Can the Local Sitcom Scene be Revived?

Ignite’s Joy takes a deep dive into the world of the late 90s and early 00s sitcoms and uncovers why Singapore’s once-shining sitcom scene fails to stand the test of time compared to international cult favourite Friends.

So no one told me that life was gonna be this way, wah lao eh!

By Joy Lai

I’m not so confident it can be revived. Here’s why.

Local sitcoms were given a chance to make a comeback last year, when Netflix launched 55 MediaCorp productions, including compilations of the famed Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd (PCK Pte Ltd). While the show was the fourth most watched Singaporean release on Netflix in 2020 and trended for some time on Singapore’s Most Watched chart shortly after its release, it has since blended into the background again.

This is not to say the show is not still relevant.

All that remains is…

We are all familiar with Gurmit Singh’s Phua Chu Kang: his bright yellow boots, iconic curly hair, and distinct Singaporean accent are recognisable anywhere in Singapore, JB and some say Batam! Even after the show stopped airing in 2007, the beloved contractor remains a familiar face on television today.

He was Shopee’s first Singaporean brand ambassador, starring in their notorious campaigns like their “9.9 Super Shopping Day”, and even became the face for public service announcements from the Government. Two years after the show ended, the Land Transport Authority worked with him to release a rap on graciousness, “A Happy Journey Starts Like That” and more recently made headlines overseas with the Government endorsed video, “Get Your Shot, Steady Bom Pi Pi”.

However, while the character remains timeless, he appears to be the only remnant left of the sitcoms produced during Singapore’s golden television era in the 90s.

Other than PCK Pte Ltd, sitcoms like Under One Roof, and Living with Lydia, just to name a few, were highly successful locally and even reached an international audience. For example, Under One Roof was dubbed in French (the first English local sitcom to be dubbed in a foreign language) and broadcasted in Australia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, France and Canada.

Under One Roof’s cast featuring Nicholas Lee (top left), Vernetta Lopez (top right), Andrew Lim, Moses Lim and Kok Chieng Mun (bottom row from left to right) [Photo: Mediacorp]

Under One Roof was so successful that Ms Daisy Irani, who acted as “Daisy” in local sitcom Under One Roof and later became its executive producer, wrote in her Channel NewsAsia (CNA) commentary, “life came to a standstill in the entire country at 8pm every week” and recounted how Singaporeans would cram into their studio.

“Dinner was had, homework was deferred, the entire family gathered around the TV set — and all was well with the world for half an hour,” she said.

Yet, younger Singaporeans have only heard of these sitcoms in passing, if at all, as if they were just stories from a period long before their time. In the same article, the actress/producer/director brought up an incident when she was recognised by a man in his 70s in the food court. With him was a young boy who was oblivious to who she was — and I saw myself in him. 

If you’re anything like me, you would probably be more familiar with American sitcoms, maybe the likes of Friends, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Office. I could barely name more than one Singaporean sitcom, much less recognise Ms Irani.

Despite the success of local television programmes in the 90s, they have since been on a decline. MediaCorp has gained notoriety for producing cringy and cookie cutter shows, and their (rather small) audience today consists largely of senior citizens and retirees. 

Because of the stigma attached to local productions, Singaporeans — the youth especially — have turned to other countries for entertainment instead. Not just American television, but European, Japanese, Korean, Thai…everywhere but here. With the advent of social media and streaming sites increasing our access to international shows, what made American sitcoms like Friends not get pushed out by global competition like Under One Roof and PCK Pte Ltd did? I binged the two series to tell you why.

Born with a silver spoon

But first, it needs to be addressed that the scale and viewership of local shows could not be compared to that of Friends, which had the power of Americanisation on its side.

After World War Two, there was an overwhelming proliferation of American media and pop culture worldwide. Entertainment markets all over the globe have been dominated by Hollywood and the American film and television industry since then, and many foreign distributors broadcast mainly American programming; MediaCorp’s Channel 5 is a great example of this phenomenon today.

The 90s were a time of rapid economic growth. As countries like China and India began their reform and economic liberalisation, they also welcomed a wave of American technology and businesses on their shores. Along with them came an import of American media and culture — including sitcoms like Friends

Part of the process of cultural imperialism, Americanisation has resulted in many countries accepting American culture as the norm (and to some extent, perceiving it as superior). Since young, I’ve read books, watched movies, and listened to songs set in the American context, and have become familiar with the culture there despite not having experienced it. I’m ashamed to admit this but, I used to try to write my own stories 10 years ago. I remember using terms like “high school” and “summer break” instead of “secondary school” and “December holidays”, because the former just seemed more ‘professional’ and ‘conventional’.

