If you ask anyone that grew up on a staple of 80s and 90s TV, I’m sure you'll recognise this face:
Those arched eyebrows. That (almost) toothless smile. Those sea-green mischievous eyes. He's more than a television character; he's a fumbling, puffing, hip-swinging myth. And he needs no introduction. So I apologise.
Created by legendary British comedians Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, the Mr.Bean sitcom ran from 1990-1995 on BBC, and later, around the world. The show not only received international acclaim and was sold in 245 territories around the world, but developed a cult following. And it's even harder to believe that the show has only 15 episodes. It inspired an animated cartoon spin-off, toys, two feature films, and a cafe chain (that was situated in Orchard for a while).
For Singaporeans, and a generation of viewers plonked in front of their TV screens by their parents, Mr.Bean lifted a little curtain to the West, English culture, and ludic expressionism. While channelling the underdog spirit of great silent comic performers such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, Mr.Beam was winsome, weird and wildly imaginative. Audiences couldn't help but fall in love with him.
And I've realised Mr.Bean holds a special place in Singapore’s heart. My theory is simple:
Mr. Bean is the epitome of a Singapore icon.
But first, who is Mr.Bean, really?
Often described by Rowan Atkinson as a "child in a man's body", Mr. Bean centres on an eccentric, tweed-jacket wearing Brit, who’s juvenile pursuits often lead him to disastrous and hilarious consequences. He struggles to cope with daily situations: exams, shopping, movies, church, using a TV, and even going to the hospital. Oh - and he could be an alien! A concept introduced in the opening credits and elaborated on in the Animated show. (Spoiler: He's from an alien planet where the population all look like Mr.Bean but carry different toys. Yep!).
While Bean means well—he's by no means intentionally cruel—his lack of social awareness sparks a domino effect that always results in explosive embarrassment. Living in London with his toy bear 'Teddy' in a dreary two-room flat, Mr.Bean also has a girlfriend, although it's clear he knows nothing about women or relationships.
In fact, he has very little social skills at all. He's childish, brash, immature and silly, but also imaginative, innovative, innocent and apologetic. Not the most charming or magnetic character in the world. But he is compelling.
For me, I've observed through daily conversations that Singaporeans love Mr.Bean! Ask anyone. Observe their reaction. You can see it in their eyes. This has led me to the conclusion that the nation's enduring love for Mr.Bean offers us insights into what it means to be Singaporean. He’s fictional, yes, but Mr.Bean speaks to us in more ways than one.
Now I'm sure many of you may remember the TV show, skits on loop in Polyclinic waiting rooms, or the animated spin-off on Channel 5—maybe in some sort of blurry, nostalgia-soaked way. And even today, my 5-year-old goddaughter never fails to jibe me at Christmas with: "YOU LOOK LIKE MR.BEAN!" *Giggles*. I look like him, kind-of.
I soon discovered why: Singapore parents are introducing Mr.Bean to them through Youtube. Mr.Bean's antics are transitioning through the generations, more so than any historical, social or political figure could hope for.
So what is it about Mr.Bean that has weaved its way into Singapore’s social fabric?
1. Singaporeans relate to losers and their quest to WIN. We connect with it historically, culturally and personally.
Singapore's story is repeated every year on National Day and throughout Secondary School, College, and even National Service. We get it. Our national narrative aims to remind us that we need to unite under a common social thread. We are all in this together, as High School Musical reminds us. This story of the 'little island nation that could' permeates everything we do: from economics to politics to art to social causes and sports. Some people support the narrative as truth. Others believe there's more to it; and there is. But one thing is clear:
The actual story is: Singapore was a socio-economic loser that eventually "won" through hard work and determination.
But Singapore needs to continue to WIN to survive long-term.
Mr.Bean wants to "win" too. Whether it's trying to cheat on an exam, cut in front of another person in a hospital queue, or pull-off a successful Christmas party, Mr.Bean must achieve success.
This why Mr. Bean probably resonates with Singaporean society: our goals are intrinsically the same. There's something about him that reminds us, at our unknowing core, who we are and what we're driven by.
Survival is our main emotional driver because it was drummed into our parents, and repeated into our collective minds every year. We can not give up. We must persevere. Or someone will take our economic food.
