When Dilruk Jayasinha was 9 years old, his father caught him making faces in the mirror. When asked what he was doing, Dilruk replied that he was simply trying to imitate the facial expressions of a comedian he admired- Rowan Atkinson aka ‘Mr Bean’. What he didn’t know then was that, two decades later, he too would be a comedian, entertaining thousands of people in their living rooms across the world, something his teenage self would never have dreamt of.
By Thushanthi Ponweera
It wasn’t something he dreamt of doing even at the age of 23, by now in Melbourne, Australia. “I was working as an Accountant, and to be honest, I didn’t find any satisfaction in my work. The only thing that made it bearable was listening to Hamish and Andy on the radio every evening. They are a pair of hilarious radio presenters, and had studied the same course I did at the university I myself attended, before their careers in comedy. It made me think that maybe this was an option for me too.”
Humour had always come naturally to Dilruk, who had learnt early on to look for the lighter side of things when faced with a painful experience. “I guess you could call it a defense mechanism”, he says. Born in 1985 in Colombo, to a multi-racial and multi-religious family — his mother is Muslim and his father, Buddhist — and attending St. Peters’ College, a Catholic boys’ school, Dilruk’s life was already very colourful. “If that didn’t make it hard enough to form a sense of identity, I was also the fat kid who would get bullied. I needed to have something in my arsenal to fight back.” He quickly became popular for his wit, and realized he was in his element when making others laugh. And so, his love for performing comedy was born.
Given that there was no audience in Sri Lanka for stand-up at the time, his performances were limited to acting in dramas (Dilruk fondly recalls participating in the Annual Shakespeare Drama Competition). As fate would have it, Dilruk found himself studying for his bachelor’s degree in Commerce in a city that considered stand-up comedy an art form- Melbourne, Australia. This allowed him to not only be entertained, but also learn from, the best. In 2006, he attended the famed Melbourne Comedy Festival for the first time, spending his hard-earned savings on tickets to watch Australian comedians Will Anderson and Dave Hughes.
So it was a moment of sheer joy and gratitude when, 15 years later, he found himself at a photoshoot alongside those very comedians, as one of the 10 acts chosen to feature in the promo poster for that very same festival. “I had to pinch myself. I used to be watch them, and now here I was, one of their peers. Life had come full circle.” And the radio presenters he had listened to daily? He had acted on their TV show in 2017 and 2018.
Three periods in his life, each important in its own way. The teenager who made his friends laugh, the accountant who felt he was stuck in the wrong job, and the star he is today. As Dilruk helps me connect the dots in his story, it is evident that he hasn’t lost touch of who he is along the way. Every memory is related with a hint of amazement.
“In September 2010, I had been working in Accounting for 02 years, all the while dreaming of performing stand-up. I finally worked up the courage and signed up for a 5-minute spot at the Comics Lounge, on a Tuesday night which is reserved for upcoming comedians. It didn’t go too well, but I really enjoyed the process.” It was enjoyable enough for Dilruk to request each subsequent Tuesday off from work, so he could watch other new acts every week as well as prepare for his monthly gig. It is also an indication of how committed he was to succeed. Here was a guy who didn’t do anything half-heartedly. “I don’t write my act out on paper word for word. I’m a strong believer in structuring my performance, which is what I practice, and the words naturally follow”
The next few years were spent perfecting this craft, and he finally landed his first full length show at 2014 Melbourne Comedy Festival. However, he didn’t quit his job in Accounting for another two years, till he had a secure stream of income from his work in stand-up. “In contrast to being funny for a living, I take life changing decisions very seriously, and needed confirmation that this was something I could make a living of”
It was indeed the correct decision, as his career progressed steadily from there, and today he is one of Australia’s most sought-after Comedians. His Instagram account is peppered with many glimpses of his life both on and off the stage, including numerous TV and radio appearances, as well as his own podcast. When asked to list the highlights, he doesn’t mention much. Instead, he regresses to being every teenage Sri Lankan boy in the 90s. “I got to star opposite Lucy Lawless on a TV show. She’s the actress we all knew as Xena the warrior princess!”, he grins. “That was pretty awesome.”
Another milestone in his life came at the 2018 Logies Awards, Australia’s equivalent of the Oscars. It was when Dilruk won the award for ‘Most Popular New Talent’ for his role in ‘Utopia’, joining the ranks of previous winners such as Jason Donavan, Simon Barker and Chris Hemsworth. “It was a huge achievement for me, and again, my inner fanboy was thrilled.” He adds, laughingly, “I could only hope that my trajectory followed that of Thor’s!”
In 2019, Dilruk was invited to perform at one of the most prestigious events in the comedy calendar, the Just For Laughs comedy festival held annually in Montreal, Canada. “Only 6-8 performers are selected to attend from Australia, and I was so honoured to be amongst them.”
The moment that triumphs all these, however, was when his parents watched his show in Melbourne in 2017. “They’ve always been very supportive. Still, I was worried they might find some parts a bit too….revealing. Maybe they did, but all they told me was how much they loved it and how proud they were of me. It made every bit of the journey worth it.”
After nearly a decade of performing, I ask him how he figures out which topics to talk about. “As any comedian knows, those initial years are spent figuring out the audience. It’s almost a process of elimination, measured by the laugher- which jokes got the most, and which ones got the least. With each act, you edit and add, until you’re left with only the jokes that are guaranteed to work. Those are the ones you hold onto”, he replies. “My style veers away from slap-stick and observational humour, and more towards sharing my personal experiences. Anything that happens to me is potentially a topic!”
Being a brown skinned immigrant, with a rich cultural heritage, I assume he used his differences to stand out. Surprisingly, he reveals he didn’t. “It wasn’t till recently that I started discussing my ethnicity comfortably. Before that, it was too risky. It’s true that diversity is valued, but it’s almost like walking a tight rope when it comes to hitting the right balance. And until I had perfected that, I couldn’t expect the audience to laugh at something they may not fully understand.”
Instead, he reverted to familiar scenarios: his years of being fat shamed. Although he has dedicated his recent years to shedding most of that weight, which he speaks of in his candid Amazon Prime show ‘Bundle of Joy’, Dilruk admits that laughing at himself publicly was often a way of validating his fears. This seems to be his strength, as there is much more to his jokes than simply being funny- they are brave acts of vulnerability which linger long after the laughter has died.
“Being heavy was great for identity building at first. Everyone loves an underdog. But at the same time, I knew I had to make healthier choices with my life.” As with comedy, Dilruk felt a responsibility to commit to it once and for all. “I couldn’t mess up my life just for the sake of it being good fodder for jokes. I decided to stop joking about my weight.” It was a self-prophesy for Dilruk, who started losing the pounds soon after. “It was almost as if I grew into this new identity I had created for myself.”
Today, Dilruk’s routine is different. His upcoming show, ‘Victorious Lion’ (a literal translation of his surname) which was due to be performed at this year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival but was postponed due to the pandemic, is a reflection of his newfound sense of acceptance. “It doesn’t feel authentic anymore to complain. Right now, I am happy, and I’m not ashamed of it.”
Originally appeared in Pulse Magazine, June 2020 issue.