It is Sunday evening in Damansara Heights in KL and I am having a beer with a couple of friends. Though this beer was arranged some weeks ago, it now seems very timely. These friends, you see, are old schoolmates of Harith Iskander, the man I am scheduled to interview tomorrow.
I’ve met Harith a few times, and know his wife, Jezamine Lim, well. The perfect assignment, then, you might think. A coffee and a chat with old friends, and all in the name of ‘work’. Yet there is one problem: the visual concept we had decided upon for Harith was quite dark, suggesting the interview needed to be equally dark, perhaps uncovering some until-now hidden truths about Malaysia’s original funny man. Again, no big deal. And then you consider that Harith is the nicest man in the world, and that nobody has a bad word to say about him.
“So,” I say to his old schoolmates, “I’m interviewing Harith tomorrow [for his level of fame is such that only his first name is needed], tell me something about him that nobody knows.”
They smile—a usual reaction when you mention Harith’s name—and start to reminisce about their school days. After a while, one of them remembers the question I posed and answers: “No, he’s just a really nice fella. Always was. And he was always funny.”
This prompts the other one: “I remember something! When he was young, his mum always called him ‘Ali’”. Hardly dark, but it was something.
“It wasn’t just my mum—everyone called me Ali when I was young,” says the man himself the following day. “My mum was English of Scottish descent and so I was called Iskander, which is the Malay version of ‘Alexander’. My mum started by calling me ‘Alex’ but my Malay grandmother couldn’t pronounce that, so it became ‘Ali’. Everyone called me that until I was around 17.”
At the photo shoot, Harith is, as you would expect, perfectly professional. He is in hair and make-up—or, more accurately, make-up—for no more than minutes, his wife a little longer (the make-up artist has the job of polishing the frame on the Mona Lisa). We take his individual pictures quickly. The photographer tells him what to do, he does it, always asking if we are happy with what we’ve got.
As Harith is busy taking another round of shots, Jezamine whispers: “Come, let’s go outside and have a cigarette.” I’m amazed. She is a medical doctor, has just had her third baby and was always a non-smoker. “Not me, lah, you! You smoke, I watch, we catch up. Aiyoo!” She laughs and punches my arm. Same old Jez.
I first met Dr Jezamine Lim nine years ago. I was working for a different men’s magazine and she had just been crowned the Girl Next Door. Previous winners of this award had used their victory as a launch pad for a glamorous career; some had become TV stars, others internationally known models. Not so Jezamine. A newly-qualified doctor, she had a medical career to build.
And then she won that award, became the cover star of the magazine, and found herself splashed all over its Facebook page.
Somewhere, a dashing young bachelor named Harith saw those pictures, liked what he saw and got in touch. They met for coffee and eight years later they are still happily ever after.
I haven’t seen Jez in four years, yet we are straight back into it. Who’s doing what to who, and where. As for her, she has had three children, is just finishing a PhD and is working in the field of genetic engineering (one of only five people in the country). Oh, and she is managing Harith Iskander, arguably the biggest name in Malaysian showbiz.
“We seriously don’t sleep,” she tells me. “We are just so busy.”
I ask her how her father is. She knows what I mean. Though Jez is of Chinese and Indian parentage, her father was against her marriage to Harith and refused to go to their wedding. “As soon as I had a child, his heart melted. He loves his grandkids, and really spoils them.”
And Harith? “Ha! He loves Harith now.”
The irony of her father’s initial reaction isn’t lost on me. Harith, himself a Malay/English mix, has made his resistance to categorising, and judging people, by race known over and over. Indeed, it has been a feature of his stage show, asking why on official forms it asks you to tick a box, either Malay, Chinese, Indian or Other. “I draw a fifth box, write ‘Malaysian’ and tick that.”
"Why on official forms it asks you to tick a box, either Malay, Chinese, Indian or Other? I draw a fifth box, write ‘Malaysian’ and tick that.”
It’s a theme he returns to now. He turned 50 in August, has three young children and, I wonder, what his hopes are for when his kids turn 50 themselves. “That’s a question I ask all the guests on my show.