The threat of losing reminds us of a threat that we could befall us at any time. And as Singaporean MP Kuik Shiao-Yin once said in parliament, an ingrained aversion to loss is detrimental. For Singaporeans, this may create a generation of “grantpreneurs”, those that chase government grants rather than taking risks to build innovative companies.
Singapore's national narrative drives us to be winners. Losing, rejection and failure = bad. Of course, failure is a key element of success, and this is one of the biggest problems with the education system. As for Mr.Bean, he is innately driven to be a winner. So when he trips and falls...
Mr.Bean fails where we can't.
We like that. We can laugh at that. It reminds us that we're okay. A success. Superior. It puts us on a pedestal. Comedy is all about perspective.
2. The humour was visual, non-cultural, and rooted in a character's attitude. Any race, language or religion could enjoy it.
Watch the video above to see an early display of Rowan Atkinson's physical work, many mannerisms of which he imbued into Mr.Bean. A man is filled with cocky bravado when he realises he's being shot on camera. But as he tries to make love to the camera with his eyes, he becomes distracted and collides with a tree. He's brought down a notch. Laughter ensues. Classic set-up, punchline. No words at all.
Rowan Atkinson is adeptly gifted in an area that not many comedians can achieve: Comic physicality. He doesn't just offer a funny one-liner, a slapstick moment, or a corny punchline. Bean's reactions, face and mannerisms are the joke. Put him in any situation and it works - because the character's foundation is already there. The humour is derived from his reaction, attitude and non-verbal communication.
At the same time, Mr.Bean's willpower to "go for it" is admirable and flawed. He's overconfident and cowardly, two opposing characteristics in one. This causes him to screw up his own rudimentary plans, and we love to watch it inevitably unfold into calamity. There's no need for dialogue, inside references or even context. We know what's coming.
Mr.Bean is not culturally specific. He speaks to the human condition.
We've been late for an appointment, felt fear from an exam, and wanted to skip the queue to be first. We may not display the same physicality as Mr.Bean, but we understand where it comes from. He thinks like us to begin with, but he eventually makes it worse through cause-and-effect. And who doesn't enjoy the sight of a building being demolished.
Mr.Bean is weird but relatable.
Through Mr.Bean's highly visual, non-culturally specific comedy, his antics are easily understood by adults and children. They are immediate. We see, we react, we laugh. No mental hardware necessary. This is undoubtedly a unique brand of Rowan Atkinson's superb physicality and the writing of each show, and it speaks to us because it doesn't try to speak at all.
3. Singaporeans and Mr.Bean are driven by the same kiasu spirit. We love to WATCH and PLAY ourselves in characterisation.
Every National Day there's a new slogan. This year it's 'We are Singapore'. But is it really representative of us? I'd like to argue that 'We are kiasu', 'We want it free' or 'Stress is us' is equally, if not more powerful. It's not conjured in a marketing meeting. It's just being honest about who we are. So let's try:
Singapore..lacks something, doesn't it?
I'm not trying to be negative. It's by no means a social disaster. There are plenty of gracious, empathy-driven and kind acts everyday in Singapore. But there is a tension there, a tenuous thread that tells us "Why does this happen?". Could it be possible that Singapore has advanced so fast, at such a break-neck pace, that while we appear to be a First World Country...
Singapore has never lost its third-world survivalist mindset. And that can't erased in 50 years.
"Kiasu" simply means "The fear of missing out". A very unique type of Singaporean, not age specific at all, exhibit this by acting as if their lives are on the line, everyday, in perfectly ordinary scenarios. They feel constricted by the tension of being last, losing out and being controlled by the ‘other’. Free and first.
Mr.Bean wants to be free and first, too. He's kiasu with a uniquely Singaporean spirit that drives him to seek out the best in life. But he must be first, even if that means taking ridiculous risks to get it. Let's be honest: if Mr.Bean could chope a seat, he would. In Singapore, "choping" itself has been normalised, when really it's just stealing a seat before anyone else can sit down. Very Bean-esque, if I do say so myself. To Western viewers, I suppose this behaviour is deemed as rude. But for Singaporeans, it speaks to us on a deeper level. There is always the tension of being last.
So to deal with this mental tension, we roleplay and "play"
Singapore is not known for play; we don't have time, do we? We can't waste time, take it slow, or have too much fun. (We can). Mr.Bean is immensely imaginative - a common concern of Singapore that we are not as creative or enterprising as other nations. When two and two come together, viewers can live vicariously through Mr.Bean's childish antics. We are being juvenile, cheeky and breaking the rules with him.
