Man at His Best

What Do You Call A Malaysian Stand-up Comedian?

Keren Bala Devan lays out what it's like to be in the local comedy business.

BY Keren Bala Devan | Mar 7, 2016 | Culture

“What do you call a Malaysian stand-up comedian?”

It may seem like the set-up to a funny and possibly scathing joke, but this is the question that remains prevalent each and every time comedians step on stage to do and say the funny things we do and say to make audiences laugh. It is a question of identity, of belonging and of how we see ourselves and each other. It’s either that or...

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My name is Keren Bala Devan and I’ve been performing stand-up comedy in Malaysia for just over three years now. You probably haven’t heard of me. Frankly, I’d be surprised if you have.

A lot of our local consumption of humour used to come from either Malaysian-produced comedy sketch shows or anything that we saw from western countries. But that trend is changing. Malaysian stand-up comedy has been around for almost two decades, starting off with Harith Iskander and Jit Murad back in the day. Stories of open mic sessions at Instant Café Theatre and shows at The Actors Studio all seem like legendary tales to someone in my position doing stand-up. Much is owed to them for “doing it first”, for getting the word out that there is such a thing as stand-up comedy, and for inspiring all that came after.

My story starts a bit further down the road; five years ago, in fact. But I have heard some of the stories from comedians who were around when there was no scene to speak of. The beginnings were humble enough. Barely any venues to perform in, my “seniors” would accept gigs at bars and clubs, any place where they could do comedy. I speak, of course, about people like Kavin Jay, Kuah Jenhan, Rizal van Geyzal, Andrew Netto and Phoon Chi Ho. They were my introduction to stand-up comedy and, in my humble opinion, the ones who played a huge part in establishing the local comedy scene.

My comedy journey began in earnest the same way all stand-up comedians start: by going on stage at an open mic. The comedy open mic is a wonderful beast. A roomful of people waiting to get on stage, very often for the first time and not knowing what to expect. It’s the same now as it was when I did it for the first time in October 2010. The look of fear in all our eyes. The nervousness that comes with the anticipation of being the next to step onto that stage and essentially talk to a crowd for a short amount of time. That internal voice that says, “What were you thinking? Why did you even agree to do this? Will anyone notice if I just left?” It sounds stressful, which it is, but it is amazing too. It’s one of those things where, after you’ve done it, you feel like you’ve conquered something, no matter how it went. The feeling you get after you get off the stage is priceless. Mostly, that feeling is shame. Like many types of first times, you end up feeling like you’ve disappointed yourself and everyone involved. On rare occasions, it goes well. But if you love it, you’ll keep coming back. Those of us who are around now? We kept coming back.

For me, the first time was at Time Out Comedy Thursday. They used to have a “3 Newbies, 3 Minutes” segment where three people were given the chance to perform and the “winner” (chosen by applause) would come back for a longer set the following month. It’s where I got hooked on comedy. The first experience was nerve-racking. Then something happened on stage. The fear, the anxiety and the doubt all went away. I did my three minutes. I loved every second of it. The laughter I received was intoxicating. It still is to this day. It was one of those truly magical moments.

Then I stepped off the stage. My knees gave out and I nearly hit my head on a chair. That’s comedy, folks.

Time Out Comedy Thursday is a wonderful, monthly show that began in May 2008. It is run by Matt Bellotti, an expat who loves comedy. “We decided to do something as a valid contribution to the social scene,” says Matt. “I had a passion for comedy, but only in a viewing capacity. Living in Kuala Lumpur, there wasn’t a regular show to go and see, so when I was introduced to a few comedians who didn’t have a platform, those two things worked out pretty well. Eight years on, I’m proud of the shows that we keep producing.”

When asked how he feels about the impact that Time Out Comedy Thursday has had, he says, “Our goal wasn’t so much to start a scene, but to inspire people to make their own shows. That was how a lot of us from my batch felt. They are the ones who are now more loosely defined as ‘not so old, and not so new.’”

The ones right smack-dab in the middle.