“I grew up in a local government school, which is fine and perfect. Look how we turned out. I would love my kids to have that experience, but it is no longer the same. I get that and understand that. So we are looking at alternatives to government schools.
“I find that a shame because I would rather everyone have that so we can all grow together.
“When I went back to my old school, it was so heavily populated by one race of students. Only because schools are now clustered by area, so if the school is here and you live around the school, you go to that school.
“If you live in a predominantly Malay area, you go to a predominantly Malay school, as opposed to previously, when everybody just drove in on a bus.
“My best friends in classes were Don Benjamin, Kenny Chong, Pani de Silva, and I was Harith Iskander, which was not an issue back in the day. When I look back on it now, I think ‘Wow! Christmas, we’ll be going to Don’s house. Chinese New Year we’ll go to Kenny’s house. Deepavali we’ll go to Pani’s house, and for Raya, they’ll all come to my house.
“But it wasn’t a ‘wow’ then. That’s just how it was. It was normal.”
In truth, his children could be the poster boys and girls of Malaysian integration: four perfect quarters of Malay, Chinese, Indian and English. They are beautiful and he is immensely proud of them. “And he’s a real hands-on dad—he even changes diapers!” says Jez.
“Were you there at the births?” I ask. “Of course,” says Harith, no puns, no anecdotes. Like most comedians, off stage he is intelligent, articulate and, most importantly, off duty.
Yet, it strikes me that when you are Harith Iskander you are always on-duty. As we walked into the coffee house after the photoshoot, every head turned and smiled, elbows were nudged and neighbours whispered to. He must be aware of that. Does it bother him? “No, but that’s 26 years in the making. Frankly speaking, I would say for the first 10 years, I could not deal with it. I didn’t deal with it. I just couldn’t handle it… I was irritated by it.
“I’d stop at the traffic light, and I’d see people pointing and I’d be thinking ‘What are people looking at? What’s the big deal?’ I’d just stew in that irritation. But somewhere along the line, it just clicked: You know what? This person is just excited, that’s all. And all it takes is for you to return the excitement, as opposed to being irritated by something that is well within your control. Embrace it, respond to it, and you will move on.
“I pity the reality show stars who have emerged in Malaysia, from the likes of Akademi Fantasia. They walk in as a dispatch rider and three months later they win the competition and are recognisable overnight. It took me 10 years to get used to it. So I can imagine the struggle it is for them.”
The longevity of Harith’s career is incredible, not only still being within the industry but remaining at the very top of it for over two decades. Now known as the Godfather of Malaysian Comedy, he’s fast becoming a national treasure. However, he is humble about that, as he is about most things.
“For the first 15 years, I was literally alone, on my own. There was the Instant Café Theatre, there was a guy called Razik Rashid, there was Comedy Court, but I was the only stand-up comedian.
“Then Douglas Lim came along and we became friends, and it was him and me. Then, ten years ago, broadband hit Malaysia and YouTube became accessible and the first wave of younger ones started doing stand-up. Time Out KL launched an open-mic night, and a scene started developing.
“That’s when they started calling me the Godfather, because before that there were no children for me to be a father or godfather to.”
While he admits, and revels in, younger comics coming through and snapping at his heels, speak to people in the comedy world and they will tell you how generous Harith is with his time and his advice.
“Competition can only make you better,” he says. “I was getting complacent. I was sailing on clear waters, the wind was blowing, nothing could stop me. Then I could see these [new, young] guys in five, six, seven or eight years are going to be in the centre; they’re going to be competing for my pie.”
"Someone once told me that if you are stingy with your ideas, what you are intrinsically saying is you have no ideas."
Those comics will get better with or without his help, he tells me, so why not help them out? “Someone once told me that if you are stingy with your ideas, what you are intrinsically saying is you have no ideas. If you give away your ideas, it means you believe you have more ideas.” He also believes that he can keep improving and getting better: “Let’s hone the craft, let’s be relevant. Deep down inside I still want everyone to say ‘He’s good. He’s the best’. That’s narcissistic, but I want to maintain that. But I know it won’t last forever.”