Having not shaken our 1966 post-independence ethos of: We need to be a disciplined, rugged and a highly-trained workforce--we look for these kinds of tension releases anytime we can. Maybe this is why racial and political humour resonates with us. It plays with this inherent tension in Singapore society and gives us a burst of emotional catharsis.
Because Comedy is a release of tension. And Singaporeans love it.
Mr.Bean does this for us--he allows us to "let go". We are looking at ourselves. Our faults. Our insecurities. Our dreams. Personified on television, we feel, on some level, the realisation that "we are not alone". That we are not under siege. This lightens our spirits, hearts and minds. We want to share that. Remember it. Why wouldn't we? Stress.
To find out more, I decided to talk to some local Singaporean comedians to get their thoughts on Mr.Bean and the comedy scene in Singapore.
Siraj Aziz is a local comedian that threads the line of race and religion, exploring the cultural complexities of both. When not trying to write complex sentences that don't really mean anything, he is busy trying to be an artists of sorts, a muslim and a good son to an Indian mum who calls him, "juicy".
Gary Tan is a stand up comic based in Singapore. He's currently a welder, working for his father, because a guy in the audience once screamed “Keep your day job”. People have described his act as self-aware, dark, goofy, sad, and maybe sorry.
Gary runs a podcast called Not Again podcast with Gary Tan at www.notagainpodcast.com
Wayne Cheong is the head writer for Esquire Singapore. He is a two-time recipient of the MPAS (Media Publishers Association of Singapore) “Journalist of The Year”, for both 2014 and 2015. He has interviewed numerous iconic personalities, including Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Dev Patel, Colin Schooling, “The SMRT Vigilanteh” and Eric Bana, amongst others. On the side, Wayne performs standup comedy regularly. He has performed at Singapore Comedy Fringe Festival, Talk Cock Comedy 2015 as well as regular improv nights together with other comedians.
Q1) Rowan Atkinson's 'Mr.Bean' is fondly remembered by Singaporeans. Why do you think the character resonated with Singaporeans from the 90s until now? How did the character resonate with you?
Siraj Aziz: Mr. Bean was almost a childhood superhero to me. He made funny "cool" in a way. Like it was a cheat card to become cool; if you're not good-looking you better hope you're funny. Now, it's as funny today as 20 years ago. And I think a big part of it was because it was non-verbal. Just like Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and so many other silent comics, Mr.Bean broke the boundary of the spoken language by using body language. If your eyes perceived the situation as funny, it was. And growing up in the 80s and 90s we were not a nation necessarily proficient as English as we are now. Thus having English entertainment that we could relate to played a big role for many Singaporeans - especially comedians trying to find their voice.
Gary: I don’t think that “Mr Bean” is only fondly remembered by Singaporeans, but other countries as well. I remember talking to an English comic who had been around the scene a lot and she told me told me that it is a pretty much world wide event. I think it is because Mr.Bean is a very relatable yet a ridiculous character. We wish that could do what Mr Bean does and get away with it. There is nothing to digest. The humour was just there. I think it's also Rowan Atkinson's background as well.
Darren: There was something about the physical comedy of Mr Bean that -- even without speaking, or making some mumbled gibberish noises -- you knew exactly what he was thinking, and he didn't have to say it. And often, no language was needed -- he was just that funny. But that was special too, because that meant that everybody in Singapore, across the races and religion and dialects (and the post-dialect generation) understood it all. Rowan Atkinson also did Blackadder, which I think was screened once and never again. That was written in snappy, snarky Queen's English and mocked modern and historical Britain, which meant you needed to know a lot and to, as the Government put it, Speak Good English in order to get it.
Wayne: I think the reason why Mr Bean resonated with a lot of people is that his entire schtick is mostly mime. With the lack of language, viewers from all over the world have to rely on the mime to understand the plot. And Atkinson is a really good mimer; not an action is wasted.
Q2) Do you think there are other notable Singaporean standups and characters that are on par with Mr.Bean? (Eg. Mr.Kaisu?). Who are your influences from TV, film, your childhood?