It’s a great place to be right now. We have a front row seat to the scene’s growth. It offers me a great perspective on how things are. I count myself lucky and can confirm that many, if not all, of the comics performing currently feel that way. The “middle batch” came in around three to four years ago, and a big part of why comedy is booming now is because of the first weekly open mic room, One Mic Stand.

Originally run by Kavin Jayaram and Rizal van Geyzel, One Mic Stand served as the main platform for us to hone our skills, test our jokes and learn the ins and outs of doing stand-up. It began in 2012, and those early days were always such a thrill. There were only a handful of us, so we could actually perform each week. Looking back, almost everyone who started around the same time has progressed in terms of how they are as comedians and what they bring to the table. It wasn’t always easy, though. There will always be nights when your jokes don’t land like you want them to or the audience isn’t responding like you think they should. Writing new material was the biggest challenge; that is, to come out with better and funnier jokes constantly, and then test them for weeks to see if they work. Comedy is fun, but make no mistake: the hard work shows. Through it all, Kavin and Rizal were always there to push us on and keep us motivated. They saw the potential and started building the groundwork for the scene to grow.

Rizal explains, “We wanted a weekly room. We were tired of waiting around for a month before we got to do a show.” Kavin shares the sentiment: “There was a need that we thought we could provide for. A weekly show was required so that the comedians could improve themselves constantly.” A lot of us started doing comedy because it was something that we really enjoyed doing, and the avenues provided to us by the likes of Matt, Kavin and Rizal were a blessing.

Then came time to level up, so to speak. Rizal and Malaysia’s “Laugh Guru” Jonathan Atherton decided the time was right to open the country’s very first dedicated comedy club: Crackhouse Comedy Club. The year-old venue has become the premiere destination for stand-up in Malaysia in record time. Hosting comedy five nights a week, it’s now seen as a hub for what we do. But most importantly, it feels like home. It was here that the scene started booming. I got paid for participating in “headliner nights”, where Rizal and Jon flew in amazing comics to perform with local talent. I have rubbed shoulders and learned from international comedians like Paul Ogata, Gina Yashere and Butch Bradley. These are the benefits of a small but growing scene. I have many opportunities to perform and learn—something that I wouldn’t have access to if I lived in a country where stand-up comedy is already well established. We all instantly fell in love with the place.

Rizal talks about the Crackhouse Comedy Club: “We did this to get more people interested in doing comedy. That’s the first thing. The other thing is to get Malaysian audiences to be savvier about stand-up comedy. What to expect, the styles, the content. Then everything will fall into place. When they understand, they hire comedians who will get paid. Then the ones getting paid will have an even bigger incentive to be better and keep performing.”

The days where there are open-mic nights, improv nights and even headliner nights, you will find us there, waiting to jump on stage and show our support, not just for any visiting comedian, but also Crackhouse and comedy itself. As for those of us who aren’t performing on a particular night? We’ll still be there. Sitting in our corner of the club, watching the lucky ones take the stage, swapping stories and cracking our own jokes well into the wee hours of the morning.

Like I said: home.

The year 2015 was spectacular for stand-up comedy in Malaysia.

Not one but two comedy festivals—LOL Fest and Kuala Lumpur International Comedy Festival—happened. Astro produced a successful Malay stand-up comedy show for broadcast. Crackhouse Comedy Club celebrated its first anniversary. One Mic Stand turned three, and local comedians Brian Tan and Prakash Daniel took the reins. Oh, and so did I.

Co-running the room that made it all happen for me is a surreal honour. To be one of the people actually helping to build the scene with my best friends both in life and comedy is something most can only wish for. Brian and Prakash are two of the most hardworking comedians that I know, and even more talented. We started in the same year at One Mic Stand and have come so far that the impact comedy has had on us cannot be denied.

