Let Loose With The Noose: All About Comedy Writing

by Gwyneth Low, Victoria Junior College

Ask any Singaporean on the street if they have watched The Noose, and most of them would respond with a smile lit up on their faces, replying “Orhhh that one ah - of course I got watch la!”

The Singapore comedy television series, produced by Mediacorp Channel 5, is undoubtedly one of the most successful, prominent and popular local productions - the choice of entertainment that Singaporeans from all walks of life go to, be it after a long day at work or a on a relaxing weekend, or watching it as it is being aired or catching up on the series on Toggle. With a vibrant ensemble cast and a passionate production team, the show has brought to life the dynamic characters who have spread joy and amusement to viewers with their charisma and have become household names - from the flamboyant foreign correspondent and self-proclaimed pole-dancing instructor Pornsak Sukhumvit to the meticulous domestic helper and part-time reporter Leticia Bongnino.

The reason behind the success of the news parody, which satirises local socio-cultural and political issues in Singapore as well as newsworthy local and regional incidents involving Singapore in a light-hearted and comical fashion, in drawing a base of avid and loyal viewers - including myself - is perhaps due to its unique concept, enhanced with a touch of locality, enabling Singaporeans to be able to enjoy a programme which they can relate closely to. In this session, Prem Anand, the creator and writer of The Noose, and actor Chua Enlai, known most notably for his roles in The Noose, discuss The Noose and the concept of comedy writing.

The idea of a new approach and concept to a comedy series struck the brilliant creator and writer of the series, Prem Anand, in late 2006s, after he had watched and gained inspiration from the 2004 American film Anchorman, starring Will Ferrell. The show he envisioned was bound to be rather tricky to craft due to its content; it would be a spinoff news programme which would prod at and parody local current socio-cultural and political issues in Singapore as well as newsworthy local and regional incidents involving Singapore.

There was a high chance that the show may not be received well as its content may be potentially deemed offensive and criticised by certain communities, especially with Singapore’s significantly sensitive political landscape - yet, Prem never gave up on this idea. Not only was the conceived concept fresh and unique, it also meant pushing boundaries and exploring possibilities of how far a local production could go - especially in a rather uptight Singaporean society. It was something that had never been done before, something contemporary and exciting, something that was too good to just let go so easily of - it was something that Prem knew that he had to pursue.

And so, Prem proposed the idea of The Noose. The puzzling title was given to the show due to it sounding similar to “The News” pronounced in local slang and it referencing Singapore’s practice of capital punishment in which convicted criminals are executed by hanging - a literal gallows humour.. He was then given a week to script and shoot a pilot so the series may be visualised and the judgement of whether or not the show had the potential to haul in good viewership and ratings may be made.

Four or 5 scripts were then written by Prem and his writing team. Actors Chua Enlai - who plays the ebullient characters of BB See, Esmond Wan Mo Peh and many more - and Alaric Tay - who plays the exuberant characters of Nicholas Le Fong, Xin Huahua and many more - were pulled into a small vacant room for an impromptu audition, which involved them demonstrating their fantastic expertise and skills in improvisation and emulating foreign accents, interpreting the characters in their own creative ways. Later on, actress Michelle Chong - who plays the jubilant characters of Babarella, Lulu and many more - also joined in. Other actors such as Suhaimi Yusof, who plays Jojo Joget and many more and Judee Tan, who plays Kim Bong Cha and many more later joined the cast.

A pilot was then recorded in four days with the actors and was granted approval; the very first The Noose episode was aired on national television on 4 November 2007. That, was the very beginning of something amazing; now commanding 9 seasons in total, having won awards at the Asian Television Awards and even having been nominated for the International Emmy Awards in 2011, it can be safely said that the rest is history.

Prem mentioned that comedy writing is unique in the sense that it is constantly changing; there is never any sort of fixed format that can contain the vigour of comedy, which seems ever determined to push boundaries and stretch its horizons. Every witty punchline or dialogue is unique; there can never be another one that could ever substitute it.

Unlike typical essay writing, comedy writing, Prem and Enlai shared, defies the expectations of words having to conforming to a default structure; comedy writing instead means breaking out of such imposed constraints, leaping across boundaries and testing the waters; other forms of writing may be satisfied with leaping across the pond on lily pads. However, comedy writing is different - comedy writing aspires to leap all the way from Earth to the Moon, to delve into the deep ocean waters - comedy writing, unlike typical essay writing, is free-spirited - just like its nature and the feeling that it strives to make people feel when they consume comedy.

The Noose had not stuck to its original concept and approach throughout the entirety of nine seasons - over the progression of the seasons, the show had been consistently developing and evolving in a joint collaboration between both the production team and the actors. Not only is there a constant need for an amendment and improvement in the quality and presentation of content due to the fact that the programme is based on the ever-changing and developing nature of current affairs itself, there is also perpetual character development throughout the seasons. All striking developments and evolutions of the characters and the stories were only made possible by the close cooperation of the production team and the actors, whom were both very much eager and enthusiastic to contribute and ideas and elements which would add in even more vibrance to the programme.