Siraj Aziz: Wow. hmmm, in terms of a rubber face, I would say the skinny and fat Chinese duo on old school Singapore TV. As well as Jack Neo, Hussein Sa'aban, Chua Enlai, Alias Kadir, Henry Thia, Mark Lee, Suhaimi Yusof, Gurmit Singh, Rishi Budhrani and Siva Choy. These guys dominated the television for one reason--they knew what made Singaporeans laugh and how to deliver the punchline for Singaporean audiences. Granted some would say they were/are not world standard, but I'd say your audience is your audience. As a comedian your job is to best entertain the audience you have and that's what they did. Their expressions, their wit, their close shaves with the Government. They took their risks and lived for laughs.
Gary: Standup comics, nope. As for character wise, you have Phua Chu Kang from PCK Pte Ltd, and Lee Tok Kong from Police and Thief. The characters are pretty slapstick and involve self-inflicted silly moments. However the characters are really loud. I do not have an influence from my childhood but I really dig various characters who seems to be more controlled or neurotic. Characters such as the Father character (Mr Tay) in Growing Up, “Dennis” from The Pupil, or Shaggy and Scooby Doo.
Darren: Gurmit Singh and Adrian Pang both had the rubbery-faced physical-comedy routine down pat as well. Appropriately enough they both went on Channel 8 shows to stutter in lousy Mandarin -- that I entirely identified with. Moe Alkaff is a name I know because of Gotcha! -- Singapore's attempt at Just For Laugh Gags. Physical comedy again. I remember loathing having to study Mandarin, but always watching Channel 8's Comedy Night (搞笑行动). I don't recall any sketches; I just knew every week there'd be some interesting gags and laughs. Oh! Martin Yan (of Yan Can Cook) fame. He didn't crack jokes, but he was so full of energy that his show was a delight to see.
Wayne: In terms of comedic mime? There's no one that comes to mind. Maybe Jack Neo's Liang Po Po but his schtick can only go so far. The mannerism of his grandma character is funny but she speaks in Mandarin so the humour is lost in the translation.
Q3) If you could define the Singaporean sense of humour - what would it be?
Siraj Aziz: Haha I've been doing comedy for a bit now, and one thing that surprises me is how global yet local we are. We get American jokes but we LOVE local jokes. Because its about us you see. From PCK to UNDER ONE ROOF, all we ever wanted to see was us on screen. So to loosely define SG humour it would be: friendly racists. We love our race humour that bring out our differences and idiosyncrasies. That said, the Singaporean mentality has been very preconditioned to be very sensitive to politics. Although they love the humour, there's a very real fear when we start making fun of our politicians. Why? It's the way we were raised and the countless examples of how criticism of a Government often ends up bad for the critic. Can comedy act as a shield for this criticism? So far it is. But only time can tell.
Gary: Slapstick, racial. You can poke the audience but you cannot make the audience feel bad or sad for you as an individual.
Darren: Transgressive and subversive. Ironic (or possibly because) of the great respect for authority we have, we like inappropriate things and mocking authority. There's a sarcastic thread that runs through the comments on every article or story about any sort of public policy or fare hike or train slowdown. Comedians from the US and EU (and the UK, I suppose) have also remarked on how strange it is that racial comedy is not only allowed here, but a big source of comedy and laughs. What they might think is politically incorrect, we can laugh at (because it's true) I suppose.
On that final thread -- I once did an Improv gig for the library. It was open to the general public and we tamed it down, knowing there were kids. We got a decent reception, but in the final five minutes someone cracked a blatantly smutty gag and the entire audience EXPLODED with laughter. The organisers didn't know whether to laugh or -- well, alright, they laughed. Transgressive and inappropriate, see.
Wayne: More slapstick. Local political, racial, sex jokes. A lot of stuff culled from the Internet; the sort that's forwarded via e-mail.
Q4) Where do you see the future of Singapore comedy heading? What are the challenges? (eg. Do you feel local audiences compare our local artists to those on Netflix or online? Is this fair?)
Siraj Aziz: I see the future of Singapore comedy to be really bright. Once there was only one night to do comedy in Singapore. Today there are bars every single day that have comedy nights. Things are improving and although local television has opened up to local comedians, it is still much too conservative to the brand of comedy that is emerging. Thus we are closing a source of revenue. Advertisers have been kinder though with Fakkah Fuzz and Rishi helming ads for brands like DBS and Uber. Things are changing and change takes time.
