Singaporean stand-up legend Kumar dishes on drag queens and the difficulty road to comedy success

Photo: Courtesy of Kumarsutra World Tour.
Photo: Courtesy of Kumarsutra World Tour.

Kumar is one of those rare comedians who can go by just one name and still be instantly recognized by fans across Southeast Asia.

The legendary Singaporean comedian, who is known for his hilarious drag persona and sharp social commentary, is currently on his Kumarsutra World Tour, which will hit Jakarta and Bali this weekend.

Presented by Jakarta-based Mad About Comedy, Kumar’s shows will take place on the evenings of May 4 and 5 at Soehanna Hall in Jakarta, and this Sunday at the Quest San Hotel in Denpasar.

Both shows in Jakarta have sold out (the venue has a 450-seat capacity) while, as of yesterday, the Bali show only had 20 tickets left out of 300.

“I didn’t expect Bali [show] to sell. It was a pleasant surprise [because] I didn’t expect people to understand [me]. I’m very Singaporean, right?” Kumar said In an exclusive interview with Coconuts Bali yesterday.

During the interview, Kumar confirmed that he goes by “he/him/his” pronouns as he only performs in drag on stage and he doesn’t “live a trans life.”

“The resort I’m staying in Bali is also called Trans [Bali Resort in Seminyak]. It’s so funny – the irony,” he added with a chuckle, saying that he would use that as the opening line for the Denpasar show. 

From drag queen to comedy king

Famous for his wit and observational comedy, 54-year-old Kumar began as a drag performer in the late 1980s. He said he initially did the usual routines such as lip-syncing and celebrity impersonation before discovering his knack for stand up comedy.

“In those days you either swam or you drowned. If you have a talent, you work with it. I never knew I was funny. It all worked well,” he said. 

Due to the censorship rules in Singapore, Kumar had to perform his whole set in front of the authorities before getting approval to have a public show up to 2000. Nowadays, he told Coconuts Bali that he only does closed shows.

“I only perform in theaters where people buy tickets to watch,” he said.

“When you do [comedy in] public, people might get offended. But if they buy a ticket to watch you, they know what they’re coming in for. If they can’t handle stand up comedy, don’t come, because I don’t put a gun to your head and force you to come, you know,” he said, adding that he has a strict “no-camera” rule wherever he performs. 

On his comedy style, Kumar said that his “no-no” is saying vulgar words on stage. While he still talks about sex, Kumar recognizes that his general audience is still family-oriented and that they “like to see something they can relate to.”

“You can talk about sex but you have to be very subtle. I’m lucky because my mentality stays in the old school way so it works for me,” he said.

Having said that, Kumar acknowledges that observational comedy is, indeed, his brand. Kumar said he gets his inspiration for his jokes from watching the news every day and staying up-to-date on world affairs.

“Everyday from 3pm to 5pm, I would turn the TV on as the news airs as I prepare dinner for my dogs,” he said.

Kumar also said he would adjust his jokes according to the audience and the location. For example, he said he would tone down his Singaporean bits of comedy and his Singlish for the Jakarta and Bali shows, although he would still do some for his Singaporean fans who might attend.

“Relatability is very, very important,” he said.

He recently concluded his Kumarsutra World Tour in Australia, during which he had time to observe the Down Under Asian community. Kumar promised he would talk about whatever observations he had about that after landing in Jakarta on stage.

He also said he was aware of the situation in Bali, especially regarding the many news reports of foreigners misbehaving publicly on the Island of the Gods.

“Bali is mostly Hindu. So you have to respect whatever you see while you’re hiking. You ask before you take a picture. It’s just common sense. Courtesy, you know. Polite,” he added.

LGBTQ in Southeast Asia and comedy 

Last November, it was announced that Drag Race Singapore would be part of the expansion of the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise.

When we asked Kumar, as a legendary entertainer, if he would be involved in the show somehow, he said no.

“They have [approached me] but I said no. Because I’m not a full time drag queen. I only drag because of work. I want to be recognized as a stand up comedian, not as a drag queen,” he said.

“The reason why I did it in drag 30 years ago is because in Singapore or anywhere around the world – now no more, lah – when we see a transvestite on the streets we always do a double take because they’re not sure if it’s a boy or a girl, right? So to get my audience’s attention, I went in drag. So I got their attention first. Then I can do stand up comedy. It sticks with me.

“I didn’t give my drag [persona a] name. That’s my biggest mistake. People couldn’t separate the drag and Kumar.”

But why are there not more LGBTQ comedians or drag performers in Southeast Asia following his footsteps? Kumar has a simple answer: comedy is hard.

“This art is very difficult to follow. It’s either you have it or you don’t have it. There is no school to learn about this,” he said. 

Kumar shared that he had, in fact, once tried to mentor a protege. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for her.

He also observed that many drag performers prefer to stay beautiful and glamorous, rather than make fun of themselves or others.

“They don’t want to be ugly or whatever,” he said, adding that many prefer to find an easy way out and make quick money on the streets rather than hone their art.

“They’d rather be on the streets than on stage as prostitutes. Quick money, easy money. They don’t want to work this hard.”

Despite the challenges, Kumar said he still hopes to see more queer comedians emerge in the region. He offered some words of wisdom for those who want to pursue comedy as a career.

“Just go on stage and just talk to people. Just think like you’re talking to someone. You don’t have to make 100 people laugh. If you can make 10 people laugh, it’s okay already,” he said.

“Believe in yourself. Don’t doubt yourself,” he added, before giving an even more practical piece of advice. “If comedy is not your thing, drop it. Chase another career before it’s too late. Don’t drag it.”

Tickets are available for purchase now through the Mad About Comedy website.


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