For example, it was Alaric, inspired by a friend, who had asked for his news correspondent character, Andre Chichak, who was one of the first few characters created for the show, to have a streak of white hair. It was also him who had came up with the iconic catchphrase of his frustrated taxi driver character Nicholas Le Fong - “stupiak”, which is a combination of the English word “stupid” and the local slang “piak”, meaning “to hit”.

Enlai also mentioned how his news correspondent character Jacques Ooi, also one of the first few characters who had been created for the show, had only developed the distinctive feature of wearing ridiculously short ties after two seasons. He also mentioned that his news anchor character BB See only developed a prominent bulging belly from Season 4 onwards. It is this freedom, Prem says, that the actors have to add in to the show that gives them a sense of ownership of the show, rather than having them follow directions strictly - in his words to the actors, “It’s not just our show; it’s your show too.”

It is comedy writing that allows such freedom to be enjoyed - the volatile and flexible nature of comedy writing encourages and prompt producers, writers and actors to twist and bend them even further. Enlai had expressed his enjoyment in being able to play a multitude of characters - he said, “There is no fully written “character bible”; much opposed to the shooting of a drama series, which involves playing one character over several months, The Noose is all about playing 50 characters over 13 episodes”. The large variety of characters allows every branch of Singapore to be represented and included and reflects the diversity of Singapore - a nation compromising of people across different races, religions and ethnicities, all living together peacefully and harmoniously. The bringing of such intriguing characters and stories to live can only be made possible by the collaborative effort between the production team and the actors - the process is entirely organic.

Enlai had alluded the never ending process of developing and enhancing characters to being at the makeup - “It’s like being at make-up,” he said; “You can just go “Hey, why don’t we add a mole right her?” or “How about we add a moustache?” The process of character development in comedy writing, as well as the landscape of comedy writing itself, in short, is constantly reshaping, moving and shifting. 

The filming of The Noose is colourful and spontaneous as well - just like the nature of the comedy writing behind it. Actors usually only require one take and can memorise the script quickly and present it articulately whilst throwing in some of their creative improvisations in their performances, Prem said, as most of the script is recorded as a voiceover. Even the news anchor characters, BB See, Adrianna Wow and Xin Huahua, who read the script from a teleprompter in the studio, throw in their own quirks and perks into their performance every now and then.

In particular, Prem revealed that the filming of the popular episode about a maid helping an NS man carry his bag was rather spontaneous and impromptu - the idea for that story had just suddenly been put in place together upon seeing an army uniform in the studio belonging to the producer who had recently came back from reservist during the period of time whereby that particular story was the talk of the town at that period of time.

Prem, however, also warned that mindfulness must still be observed in ensuring that one does not cross the line and push their luck in comedy writing - things get too far and take a negative turn when jokes go out of hand and out of control, becoming offensive to a particular community in society. In order to ensure that the content of The Noose remains hilarious, yet not potentially offensive, all scripts are gone through an in house censor which ensures that The Noose follows media regulations and guidelines. This in house censor would proofread and extract content which may be controversial and unacceptable by the public, advising writers to either cut it from the script or rephrase the segment. "The Noose doesn't make fun of politics; it makes fun of policies, because policies are part of everyday life and people can relate to them easily," Prem had said, using the popular Taxi Drivers Learn French episode as an example.

"So long as there is no intentional malicious attack at any particular figure, international or local, political or civilian, it is possible to find loopholes to exploit," he concluded. "However, we must keep in mind - what's okay this week may not be okay next week." This, perhaps shapes the ever shifting and evolving nature of comedy writing.

On the whole, The Noose as a comedic piece has been widely successful and popular, on both a local scale and international scale - this can be justified with the programme sweeping up awards at the Asian Television Awards and even earning a prestigious International Emmy nomination. Prem and Enlai had both expressed their surprise at receiving news of the nomination - they were surprised at the fact that Singaporean humour, local slangs and content based on local affairs incorporated in The Noose had the power to impress an international panel of judges and could gain appreciation from an international community.

The fact that The Noose had clinched an International Emmy nomination goes to prove the potential of local productions to transcend across borders and be amplified on a global platform. Prem, Enlai and the rest of the cast and the production team were greatly amazed to have been immersed in an international community of producers and creators and to have had their work shortlisted amongst theirs on the same scale, as well as have loved their experience at the Emmys in which different cultures, perspectives and views came together to be heard, to be known, to be shared.

In conclusion, The Noose has fully proven the power and capacity of comedy writing - extracting humour and evoking laughter from current affairs, taking on a different and unconventional perspective on issues, expressing things that people often think but never say, these are gems that comedy writing offers for its viewers - whether it is manifested in the form of The Noose or any other comedic programme, the influence and impact that comedy has created on the world is undeniable. While the nature of comedy writing is every changing, the endearing audience it attracts and captivates are always present.

Comedy writing is like a wildfire - burning, spreading, and very, very much alive.