The thriving Malaysian stand-up comedy scene is ready for a new injection of humour and creativity.
Remember the time when we Malaysians received our dose of laughter from comedy sketches like Scenario and Kopitiam? Can you recall the satirical humour of the Instant Café Theatre back in the late 80s’ and 90s? Live comedy shows were few and far between back then, but not as rare as the sighting of a strange breed known as the ‘solo stand-up performer’.
Back in those days, one might have recalled a follicle-challenged chap called Harith who was trying to break new ground in the comedy scene with his stand-up comedy act. The idea of seeing a sole man walk onto an empty stage, armed with just a microphone, delivering lines and stories to elicit laughter from a live audience, was alien. Sounds more like a politician? Ahem, I’d better leave the punchlines to the professionals!
I’ve not realised just how unfamiliar stand-up comedy acts were to the average Malaysian until Australian comedy producer Toby Sullivan enlightens me. He’s currently in town to showcase Ghost Machine, an award-winning experimental existential comedy featuring the quirky and edgy stand-up comedian Laura Davis. Recounting the first time he caught a comedy act Kings and Queen of Comedy Asia in KL back in 2010, he shares: “I was flipping through the programme and found a page that said…”
A pause, and here, the expressive Sullivan narrates in a sidesplitting parody of a talk show host: “So, welcome to Stand-Up Comedy! What’s going to happen tonight is a man will come out and tell some stories, and then after a while, he’ll go off. Then another man will come on, then the first man will come back…” We both laugh but I can’t help marvelling that such a pedantic explanation to our audience was necessary. Then it dawns on me that I’ve already been exposed to stand-up comics like Ben Elton, Victoria Wood and Lenny Henry on British television in my younger days.
With a grin, Sullivan admits unrepentantly: “That’s a bit of an exaggeration there in terms of the language! But there really was a literal description of what was going to happen at a stand-up comedy gig. It made me realise that this whole mode of performance was brand new.”
To be fair, the Western world had a head start on live comedic performances of at least 60 years before Malaysia and most parts of Southeast Asia caught on. Even so, stand-up comedy was practically unheard of until the Internet explosion twenty years ago.
The Melbourne-born independent producer concedes that the comedy scene in KL is a lot different from what it was seven years ago. It’s unlikely that the audience will receive a step by step account of what will happen in a live comedy show, he says, chuckling, before adding that our capital city is “… one of the best places in the world to be making and seeing comedy today.”
“KL has emerged as the engine room of a rapidly burgeoning comedic scene in Asia,” he observes. That’s not a laughable pronouncement. Stand-up comedy in Malaysia is booming right now, and one of the country’s brightest comedic stars, Harith Iskandar, had only last year won the Laugh Factory’s Funniest Person In The World award. Malaysia’s funny people are now making the jump from being lowly open-micers to headliners, and basking under the global spotlight.
But there’s a quick reality check first as Sullivan throws me a question: “How many professional full time stand-up comedians tell jokes for a living in this city?” My guess is less than 10. His estimate is around six or seven. “In Australia, the figure is around 500, in the UK it goes up to about 1,800 performers while in Los Angeles it could be around 2,500. So on the global scale, Malaysia is tiny.”
My inner Jalur Gemilang stops flying briefly but thankfully, he proceeds to restore it to full-flying mode when he says: “It’s still a growing scene over here. Let’s say there are merely eight performers now. Three years ago, the number would have been just five, while another three years before that, it would have been two. For a very long time before that, there was just one. I think the pace at which the scene is growing and the context into which it’s slowly evolving into is really important.”
From sporadic performances in the past, there are now a myriad of platforms and outlets available for Malaysian stand-up comedy creators. As the stand-up scenes in this city have grown, so too have festivals and productions. There were three major comedy festivals in 2017 alone, as well as a growing number of open-mic sessions. Malaysia’s first dedicated comedy club was established a few years ago, and a Malaysian comedy entertainment company recently partnered with the American TV channel Comedy Central to bring the best of Asian stand-up comedy to television audiences.
As activities on home turf have begun to swell, club owners and promoters are more than eager to develop and import local English-speaking talents from this country. Our homegrown talents are now making waves abroad by winning awards (Jason Leong to name one) and local artists who were unheard of back then are now on the international touring circuit (Kavin Jay to name another).
Sullivan acknowledges that developments are taking place all across the region and based on his observations, Malaysia is one of the “most active regions in asserting themselves globally”. As a testimonial, he flips open an industry brochure to show me a promotion for Comedy Zone Asia which was part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival 2017. Out of the five Asian acts, he points out that two are from India, two from Malaysia and one from Singapore — numbers which were similarly repeated from the previous year.
Artistes and audiences
Having spent much of his time in KL engaging with players on the local scene, Sullivan has noticed that the performers themselves have been behind the driver’s wheel in pushing the growth of comedy. Eyes earnest, he elaborates: “They’ve been developing their own structures in so far they were running their own open mic nights and shows as opposed to some countries where they’re run by promoters and club owners.”
With this innate impulse to develop their own work, he holds the view that “… there’s a much more robust artistic community here.” I begin imagining the likes of Rizal Van Geyzal or Harith on the other end of the phone attending to ticket enquiries before dashing off to get promotional flyers printed and trying to secure meetings with potential sponsors.
Another wheel that Sullivan believes is helping drive the Malaysian stand-up comedy scene forward is the audience. He hits me with some numbers again, remarking that the comedy gig he attended in 2010 at the KLCC Plenary Hall sold out 3,000 seats. The significance almost escapes me until he declares emphatically: “That’s a big gig for anywhere in the world! You’d need big international stars to sell those kinds of numbers in Melbourne which is a city of four million people. It’s a big city but it can scarcely sustain a full time comedy club.”
My gasped-out “Whaaat?” has him countering with an enthusiastic “Yeahhh!” For a brief moment, it feels like I could almost high-five the grinning Australian who continues to explain: “Sydney can sustain the thriving comedy scene but it’s not anything like Malaysia.”
He pauses and allows me to digest that piece of information before elaborating: “Maybe it’s a bit of novelty or hometown pride but I feel like the KL audience responds more enthusiastically. There’s almost an appetite for risk because they’re willing to take a chance on this relatively new art form.”
Quite like our approach to food and new eateries, I think to myself. New restaurant in town? No problemlah let’s try! Feel
like watching some Russell Peters wannabes who’ve never told a joke or performed before a live audience before? Why notlah?
So far, conventional stand-up is conveniently available in town and with local audiences getting used to the art of stand-up, Sullivan feels compelled to introduce yet another new flavour and something Malaysians won’t be able to catch on the Internet.
“Despite its growth and the way that local performers are reaching out to the world, I think that there’s room for audiences and other performers to experience the full spectrum of comedy work that’s around the world,” he explains.
And this forms part of the reason for bringing in Ghost Machine performed by fellow Australian Laura Davis whom
Sullivan describes as someone who “… has this range of bold theatrical gestures that she overlays on top of conventional stand-up.”
For a short time only, Malaysian audiences can experience her brand of fearless comedy. “I hope they (audiences) go home thinking I didn’t know comedy could do that,” says Sullivan with a mix of confidence and optimism, before concluding: “If it’s inspirational at any level to anyone, we’d be flattered.”
Laura Davis in GHOST MACHINE
WHERE Five Arts Centre, 27 Lorong Datuk Sulaiman 7, Taman Tun Dr. Ismail, KL
WHEN Until Oct 7, Tue - Sun (Show runs 1 hour)
Tickets RM30 (Info and bookings: www.dirtywork.net.au)