I suppose it’s the same with entertainment. We don’t give a fair chance to our local productions because we have it ingrained in us that American productions are always going to be better.

It’s not just me, the rest of the world follows this same “doctrine”. I didn’t watch Friends because the plot intrigued me, I watched it because I felt left out. The show left such a big impact on popular culture, there are still traces of the show everywhere on social media and in real life till today. I didn’t get the inside jokes and references that everyone in the world got, because everyone — and I mean everyone — knows Friends.

Singapore’s own Central Perk cafe, namesake of one of the main hangout spots of the characters in Friends [Photo: Central Perk SG via Facebook]

With American culture being so pervasive, it’s no wonder our local sitcoms lose out. That being said however, I think Singaporean shows could have put up more of a fight.

Evidently, from Gurmit Singh’s never-ending gigs as Phua Chu Kang, and the shows’ popularity in their time, they weren’t exactly a flop. So how come even when I put my preconceived notions aside and gave the local shows a shot, I still wasn’t quite convinced they deserved a comeback?

The moral of the story is? 

To put it in simple terms, Under One Roof has unrealistic characters and a realistic context while Friends has realistic characters and an unrealistic context.

It was clear that both Under One Roof and PCK Pte Ltd were Singaporean productions. They featured HDB blocks, Singaporean food, and culture; it was like catching a glimpse into any random household in Singapore. Relatable, right?

On a superficial level, yes. However, I realised that a familiar context is not everything there is to relatability. Unfortunately, a joke about laksa isn’t going to be any more appealing than a joke about turkey if it just isn’t funny.

Although a show like Friends was set against a foreign background, the themes and messages that were integrated into the plot hold universal truth, and still resonates with me, someone who for one, lives halfway across the world, and two, watched the show nearly 20 years after it stopped airing.

The 90s American sitcom told the story of six friends who depended on each other in a big city, clueless and struggling to manoeuvre through their 20s and 30s. Through the seasons, the characters chase their dreams and experience success and disappointments — they make mistakes, they learn to become independent and make it on their own. Their personalities were well-developed and the chemistry between the cast shined through in the characters’ relationships. Their petty bickering and heart-warming moments were real and believable.

One of many instances of the Friends characters bickering (Season two Episode 13) [Photo: Warner Bros/Netflix]

Not only did Friends reflect the reality and struggles of youth and self-discovery, but it also employed the found family trope among friends. While the characters’ biological family make (rare) appearances, their relationships were never portrayed as healthy. Instead, the characters spend most of their time together, including celebrating festive holidays like Christmas and New Year’s, with a bond that seems stronger than what any of them have with their parents. 

On the contrary, Singaporean sitcoms tend to emphasise the traditional family and the underlying theme of family harmony. Under One Roof centres around a family of five: Teck and Dolly and their three children, Paul, Ronnie, and Denise; while PCK Pte Ltd features the Phua household: the two Phua brothers, their families, and their mother. In both, episodes typically revolve around resolving family discord and misunderstandings.

For youths, who typically spend more time with their friends than at home, the close-knit relationship between the Friends characters would sound more enticing than listening about the distant woes of family and married life in Under One Roof and PCK Pte Ltd. The idea of living with friends was appealing and extremely ideal, almost like a fantasy.

Not to mention, in efforts to drive home the theme of family harmony, Under One Roof episodes all follow the same format; someone makes a mistake, the family comes together to resolve it, the episode ends on a heart-warming note, and the characters learn a valuable lesson. It’s nice and sweet…but over time, the episodes become predictable, and maybe a little too saccharine for my taste.

However, I should give credit where it’s due. While most episodes of Under One Roof quite literally have a moral of the story, not all the values they try to promote read like a Character and Citizenship Education lesson. For example, the show attempts to address issues of misogyny through Daisy, who overcame sexual harassment at work (S1E16) and the chauvinistic double standards from her brother (S2E2), which was quite refreshing to watch.

If only the characters actually developed and changed after every end-of-the-episode lecture. Compared to the Friends characters, those of Under One Roof seemed one-dimensional. As a hallmark of the show’s humour, Under One Roof’s ensemble portrayed caricatures of stereotypes: stingy Teck, typical “kiasu” housewife Dolly, overly health-conscious Paul, womaniser and money-minded Ronnie, and goody-two-shoes Denise. Recognisable, but far too exaggerated to be believable.

