Comedian Jesse Singh draws on his travels, his Punjabi heritage, and his experience as a Canadian in his comedy. (Jesse Singh/Facebook)
"When you land in Newfoundland, they're gonna give you a cod, right? You gotta kiss this cod."
"Afterwards, they gave me a certificate. It said 'certified Newfoundlander.' Had my name on it… My first thought was, yo, it took my mom five years to get citizenship in Toronto. I could have went to Newfoundland."
That is one of the opening gags of Toronto-based comedian Jesse Singh's debut album Baby GOAT.
In his work, Singh mines his Canadian and Punjabi heritage, as well as his travels touring stages across Canada and the United States.
He spoke with Weekend AM's Heather Barrett to discuss why he started his first comedy album with his Newfoundland and Labrador material, and his off-stage life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What made you want to open your first comedy album with a bit about your visit to St. John's?
A: [Newfoundland] was actually one of the first stops we did on a Canada-wide tour, which was my first tour I ever did across the country. And I did it with some of my fellow comedians Moe Ismail and Abbas Wahab.… It was just one of the most memorable experiences I had.
I think it was due to a lot of the things that I talked about. Like… I know there's like a whole cliché and stereotype, people say people from Newfoundland are like the nicest people, but I didn't realize the scale it was when I got there because everyone was mad cool. Like, I think there's a real sense of community.
And I think the city and the province itself, like, really hold the foundation of what I think Canada is meant to be, you know what I mean? I wanted to kind of just pay homage to my experience.
Tell me a bit more about your comedy. I mean, from what you're describing there and in that little bit, you come from a very different, like Canadian experience. I understand you're known as the Punjabi Timbit.
Yeah, that was kind of just a name that I gave myself and I just became my Instagram handle.
The Timbit aspect was like, you know, [the] Canadian Timbit is kind of like a staple. And Punjabi was just like you said, like cultural heritage. So it's kind of becoming like a fusion of the two. I put it together.
Now I know there's a big Punjabi-Canadian community in the Toronto area, right?
Yeah, definitely, definitely. It's huge. it's in Toronto, you know, B.C. — we're kind of spread out all over, which makes sense because our population in India is probably way too much anyway. So we had to disperse, you know?
Abbas Wahab, Jesse Singh and Moe Ismail spoke with the CBC's Carolyn Stokes while out east as part of a tour of Atlantic Canada. (CBC)
You're also a youth worker, right?
Yeah, I am. I've been a youth worker for almost about the same time as a stand-up comedian. So I've been doing youth work for about eight to 10 years now. And same thing with comedy as well. I've been kind of doing it for the same amount of time, almost eight to 10 years.
Is there comedy gold in being a youth worker?
Absolutely! The stories that you hear, you know, some of the young people that I work with are some of the the funniest people that I've met.
There's actually, one of the bits in the album itself, I actually talk about one of the instances of that. Like I was talking about pet peeves and the idea of people pouring milk before their cereal, but then walking into work and seeing a kid drinking milk out of a mug and eating dry cereal in one hand. And I'm like, this is crazy.
You definitely meet some characters working there. But it's also one of those things that I found humour and comedy to be intertwined with the work that I do. Because working with young people who have been through such, you know, harsh circumstances, experiences in their life, that ability to trust new faces and new people becomes a lot more difficult, so I found comedy was a way to kind of break the ice and help bridge that relationship piece with the youth that I work with.
Singh starts off his first album, from Comedy Records, with some jokes about travelling across the country, starting with a Torontonian's impression of getting Screeched in. (Jesse Singh/Facebook)
It was interesting because I remember on your stop last year on that comedy tour, the three of you were really kind of leaning into your heritage as well in your work, right? How common is a career in comedy and in the performing arts in the Punjabi-Canadian community?
Comedy has started to get a lot more huge now, like especially in India.
I would still say it was a struggle with, you know, my family, because coming from back home and the life experiences they had immigrating here, they did have a tough life growing up, you know? I know they had to sacrifice a lot to also raise me and like, you know, bring me up.
I think they still have that idea of the arts, or the idea of performing stand-up even, that idea to them is foreign. Because it doesn't really seem as like it's a set career, right? And that's not to throw shade on them. Like, I love my family, I love my mom and all she's done. But I think there's still that mentality of that, you know, the arts isn't a real career. The arts isn't like a real career path.
But I think now, when you look at Bollywood, or you look at a lot of actors and musicians that are coming up that are of a Punjabi heritage, they've started to build a huge name for themselves, even in the West, right?
I think that's the beauty about the arts here, especially in Canada or Toronto, is that you have an amalgamation of all these different cultures, you know? And they intertwine with each other. So I think now it's become a lot easier for people from Punjabi background, heritage or even any other background to kind of be able to break into any art form, because you're always going to find people that relate with your stories.
Have you got any advice for them on maybe mining their lives for laughs?
One of the things that I saw [in St. John's] is that there's a huge appreciation for the arts, you know?
It seemed like everyone was very much supportive of their local talent. So I think if anyone wants to start out like comedy or any kind of art form, especially in St. John's, I think it's the perfect place to start because you're going to have a whole local community of people that are willing to come out and support and watch you.
I would say the simplest and easiest way is to start up an open mic, like, kind of a social media community group. Get people involved and get them out to start performing and stuff.
So are you coming back to Newfoundland and Labrador soon?
It was actually one of the places on my list that I wanted to visit, not just for comedy, but just to even, like, hang out because I just thought it was dope.