Sunday, June 15, 2014


Three well-known Malaysian comedians, HARITH ISKANDER, DOUGLAS LIM and KUAH JENHAN, speak to NAJUA ISMAIL and shed light on the serious side of stand-up comedy in Malaysia

Photography by KENNY LOH
Hair & Make-up by AMBER CHIA ACADEMY

OUR COVER STORY is all about people who make a living by making others laugh. Malaysia’s well-known professional stand-up comedians, Harith Iskander, Douglas Lim and Kuah Jenhan, have a way of tickling our funny bones. While each of them has attained a measure of success, they are quick to acknowledge that pleasing a crowd is no walk in the park. They spend a lot of time researching their funny stories, observing everything around them, and drawing inspiration from their own lives.

On Merdeka Day 22 years ago, Harith Iskander stood in front of a small audience of about 12 at the lobby lounge of the Subang Airport Hotel and told them his “funny stories”. He didn’t realise it then, but that was the beginning of his professional journey as a stand-up comedian.

A few weeks later, he was at a bar in SS2, Petaling Jaya, watching a performance by Rafique Rashid. During a break, someone mentioned to the singer that Harith tells funny stories and he was invited on stage. He got a good response and was asked to come back the following week. People who came to watch began asking him to do the same at their functions and events.

“And that’s how it started. There wasn’t any planning. I knew it was stand-up comedy but the audience didn’t know,” says Harith. At the time, there wasn’t really a stand-up comedy scene in Malaysia. Unlike today’s generation of stand-up comics who have access to YouTube and other social media channels for reference, Harith’s sole resource was Eddie Murphy’s comedy sessions that were available only on VHS.

“Someone had gone to the US and had brought a copy of Delirious and Raw, which were Eddie Murphy’s stand-up comedy shows on film.” He watched and learned from Murphy and then other comedians as his stand-up career took off. “I got my friends to send me more VHS tapes of people like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Billy Connolly so I could study them.”

For a long time, he was the sole stand-up comedian in the country. However, when others began to emerge on the scene, Harith took them under his wing, offering people like Douglas Lim and later Kuah Jenhan the opportunity to open his shows. While both have said he made a difference in their careers, one can’t help but ask why he embraced the competition when he had the market cornered.

“It keeps me on my toes because for 15 years I could just sit back and not feel the need to get better but with the new comedians coming up, I’m forced to keep getting better and I welcome that,” he says. Harith also points out that there are currently a few comics catering to the corporate crowd.

“I know the younger ones want to break into the corporate market but it’s tough. Douglas and I started doing corporate shows but the young comedians today are cutting their teeth in clubs.”

It’s a different ballgame, says Harith, who explains that it’s easier to get a laugh in the clubs where people come expecting their funny bone to be tickled. “It’s like a slap in the face when nobody laughs at you in a corporate show after you’ve had the crowd in stitches at a club.” However, having more stand-up comics in the market is not only good for variety, it also helps create appreciation for what more experienced performers can bring to the table, he reveals.

There was a time though when Harith had trouble seeing the value in his own work. “For the first 12 years, I was earning what I considered a lot for doing this but deep down I actually thought I didn’t deserve it.” However, an encounter with a fan at Afdlin Shauki’s open house changed his mind. “There was this Chinese gentleman in his mid-forties who came up to me and said, ‘Hey Harith, I’m a big fan, thank you very much, I love your jokes, you’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing ...’, and he kept going on and on and it was getting a bit embarrassing,” he recalls.

He began to see the man in a different light when the gentleman told Harith what he did for a living. “He was a paediatrician and he started telling me about the many children he had to treat every day because of a dengue outbreak at the time. Some he could save, and some he couldn’t. Then I was really embarrassed. This guy saves children’s lives and for the last five minutes he has been telling me how good and important I am!”

But the doctor put things into perspective for him. “He faces death every day and what he needs after work is to go to a club or function and ‘laugh at Harith’. It was only then that I realised what I do has a value.”

Quick & Quirky Q&A
What is usually the first thought you have when you wake up?
Did my wife sleep well and how is the baby?

Name one thing you’d do if you were Prime Minister of Malaysia.
Eliminate the four boxes denoting race on forms. Only one box will do: Malaysian. I’ll make that a ruling, put it out there and see what happens.

If you could date a cartoon character, who would you pick and what would the date be like?
Veronica from the Archie comics. I’ve never been into blonde Mat Sallehs. When I was studying in Australia for five years, I wasn’t attracted to any blonde chick but I was attracted to the Asian-looking chick, the Spanish-looking chick, the ones with dark hair. I think that started because of Veronica. So, on the date, I’d tell her she’s The One.

