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Chestnuts


 

Chestnuts 2005 
Some scatty remarks by Ken Lyen

This year's Chestnuts is one of the best I've seen. And I've been attending every one of them for the past eight years. The brainchild of Jonathan Lim, Chestnuts is a no-holds barred satirical onslaught on the arts, movies, and politics, that have taken place in Singapore over the past 12 months. It is a breath of fresh air to vent an otherwise musty conservative society, one that cannot embrace criticisms, let alone elephant or peanut jokes.

Chestnuts is the Singapore equivalent of the American spoof shows, Forbidden Broadway and Forbidden Hollywood. Personally I prefer Chestnuts to the American shows because it manipulates the original material to greater effect, and because it is also an outstanding social commentary. Moreover, for Singaporeans who are always looking for bargains, let us compare the two: Forbidden Broadway/Hollywood has only a solitary piano accompaniment, whereas Chestnuts has full multimedia orchestral backup, stunning sound effects, clever video and computer projections onto the wall behind, more costume changes, and more jokes per minute. It is truly value for money. And it is a great Singapore original!

This year, all the material is new. The episodes that I found most hilarious are the running gags about the films Star Wars and The Maid, and the musicals Rent and Lao Jiu. Many of the jokes are best appreciated if one had seen these shows, and if one understood local dialects. For example, the proposed title of the film sequel of Lao Jiu by the Japanese director of the horror film Dark Water, is Lao Jui. This brought the house down because it is a pun, meaning leaking water.

Last year was Hossan Leong's first encounter with Chestnuts, and he was not quite so well integrated with the material. This year, he was much better synchronized with Jonathan Lim. Both acted with aplomb and complemented each other perfectly. The costumes have improved over the years, as has the projected computer graphics. The music is specially arranged for the show, and Bang Wenfu has managed to bring out the humour brilliantly. Darren Ng is the sound designer, and by plunging us into the myriad worlds of imagination, he enhanced our aural gratification. Even the program notes are a scream. As usual, I found myself laughing so much that my stomach hurt.

Some might find the humour of Chestnuts to be crude, smutty, and offensive. It pushes the envelope of our tolerance of indecency. It forces us to laugh at ourselves, and punctures our sanctimonious arrogance. This is good medicine for us.

Don't worry, Jonathan, I applaud your courage. Carry on the good work, and I promise to visit you when you get incarcerated.

10 December 2005

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Chestnuts 2004

Singapore has a reputation of heavy censorship. Making fun of our institutions and officials is not tolerated. Satirists are blacklisted, and political cartoons of our leaders are nonexistent.

Chestnuts is a show that parodies, among other things, our government and politicians. It is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy artistic and intellectual environment. Why has it not been banned in Singapore? The best theory, I think, is that perhaps the relevant civil servants and ministers have not seen it.

Why are we such a humorless society, unable to brook criticisms? I am told that it is because of a top-down effect. If the boss does not find it funny, then nobody is allowed to laugh. The civil service is the largest employer in Singapore, and it has been rumored that to be admitted as a civil servant, you better have no sense of humor, and you must cultivate an ultra-thin skin that is completely intolerant to ridicule.

Chestnuts is a remarkably brave show, daring to mock famous people, films, musicals, plays, as well as the Singapore establishment. It is therefore of considerable importance in our nation's coming of age. We have to learn to laugh at ourselves.

"So what did you think of the show?" my friend asked me.

"Do you want me to say something good, or something honest?" I replied. He laughed.

There are some hysterically funny moments. I like the skit in which our new prime minister thanks his father, and eats a Minister Mentos. I like the jokes about our National Arts Council and underfunding. The white ribbon campaign to help rehabilitate theater practitioners back into normal society is riotous. There are longer sketches of international topics. For example I like the mistake made by the assassin who, instead of killing Bill, kills Belle from Beauty and the Beast.