Recently Fakkah Fuzz had a Netflix special and there were mixed reviews on it. Some loved it, some cringed...bla bla bla. But the point he made was clear. He did it. A boy from Singapore who hustled hard made it onto the global stage. And yes people will always compare and that's okay. Comedy works best with truths and our jokes are our truths of our lives and our experiences. A point of view that is uniquely ours and that is a story no one else can tell the same way.
Gary: In a good place I hope. I mean the audience are getting smarter. They are more exposed to comedy. I have seen audiences getting more adventurous when it comes to the style of jokes and the depth of jokes that they are willing to be on board with which is encouraging. As for challenges, I am afraid that this comedy bubble bursts like in the 90s internet memes. Because there is so much comedy online right? Not just stand up but you have sketch, web series, vlogs... I mean look all those "viral" sketch videos, be it international or local. However, if you have audiences that start to compare local acts vs foreign acts. Good. It means audience are getting smarter and more exposed. Local acts have to work harder because you are not in a bubble anymore.
Darren: It's difficult to compete and inappropriate to compare. You don't get on Netflix unless you're really, really, really good -- can you expect the same quality when you go to a live show in a small bar venue for $15, $20 as opposed to a huge $100 theatre? The price also works against local comics as well. Plenty of people will show up for a $120 night gig with a comic whose sitcom they've watched, but they don't show up for a $12 show to help grow the local scene. What you water grows. Jinx Yeo though -- he's had the foresight to take his show to Edinburgh year after year. Sharul Channa too, spends a lot of time on the road in Australia. The reasons why I leave as an exercise for the reader, but I'm glad there's a growing local open mic scene.
Wayne: We're still young when it comes to comedy. Other places like Australia, America and the UK, their level of comedy has grown by leaps and bounds. Hannah Gadsby's Nanette proves that jokes can traverse topics of sexual abuse and mysogyny and yet still make a point and draw a laugh. Hopefully, Singaporeans become savvier with their comedy that they can appreciate the stand-up scene in all its shape and form.
Q5) How do you tell a story through comedy? What's special about the medium in your opinion?
Siraj Aziz: Stand up is essentially one person with a mic hoping you laugh and it doesn't get any less terrifying. I read once a liner from a book "Don't look for laughs, look for understanding. If they can understand, they can react accordingly". Sometimes I focus way too much on the punchline, the rest of the story falls flat. If the story isn't clear, I wouldn't understand why it's funny and I wont laugh. Another thing I learnt is that people love to feel like they got to know your story first. Thus every time you tell your joke it should seem like the first time, no matter how many times you repeat it. That was something that I struggled with at first. What's special? The laughter, the improv and that moment on stage when all eyes are on you. You either kill or bomb. And that risk you take. It makes you feel alive every single time.
Gary: Standup is personality-driven. You are the character you put up on stage. Your perspective of the story is the audience’s perspective. And jokes are makes the whole thing palatable. Comedy in every form is a way to connect with people right? Laughter is vulnerable. I remember reading a quote in the book “Sick in the Head” by Judd Apatow which he transcribed the interview he had with Marc Maron. It goes something like: "Laughter is very dangerous. Your chin goes up and your throat is exposed. If I laugh too loud someone will split my throat. That is the terror of joy."
Darren: I should clarify the type of comedian I am; I mostly perform Improvisation and I write jokes for TV. Once in a while I perform in Comedy Wars, which is a monthly show where punchlines are derived from the news. There's something relaxing about that; my jokes live for one evening, hit or miss, and disappear thereafter. There's a kind of freshness to that. I play a lot of characters. I'm a rather reserved person in real life - possibly repressed -- note the mollifying, moderating use of 'rather' even in my writing. Playing these characters allows me to say things I normally would not. The audience becomes a different character too. The story they are laughing at isn't the real story, but my version of the story, with heightened reality, amusing misunderstandings and amazing coincidences.
Wanye: Stand-up is only effective when it's performed, when you're witness to it. You write your jokes and it might read funny but it's another thing entirely when it's done on stage. The same when you transcribe a joke you've seen on stage. It doesn't have the same context or emotional weight to the words. I suppose, through writing, the humour is gained through wordplay, or exaggeration. The crafting of a scenario can also evoke laughter. Examples like Terry Pratchett or Megan Amram's Twitter account.