Dasa Dharamahsena, comedian and actor from Night Owl Cinematics is not just an expert at cracking jokes in four languages. He also represents how the local comedy scene is reshaped — one digitally-savvy laugh at a time.
How are you fluent in your languages?
Interestingly, the first language I spoke was Tamil because my mother did not want me to struggle with it. I even spoke Tamil to my nursery school classmates and teachers thinking that it was a universal language. I eventually learned English and Mandarin — the latter because my preschool and kindergarten did not offer Tamil as a second language. My mom could not believe that I ended up being able to speak Mandarin after only six months of school.
As for Malay, my parents used to speak it to each other, which gave me this false confidence and I even told everyone — even though I only knew a few words. An Indonesian helper (who used to work in Malaysia) spoke to me in Malay and the only way I could communicate with her was through “melayu pasar” (colloquial Malay).
Eventually, my grasp on the language became better as I had a close bunch of Malay-speaking friends in the army. I believe that every language is beautiful and having the skill to speak them fluently is a challenge — something I’m learning to do every day.
How did you start out as a comedian? Were you always funny as a child?
I never thought of myself as one but I knew I was funny — my friends always referred to me as an entertainer and comedian, and I felt that they spoke it into existence.
I got my first proper platform on Kiss 92FM with Joshua Simon on his show Joshua’s Goodnight Kiss. He was extremely nurturing and patient because he knew that I was new to this thing.
From there, I met John Klass and his wife, who both enlisted me as a production manager for a music video. I was on set cracking jokes and I didn’t know who was paying attention. Walls have ears and so does Loretta Lopez who was starting a passion project where she wanted to band budding stand-up comedians for a show.
I forced my friends not to come because I did not want anyone to witness my failing but thankfully, the crowd was accepting and I have learned over time that handling a tough crowd depends on my mindset. It’s ok if they don’t laugh at my jokes — because they have yet to warm up to me or my jokes are so bad that I would have to go back to the drawing board. Every crowd is different and it would be so boring if they were all the same all the time, right?
A while later when I was in Bangkok, I chanced upon a Nepalese shop keeper who spoke fluent Mandarin and I was speaking it back to him. My friends took a video and I posted it on Facebook where Ryan from Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) asked if I would like to act for him.
I said yes without batting an eyelid. Why would anyone say no?
How do you handle stage fright and haters?
I used to take a shot of tequila but I can do so without liquid courage now. I also usually take a deep breath and tell myself to be myself. Haters are going to hate and I’m not going to lie that it didn’t hurt at first. I even thought of quitting but every time I got an invite to do a show, I did it. Dealing with haters is a small price to pay for the opportunity to do what I love.
Working with people that I love and trust really helps too.
When is a joke not funny?
I’m trying to figure that out as well because it’s important to be open to creating new content, but we must listen when we get called out. The audience plays an integral role in my job so sometimes, I go down and speak to them. Some have told me that my jokes evoke thoughts which is an indication that my observations are relatable.
I am my biggest critique — there was once when I performed to pin drop silence and took an entire month to get over it. I was concerned about getting laughs at first but sometimes, jokes that I think are flat get the most laughs and ones specifically written to get the biggest laughs result in silence. It’s all about practice and with that comes thicker skin.
When was the last time you felt “I can not do this”?
I once had to film a video in Mandarin and struggled with the key messages as the jargons were deep and advanced. It made me second guess my abilities but I got through it with the help of my colleagues and fellow talents. The lesson is to never overestimate your capabilities and practice does make some level of perfection.
As you get increasingly popular (owing to your Singapore’s big time speech giver video), what are some new challenges you have faced?
The video was made thanks to peer pressure and the fact that the video that our Prime Minister announced the Circuit Breaker and spoke different languages in became a running meme. My friend Leon and I got down to writing jokes (he was instrumental in helping me with trending topics and especially with the Mandarin lines) and since the Circuit Breaker was starting, I went over to a friend’s studio where we did everything in 24 hours.
The video was shot as if we were live — no cuts and only some colour grading — so if I stumbled over a word in Tamil for example, I had to redo the whole thing. I woke up the next day receiving more viral shares than I ever imagined and started receiving texts from my friends that their parents were sharing the video in their family group chats, and so were members of Parliament and the National Youth Council. When my boss, Sylvia from NOC texted me saying that she wanted to share it on NOC’s Instagram and Facebook, I almost stopped breathing. The cherry on the cake was when our Prime Minister told me that he enjoyed it.
The other challenge is that I must craft a joke in a specific language to make it funny. Some jokes are better told in Tamil than in English for example and you can’t Google translate jokes. That’s why reading subtitled jokes in foreign films might not make sense.
I am an introvert by nature. I’m not upbeat and exciting all the time. I am what I call an “introvert with extroverted qualities”. I thrive when I’m in front of the camera or on the stage where my nerves and anxiety become adrenaline.
Do you write jokes based on the lives of people around you?
Yes, my brand of comedy is a response to life — sad, weird, happy and embarrassing moments can be made funny. As soon as it’s not too soon to make a joke about something, it is a sign that we have moved on. Whenever I face hardships, I will tell myself that someday I am going to crack a joke about it and laugh.
There’s no point moping about something that is eventually going to become material for my comedy. I don’t believe in future planning but I open myself up to new opportunities. My friend Emily told me that the pursuit of happiness is overrated so let’s enjoy this moment and the journey that follows.
Lastly, can you tell us a joke on the fly?
A stressful question that I get asked a lot! Comedy has changed my life — not only in terms of my career — as it has helped me during dark times. The moral of the story is, be the joke yourself and the rest will fall into place. I want to give a TED Talk about this topic and hopefully, it will help others. Who said TED Talks can’t be funny?
Photography Jeff Chang
Styling Bryan Goh
Grooming and Hair Zoel Tee
If you’ve finished reading this story about Dasa Dharamahsena and are bored, listless or sick of doing your job, click here to catch up with our October 2020 issue!