Benjamin Kheng tells us how he makes socio-political commentary through comedy sketches, as well as his favourite Disney film

Teng Yong Ping
Lifestyle Editor
Singaporean singer-actor-director Benjamin Kheng at an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore on 30 July, 2019.

SINGAPORE — Benjamin Kheng is a man of many talents, having sung, acted and hosted for TV, film, theatre, and radio. But with his YouTube comedy sketch show, the BenZi Project, a collaboration with Hirzi Zulkifli, he has shown his chops in directing and producing, too.

The BenZi Project ended its first season last month with 10 episodes. The irreverent and wacky series dealt with local issues with great scripts and production value (Ben joked to us that he was kept awake at night over the money he sank into the show), while also being incredibly funny.

Since his band, The Sam Willows, announced an indefinite hiatus in May, the 29-year-old has been working on his first solo music album, too, which he tells us is “70 to 80 per cent done”.

Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore recently sat down with Ben for an exclusive interview and we talked about tackling controversial issues through comedy, his upcoming first solo album, and why he’s a huge Disney fan.

Why did The Sam Willows decide to take a break?
I didn't expect people to pick up on it so much. But I guess we did agree to put out a press release and talk about it. I think we've been around for quite a while as a band, and we had to grow up really fast. A lot of things happened really quickly, and we never really had time to grow as individuals creatively. We all had different pursuits that we wanted to do. And it felt like our time with the band had run its course. You know, we accomplished what we wanted to do. Creatively, we all wanted to go separate ways as well. But we are very much still friends. And I don't know how long (the break) will be. I hope it won't be forever. I think we’ll eventually do something again.

What have The Sam Willows members been doing after splitting?

We're actually very, very invested in each other's lives still. I know that everyone's put out their own music already,except me. I think John just put out his single. He just got married. Congrats, John! I think Narelle and Sandra are both pushing hard on their music careers as well.

You’ve been writing, directing and producing the BenZi Project, on top of acting in it as well. Are you evolving creatively?

I really enjoy the writing and the directing, and the conceptualising. It was really, really fun. I'm a big fan of film. I love film. I love consuming it. I love watching it. And I love being a part of it too. You do feel a bit handicapped as an actor sometimes, because you're at the mercy of a script or director, bad editing, you know, whatever. So many things can fall apart. So to actually have autonomy and go like, “this is my thing, I'm going to do it”, it's been really fun. And it gives me a chance to talk about things that I otherwise wouldn't be able to talk about, Comedy is a great platform to talk about issues today. It might be contentious if you hit people over the head with very political incisive views, but if you package it nicely in comedy, people tend to listen. So it's been fun.

Did you put your own money into the BenZi Project?

We are currently self-funding, but we are also looking for support and stuff. We wanted it to have a certain level of quality. And we wanted to say the things that we wanted to say as well. So yeah, those things cost money, but it's worth it.

How much does each sketch video cost?

Enough to disturb me at night! (laughs) I mean, it was an investment that I chose to make. I could have easily gone into investing into something else; I feel like everyone is investing in bubble tea stalls these days or something. But for me, it was always my dream to do this, and so to get into it has been so rewarding.

So it’s a passion at the same time as a business?

Yeah, it is. It's quite dangerous to mix those two sometimes. But once you get the hang of it, it's okay.

With the BenZi sketch show tackling very Singaporean topics that are potentially controversial, such as race, language and culture, is there any subject you would handle very carefully?

Nothing's off limits. I really believe that you can bring about change and be part of the solution and not the problem in the most effective way. Sometimes I often wonder, what good is my voice, and how I can add to it without just being annoying, or seeming like I am going for tokenism or just saying it because I want more clout, all that kind of stuff.

I guess inequality in general, you know, the income gap, even political stuff as well, we want to touch on it in the most appropriate way. And sometimes it's just shedding light on a situation that can be very, very real.

I think, although your point may be strong, if your vessel is toxic, you know, if you're saying it in a not so nice way, the message gets muddled up sometimes. So that's why I think telling a story is a great way to do it.

So the form of the sketch was a very conscious choice.

Yes, I think we were dealing with subject matter that was quite contentious. We had this episode called The Halal Gap, where this half-Japanese vegan boyfriend meets his future mother-in-law in a highly tense and stressful situation. But the mother-in-law means no harm, to be honest, it’s just the nature of things. And it's quite a comedic setting. There's a bit of fear that he’s being inappropriate. And yet she's also like, are you offending me? Are we being offended? There’s natural comedy in that situation. I think that's been really fun to explore. And people realise sometimes that, yeah, I could be very bigoted, deep down inside. But I'm learning from it through laughing.

What films or TV shows are you inspired by?

Oh, man, I'm such a Disney kid. I grew up with them. I constantly rank my top 10 Disney films. I change them every month because I'm a geek that way.

For me, Hercules is always number one. I grew up with that, like, musical, storytelling, the Fates. So good.

And I like this other film that nobody likes, it's called Treasure Planet. See, yeah, that's what I mean. Do you feel the silence in the room? (laughs) It's like Treasure Island, but steampunk. So ships through the sky, that kind of thing. I really liked Wall-E. But that’s Pixar. I think Disney is just great storytelling for all ages. You know, there's something in there for everybody.

I'm in love with obviously people like Wong Kar Wai, Tarantino, Kubrick. Classics. So the best part of my job is that that you can consume all these as work. You get to learn from them.

You have a new album coming out soon. What's different about the music?

It was always easy for me to write for other people, you know, for campaigns, for BenZi, for things like theatre. And when it came to writing for myself, I hit a bit of a roadblock. You know, it's like, after you work and you develop stories for other people, suddenly, like, why do I even have to write something for myself, you know.

(The songs) are a little bit more personal. I think on the social commentary part of things, BenZi's handled that really well. I think the music might take a more personal approach.