I guess it’s up to the individual which they find easier to tolerate, an unrealistic context, or unconvincing characters. For me, it’s undoubtedly the former.

Too many cooks spoil the broth

Ultimately, it also comes down to who has artistic control. In Singapore, the media is well-known for being highly surveillanced. Our television productions, as mentioned earlier, usually try to impart good values onto viewers, and have characters who can be role models for children. Scriptwriters and producers may lack the creative freedom to create what they want, because so many others get a say in their work.

The creators and executive producers of Friends, however, had ultimate creative control over the show. They could carry out their vision as they wanted in all its entirety, one that was consistent from start to end, because it was molded by the same pair (or pairs) of hands the whole way. For example, in Season two Episode 11, the show featured a lesbian wedding. Despite expecting backlash and complaints from viewers (the television network put 104 phone operators on, expecting their phone lines to be flooded with angry calls), the creators were allowed to do it because they wanted to — it was their show, and part of their storyline.  

If the television network NBC or film studio Warner Brothers had told the executive producers and writers to remove that scene, or even the characters, for fear of a decline in viewership or backlash from the public, the show would’ve lost part of its authenticity. Unfortunately, this was the fate of our local shows.

While Teck and Dolly both speak with a Singaporean accent with the occasional Singlish, majority of the other characters, including their children, speak standard English, without the Singaporean accent, and with perfect grammar. None of the “lah”s and “lor”s. It felt unnatural and awkward. I’m not saying that an exclusive use of Singlish would have been more accurate — Singaporeans have mastered the art of code-switching — but the excessive emphasis on perfect enunciation and grammar might have made the show less appealing to their target audience.

This could be the result of the show coming under fire for promoting Singlish. According to Ms Irani in her article for CNA Lifestyle, “The reach of the show was so vast that even the Government used it as a platform to deliver messages to the country, like the Speak Good English campaign.”

But, the influence of the Speak Good English Movement was more evident in PCK Pte Ltd. In its first two seasons, the characters unabashedly promoted Singlish. Phua Chu Kang’s catchphrases “Don’t play play!” and “Abuden?” were especially popular among schoolchildren, which was a headache for the Government. And like how a teacher makes an example out of the class clown, Phua Chu Kang was called out publicly in then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s 1999 National Day Rally speech.

Phua Chu The 2006 Speak Good English Movement slogan, a reference to Phua Chu Kang’s catchphrase [Photo: Bloomsbury Linguistics]

Phua Chu Kang was immediately sent to a “Best English class” to upgrade his English in the third season of its series and the use of Singlish throughout the next few seasons was significantly toned down. In an article that Mr Ong Su Mann, executive producer and one of the writers of the show, wrote on The New Paper, he said, “[m]any complained the show wasn’t as funny after that”. 

There could be two reasons. Firstly, maybe Singaporeans liked the use of Singlish. Phua Chu Kang’s character was the caricature of an “Ah Beng” — crude, loud and unsophisticated. Without his usual Singlish, it was as if the character lost a part of himself. Secondly, this could be seen as an intrusion of a safe space. People often use entertainment to escape from their routines and work, especially a sitcom like PCK Pte Ltd. However, that utopia became tainted when they realised that even their beloved fictional characters were not immune to real life consequences and influences.

In hindsight though, it is quite ironic that today the Government uses the very same character, along with his Singlish catchphrases, to star on their public service announcements, knowing that that’s what people love him for. Phua Chu Kang is not just a funny sitcom character, but a character who gets “renovated” to suit whatever campaigns he’s meant to promote at the time.

The Singaporean productions that we see are the creative result of certain content or style restrictions, which could have diverged from the vision of its creators, limited from its full and original potential.

Death is but the next great adventure

Does this spell the demise of Singaporean sitcoms? After all, the fact that Phua Chu Kang is still the Government’s best representative since 2007 may mean that no other show’s success has surpassed that of PCK Pte Ltd.

But, let’s be optimistic. As a young and small country, Singapore’s media industry has much space to grow, so who can predict what we might end up achieving in the (far) future?

Though both Under One Roof and PCK Pte Ltd have not resulted in a positive judgement from me, watching them taught me that there was a time when Singapore’s television industry was thriving when I didn’t know it could.

If you’ve never even caught an episode of either local sitcom, I do suggest watching at least one (tip: use meWatch). To hear the live audience reacting, their laughter and applause, it gets me optimistic and excited, and I’m glad I’m at least aware of this chapter of our history.

But until we enter another golden age, I’ll be watching Netflix, enjoying my American sitcoms.