful lunchtime soup kitchen, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, and meat options for your carnivores. I also love heading to Blackwell Games for I am a board game nerd and they have a whole basement full of it.
How do you find moments of relaxation and rejuvenation throughout your journeys?
Heading back early and getting home by about 11 pm. That’s early for my line of work, with nights wrapping past midnight usually. I get to sit on the couch, put on the telly, crack open a beer and just enjoy the night. I don’t normally get alone time or silence. The only times I’m really alone are on train and bus journeys or in the back of a cab. So being stationary as the world moves around you, that’s a nice change of pace with a bit of alcoholic wheat juice going through your veins.
What are your favourite moments in all your years of travelling?
Performing a joke I wrote 20 minutes before the performance specifically about the local culture or language, and that joke absolutely delivered howls from the audience. Those are really my favourite moments because it tells me that I had a good read on them and I got to briefly, maybe not deeply, but had a moment of connection to people that quite frankly I have nothing in common with. Just brings the world a little closer, you know?
As a seasoned traveller, what advice would you give to aspiring comedians who are also eager to embark on their own international tours?
Do tours within your region first, it’s going to be significantly cheaper and you’ll get the experience of playing in a different environment and audience than what you’re used to. Once you’ve got the hang of it, try overseas. But don’t do anything more than 7 days for your first run, unless you have accommodations covered or you’re contracted for gigs, else it’s going to be a financial sink, but it also could be a time sink if you can’t get stage time, especially as a newer act.
Then build your name internationally, and get reviews or people to recommend you. Because they’re not going to open the doors to you just because you’ve come from afar. Don’t be an arrogant meany to anyone, no one likes them and you only have one chance sometimes to make an impression. (I used meany because the actual word I would use would not be appropriate for this interview.)
Finally, as an entertainer who brings joy to audiences worldwide, what is your personal philosophy or message that you hope to convey through your comedy and travel experiences?
Try something new, and whether you like it or not, now you’ve learnt more, seen more, experienced more, and now you will crave more, and then you will be more.
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