Remaining relevant over such a long period of time is no easy task. One way he has had to change is via social media. He now has a healthy online following, and is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram constantly, a curious thing for someone who values his privacy. “I am a very private guy. The idea of uploading something five, six, eight times a day telling everyone ‘Hey, here’s what I’m doing’… well, five years ago that was completely alien to me. Why would people want to know what I’m doing eight times a day? How arrogant of me!
“But in the last five years I’ve come to see that that’s just the way of the world now. Social media I used to think was just… [pauses] wanking. It’s still wanking now, but everybody wanks. And wanking gets you forward.” A motto we can all believe in.
And then there’s his new TV show, Obviously Harith Iskander. While it is a tried and tested format, Harith does believe that it allows him to show people another side of him. “With the TV show I’m now getting a different portfolio and a different type of recognition. In the last two to three months more people are calling out to me ‘Obviously! Hey Obviously!’ rather than ‘Oh, you’re the funny fella’. I think it has opened up the market. Some people know me as a comedian, some people just know me as a talk show host. It gives me something else. I can create more wares on the table, more heads to feed.”
While he acknowledges that it is a tried and tested format, from Johnny Carson, to David Letterman to Jimmy Fallon, he is keen to point out that, unlike his American counterparts, he doesn’t just have celebrities on his show. “We try to fit in personalities, corporates, politicians, business people… people who have an interesting story to tell. So that’s where the show is different. That’s what has got the attention. If you look at the people appearing on the show, most of them you’ve never actually heard speak.
“We’ve had Nazir Razak, chairman of CIMB, Rafidah Aziz, former iron lady of Malaysia, Tun Musa Hitam, former deputy prime minister, Nurul Izzah, the leaders of the opposition. It’s just been a strong, strong show with something for everyone.
Deep down inside I still want everyone to say ‘He’s good. He’s the best’. That’s narcissistic, but I want to maintain that.
“You would think that we would have just put stars on the show to get the audience, but no: we’ve had people like Wahid Omar, ex-chairman of Maybank, and the viewers have responded
to the show brilliantly. There’s a real interest in real personalities.”
Following in the footsteps of Jerry Seinfeld (Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee) and, more recently, James Corden, Harith’s show also sees him driving the interviewee to the show. “That came out of the first episode because I asked Tony [Fernandez] if he would like to do this scene in the car with me as a one-off thing.
“Once we saw it we were like ‘Hey, this could be something.’ So we did it with Nazir, then Rafidah, and it became a thing. So that’s a lot of fun as well. But it is a week’s worth of work. Shows are on Saturday, on Monday we have a post-mortem and then we’re already planning.
“In between there are shoots, schedule changes, joke-writing, game ideas, it is a full-time job.”
Interestingly, the success or failure of the show will have a real impact on Harith the businessperson, not just Harith the performer. “My company is co-producing with Awani. We are 50-50 down the line. I have my team, and in my team there are people on research, there are writers, so we meet once a week and throw ideas around.
“The writers are lovely, lovely young guys who are smart boys. There is a lot of give and take, and they are very generous with their humour. We’ve become like a family, really. Everyone on the team is like family.”
And there he goes again, Harith being lovely. Never a bad word to say about anyone, nobody saying a bad word about him.
Knowing that he needs to rush off to speak to someone about the show, and knowing that I still don’t have anything dark to illustrate the seriousness of the images, I decide to ask him directly if he has a dark side. He pauses and gives it genuine thought. “Well, I’m very quiet,” he eventually says.
“But dark? Hmm… I do procrastinate a lot. Is that dark? No, that’s not dark,” he says, answering his own question and illustrating his perceived weakness.
“I tell you what, I wish I did have a dark side. If you look at all the best comedians, like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, you just know there is a real dark side to them and they push themselves right to the edge. And Richard Pryor too.
“So yeah, maybe I’m never going to be world famous, because I just don’t have that angst in me.”
But maybe that is why we love him, why he has remained at the top of his profession for a quarter of a century. What you see is what you get. A good husband, a loving father, a funny fella. He is just Harith Iskander, obviously.
The second season of Obviously Harith Iskander is due to air on Astro Awani, channel 501, next month. Check out obviouslyharith.com for further details.
Styling by Sarah Chong. Art direction by Rebecca Chew
First published in Esquire Malaysia October 2016 Issue.