Jonathan Lim and Hossan Leong are consummate actors with a fine sense of comic timing and improvisation. The contrast between the tall and rotund Jonathan and the short and skinny Hossan is already hilarious. Add to that a great script, and you have an evening filled with paroxysms of laughter. Guaranteed your guts will bust.

Now for the less good news (I'm sorry to be so brutally honest, and you're welcome to shoot me). Having been to all but the very first Chestnut 8 years ago, I have come to expect more. More biting jokes, more zaniness, more humorous improvisations to cover up inadvertent mistakes. I also felt that dwelling too long on Mama Mia, lost both momentum and humor. The Kill Bill segment was also too long. The japes about our local theater scene might have been funny, but not having watched many plays this year, they flew over my head.

Nevertheless Chestnuts is a brilliant show, and is rapidly becoming an institution itself. In a country that pokes so little fun at itself, this is a much needed prick to burst our overinflated balloons, and to allow us to regain a better perspective of our own somewhat claustrophobic lives.

My final analysis is that Chestnuts is a great success this year, and I can recommend it unreservedly. Pity the run is so short.

26 November 2004

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Chestnuts 2003

I've been watching every single episode of Chestnuts ever since Jonathan twisted my arm to watch circa AD 1900.

And I can honestly say that with each year, it hurts me more and more to watch. I'm sorry, but that's the honest truth. With each passing year, it forces me to laugh longer and louder ... until my stomach really hurts. Not to mention the pharyngitis I get from all that raucous laughter. I suggest that you provide free Tiger Balm to rub on our stomachs during the show. "Lower down, please!" And some Lucozade for the throat (does Lucozade still exist?). "Deeper, please!"

It's a show whose production values are improving annually. The props look more authentic, the costumes come from a higher class of costumier, the arrangement is improving (you get more Bang for your bucks... sorry Wenfu, but I've been waiting for a decade to make this joke!). And with improved sound, I can almost hear some of the jokes... which is a pity since it stops me from sleeping through the show.

Set design is minimalistic (ie non-existent), and I hope next year we'll have a set design to match Les Miz or Phantom. I guess with such bad economic climes, you are forced to limit yourself to a total cast size of two.

I particularly like the Empress Dowager with her long fingernails. But I didn't think the real Empress Dowager looked quite so beautiful as the joker who played her (who was she?). Nevertheless, the whole Forbidden City series is outstanding. Pity Dick and Kit didn't show up to applaud.

Even Eric Khoo and Royston Tan seemed to appreciate 15 Homeruns. Hey, where was the other Neo (Jack)?

I also like the interview with the guest artist. Where did you get such sexy bananas? ... I mean the fruit. The Matrix and Lord of the Rings segments are classic examples of how to blender apples and oranges. You really get your money's worth as you can watch two blockbusters for the price of one. What great chemistry Sean and Jonathan have! They catalyze each other causing a chain reaction, and the resulting explosive laughter nearly brought down the house.

As usual, Chestnuts assaults our senses with jokes that take us right to the cutting edge of respectability and goodness, then they chop off our sense of decency and propriety.

The skit on censorship is particularly clear in explaining the different ratings. You should video it and send it to the Censorship Board, so that they can better rate future films. Of course I'm offended that such an innocent and educational show as Chestnuts should attract an R(A) rating. Have our dear Censors no sense of values... or art... or humour?

I would recommend Chestnuts to be an O'level text for the not too distant future. Excuse me, I never joke about such serious matters. There's a great earning potential here. You can create a syllabus, write textbooks, set exam questions and supply model answers. This would give our educational system a much needed boost. Singapore's creativity index would shoot right out of the measurable scales. And we can export Chestnuts as a subject for all nations to study and pirate. Chestnuts can be a brand name to rival McDonald's. It can boast that it is free from mad cows and mad comedians. Okay, I can't vouch for the comedians... but I am confident that there are no mad cows... oh sorry madam!

I am looking forward to next year's Chestnuts. And yes Jonathan, do please twist my arm... again... ooh... oooh... oooowwww... more... more please! That was good!!!

26 December 2003