If your son told you he wants to move to LA to do stand-up, what would you say to him?
I’d say, go! Because my parents were like that with me. Do whatever you want to do.


According to family lore, at the age of three or four, Douglas Lim proclaimed that he wanted to be a clown. “I guess what resonated with me at that age is that it’s synonymous with humour,” says Douglas. “I guess I liked this whole idea of laughter and being part of it, and if possible being the cause and catalyst of it.”

That ambition, however, was soon forgotten as he grew older and began pursuing other interests such as singing and songwriting. He even cut an album at an early age but admits that things didn’t work out as he hoped. One of the songs from the album, however, was selected as the theme song for local sitcom Kopitiam and Douglas, who was only 17 at the time, also became a cast member. “From then on, comedy came back into my life in a very big way,” he remembers. “I’ve always liked making people laugh but then I had proof that what I did was funny.”

This confident outlook was put to the test when he made his debut as a stand-up comedian at a show called Comedy Pest at the Actor’s Studio (then in Bangsar) in 2002. “The Star gave me a scathing review and tore me apart,” he recalls. This was followed by a show at the Beach Club, which on hindsight, Douglas realises, he should have turned down. “You can’t do stand-up there! There are distractions of a very ‘alluring’ nature. How can you compete with that?” he chuckles.

It must have been heartbreaking at the time but today Douglas laughs as he recalls his early struggles as a stand-up comic, especially when doing shows for the corporate crowd. “It was a year to a year and a half of bad shows. Some were so bad, they didn’t want to pay me. They were like, ‘You were rubbish!’ ” He had a pillow thrown at him at a slumber party for a VIP. During another corporate event, the band actually crept back onstage, first to help out by having the drummer cue the audience to the punchline and when that didn’t work out, to play him off the stage!

The turning point came when Harith invited Douglas to open his shows. “I started learning from Harith what you are supposed to do or what helps in an entire stand-up performance. And it’s not just your jokes.” Douglas points out that, unlike public shows, audiences at a corporate function are not there for the sole purpose of watching a stand-up performance. “They are there to meet their friends, eat, drink, network, and maybe win a fridge. You are just a pleasant distraction, if at all,” he reveals.

“What I learned from Harith about corporate shows is that its success really starts before you even come on stage. You have to make sure there is an atmospheric change.” Aside from the humour, logistics is what makes stand-up comedy successful, says Douglas, who further explains that lights should be dimmed or completely blacked out before the comedian makes an appearance, and for very large crowds, big screens should be installed.

“It’s also hard to do comedy and get a response when the prawns are out on the dinner table,” he contends. “You cannot compete with prawns no matter how funny you are! For comedy, it has to be vegetables or rice ... better still, no food should be served during a stand-up set.”

What’s also important in stand-up comedy is to understand the audience. “Why is stand-up associated with urban crowds instead of rural audiences? It’s because of the scepticism expected from audiences who come to watch stand-up comedy. The audience must know what irony is, they must be slightly jaded, so when the comedian says something, they understand the meaning behind it,” explains Douglas.

“Like when I go on stage and say the Malaysian police force is the most efficient police force in the world, an urban audience would understand what I’m talking about. When I did it with a rural crowd, they started applauding! Then I thought, uh-oh, this joke is not going to work!”

Getting a negative response or no feedback at all from the audience is not only disheartening, but also has a physiological effect on him. “My tongue goes dry, the throat catches, and I start to sweat. Fortunately (or unfortunately), he has done enough bad shows to persevere in the face of a hostile or indifferent audience. “Just keep trying and don’t give up. If something’s not working, I’ll try something different, maybe something more physically or accent based.”

While he maintains that stand-up comics tend to remember their bad shows instead of their good ones, Douglas says a highlight in his career was going to Australia to perform for Malaysians who were living or studying there. “It was great to see the response from the audience over there. Not only were they laughing at the jokes, you could hear in the laughter that tinge of homesickness and it was beautiful! It felt so nice to bring them a piece of home for a while.”

Quick & Quirky Q&A
What is usually the first thought you have when you wake up?
Is it lunch time ... and what do I want for lunch? I wake up at about 11.30am.

Name one thing you’d do if you were Prime Minister of Malaysia.
I would write a book while I was still in office.

If you could date a cartoon character, who would you pick and what would the date be like?
I would date Jem from Jem and the Holograms. We would sing songs and just jam at a karaoke session so she would know I’m a much better singer than her boyfriend Rio.

If you had a kid, and he told you he wants to move to LA to do stand-up, what would you say to him?
Make sure you pack everything!


