THE INTERVIEW is coming to an end. Just to be safe, I ask for Jack Neo's e-mail address.
'Sure,' comes the brisk reply. 'You can write to funnyman@ . . .'. Everyone cannot help but laugh.
Funny indeed he is. The 42-year-old film director, writer and actor is a household name in Singapore, not only because of his hilarious and popular big-screen productions, but also for the television comedies he did for more than 10 years.
He has made four films. Three of them were top earners at the local box office. Money No Enough (1998) beat other Hollywood big shots to gain third place on the local all-time chart,
just behind Titanic and Jurassic Park.
'At first I wanted to be an important actor. It would be great if I could be like Chow Yun-fat,' Neo says. 'But then I realised I just don't have that glitter. Not in my looks, not in my height. So I said to myself: 'Let's face it . . . '. When I became a television show host and saw how the audience laughed and I mesmerised them, it was cool.'
His success comes from his ability to capture the local flavour. Chinese, Fukienese (a common dialect among Singaporean Chinese), and 'Singlish' are loudly spoken by the characters.
The stories also reflect the general mood of the country.
Money No Enough is about three individuals from different social backgrounds facing the same problem of not having enough cash. Neo's latest, and second most popular production, I Not Stupid, looks at the lives of three children under the highly stressful education system, while light-heartedly reflecting the social and political climate in the city-state.
'I grew up in a not so well-to-do family. If I want to know what the common people think of certain issues, their aspirations, wishes, I can easily get the answers from friends, neighbours and my parents. It is my capital,' he explains.
But getting the 'right formula' has not been easy. It has taken years of experience.
Since Secondary Two, Neo knew he had a talent for performing, but he received no formal training. He joined the military service after leaving secondary school, and was spotted by the Music and Drama Company, a unit responsible for entertaining the soldiers.
'That was lucky. I'd be dead if they sent me to fight,' he jokes.
Neo served the military for eight years, six of which he spent writing and performing live shows. 'I observed the audience's reaction, changed the script, and tested it in the next show. Each change was an experience in getting the right formula.'
He did the same during his years on television, and is doing the same with his films. And the improvement is obvious, says Daniel Yun, the producer of I Not Stupid and two of Neo's other films.
'Money No Enough was quite slapstick. But I Not Stupid is not. It touches on important issues,' Yun says. 'Singaporeans know he can make us laugh. Now they know he can also make us cry.'
The two are working on their next project about human nature, which will touch more souls.
'Hopefully, it will be something the whole of Asia wants to see,' Yun says.