As a schoolboy, Kuah Jenhan dreamed of performing at the Actor’s Studio in Bangsar. His chance came about a couple of years after he left school. “There was an event called Free Flow, which was an open-mike show at the Actor’s Studio. The rule was you pay RM10 and you get 10 minutes on stage to do a comedy bit,” he recalls.

Jenhan enthusiastically forked out the RM10 and told the organisers he would be doing a sketch. “They told me this is stand-up comedy—just one man telling jokes,” says Jenhan. “I was like, ‘Got such thing ah?’, so they booked me for the last day.”

Jenhan admits his first show was a hit and miss. However, the friends he gained through the experience alerted him to another opportunity a few months later. A club in Avenue K was organising a comedy competition but Jenhan was reluctant to take part until he heard that the top prize was RM500.

“My second show was the preliminaries and I made it to the finals. My third show as a stand-up comedian was the finals,” Jenhan recounts. Not only did he win, he also received a surprising offer. “The emcee, who was also the event organiser, came up to me and said, ‘Boy, do what you just did at my event and I will give you the same amount of money,’ and I actually asked him, ‘You mean this is a job?’ ” That was the first time Jenhan learned he could actually earn a living doing stand-up.

He had second thoughts, however, about pursuing a career in comedy when he fared “horribly” on the two professional assignments he was given. Jenhan was largely ignored during the first show, which was a networking event. “People go to meet and talk with other people—not to keep quiet and listen.”

While he described the second show as a “teenage boy’s wet dream”, Jenhan admitted the experience turned out to be a nightmare. “It was in a club called Babe with an all-female audience,” he recalls. Unfortunately, English was not the audience’s first language. “The girls didn’t really understand my jokes and there was free flow of alcohol, so they just talked to each other.”

Jenhan was crushed by the reception. “If there are 300 people in the audience, it feels like 300 people have just dumped you and they are now forming an ‘anti-you’ club and they are bitching about you right in front of you!”

He put comedy on the backburner for three years to pursue his studies and made a grudging comeback at the urging of his friends when the Actor’s Studio Bangsar was closing. Returning to the stage where he made his debut as a stand-up comedian proved fortuituous. While he was watching the show after his performance, a “drunk Indian guy” looked at him and said, “Meet me outside.”

“It was Indi Nadarajah!” Jenhan exclaims. Indi had been one the judges of the comedy competition at the club in Avenue K. He asked Jenhan why he disappeared from the comedy scene. “I told him, ‘Indi, I’m too afraid to do comedy, I doubt myself too much.’ ” Then, the seasoned comedian gave the young neophyte “the best advice I’ve ever been given”, as Jenhan puts it.

“He said, ‘You should be happy you doubt yourself because when you doubt yourself, you know you are real, and when you know you are real, the audience will know you are real. The worst thing that can happen for a comedian is overconfidence.’ ”

Not long after that, Jenhan was back to resume his stand-up career. The going was tough in the beginning and for a long time, Jenhan was only earning RM200 a month performing at open-mike shows. He took it in stride, though. “I thought to myself, I’d rather invest time working on myself because when you’re good, people will know,” he says. “At the end of the day, you can sell yourself however much you want but you still have to perform. I think that was a good move.”

It appears so, as Jenhan has joined the ranks of established names like Harith Iskander and Douglas Lim. He expects more people to join the fray in the future, which he views as a positive development. “When there are more comedians, that means there is a higher demand. When there is more demand, more people will want to watch stand-up comedy.”

Quick & Quirky Q&A
What is usually the first thought you have when you wake up?
What day is it? Probably because I have the luxury of not having a routine, so there are times when I’m damn busy and others when I’m very free, that’s usually when I have no idea what day it is.

Name one thing you’d do if you were Prime Minister of Malaysia.
I will implement an incentive to encourage more people to pay their taxes. It will be a lottery system that is only eligible for taxpayers. One name will be pulled from this system every day and that person will be escorted by outriders to work and back during rush hour for the day.

If you could date a cartoon character, who would you pick and what would the date be like?
I would date Sailor Venus (from the Japanese anime series Sailor Moon) and tell her that even though she is not the leader of the gang, she is still my favourite. I would take her out for some nice yakitori because she’s probably more comfortable with Japanese food. I’ll make sure there’s a full moon, we would go to the lake and I’d say, “Do you see the big moon behind me? I don’t care about Sailor Moon, all I care about is you.”

If you had a kid, and he told you he wants to move to LA to do stand-up, what would you say to him?
Go ahead … but if you fail, I’ll have more jokes for my routine!

Reproduced from the October-December 2013 issue of Quill magazine


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