The impact that we have had on comedy in Malaysia is also no less important. At the risk of sounding pretentious, we don’t take our position lightly. One Mic Stand is a place of learning and growth. It is challenging for new comics now compared to when we first started, because the number of people asking to perform grows with each passing week. As a result, comics both new and old have to wait at least a week to get on stage. But that doesn’t mean those of us who’ve been doing it for longer can rest on our laurels. The sheer talent of local open-micers is staggering. This only serves to keep everyone on his or her toes and makes us try to be better than we think we are.

Brian says, “For me, it is still one of the most important rooms in Malaysia. Every working comedian in Malaysia has performed at One Mic Stand, not to mention visiting comics. It has been really crucial, because every open micer has passed through our room. New people see the performers and want to try.”

This then is the state of Malaysian stand-up comedy: exponential growth. Since I started three years ago, and within five months of taking over One Mic Stand, there’s been a steady influx of new and potential talent taking the stage.

The unofficial goal of a Malaysian comedian is to see his or her hobby turn into a career. In this country that means corporate shows. Those are the gigs that pay the most. In all honesty, a few people have come through who started out with the mindset of making as much money as fast as possible by doing comedy. They are welcome to that, but more often than not, reality sets in and they learn that stand-up comedy is more than just telling jokes into microphone. Being a comedian is both an art and a science. You need to dedicate time and energy to it before even tackling something like a corporate show, with all its rules and restrictions. Getting paid to do what you love is the best that anyone can hope for. But getting into it solely for the money is a path that leads to frustration and stagnation.

This is why rooms like the ones I’ve mentioned are important. They provide the space needed to cultivate great comedy among Malaysians. There are new people who show such progress in a short amount of time that sometimes, it makes me feel downright intimidated. That, in turn, makes a comedian like myself realise that we can’t take this lightly. It’s such an oxymoron: taking comedy seriously. Yet, that is the reality of it. We need to constantly remind ourselves of how fortunate we are to be part of this small and thriving scene and the responsibility that comes with entertaining an audience. That is paramount. With that comes always giving them a good show to ensure that they keep coming back. That includes coming up with new and better jokes and keeping an eye out for newbies with potential. It’s all a great feedback loop of humour and laughter that keeps expanding to include more performers and a larger audience.

Brian muses, “Stand-up doesn’t owe anybody anything. You owe stand-up. If you go into it with the mindset of being the ‘Big Thing’, it will beat you down. You have to put in the work. Just make people laugh.”

So that begs the question: what keeps people coming back? What is it about stand-up comedy that attracts people? What do Malaysians find funny?

This is a quandary that we in the comedy scene try to figure out every night. Yes, they laugh at our jokes, but what is the essence? Is there such a thing as “Malaysian stand-up?” It’s difficult to define such a thing. The majority of our audience are locals, and a lot of our jokes are about daily Malaysian life. Yet, even the foreigners in the audience understand and laugh along. The one common denominator is our culture. Or rather, the beautiful differences between our cultures.

Much has been said and written about the “political correctness” of certain jokes and how racial humour is “bad”. Not being able to say what we want to say is also a concern that all comics share, especially in the current social climate. “People shouldn’t worry about what to say,” Matt states. “It just ceases to become what stand-up comedy should be.” Kavin adds, “It’s something that we all make jokes about, but we have to be conscious of moving away from that and start coming up with jokes that are deeper and relatable.”

A fair point, as every comic wants to break through internationally. Having too much local-centric material can be a detriment, but the racial-based humour works. It is a reflection of our culture and our country that the jokes that resonate the most are the ones that highlight our differences. The wonderful thing about that is none of these kinds of jokes are made with any sort of malicious intent. Everyone laughs at them, including the people who happen to form the basis of that particular joke. It’s something that all Malaysians know influences our lives on a daily basis, and it seems almost cathartic for them to hear a person on stage say what they might be thinking.

What I can say is a very Malaysian thing is the camaraderie among the comedians. Mamak sessions happen after every single show. Everyone knows each other. We are friends who help each other out, whether it is just lending an ear to run jokes by or even as a full-on source of inspiration. As cheesy as this might seem, if you want to see unity among Malaysians, come to a comedy show. When you see a group of very different comedians of all backgrounds making a room full of diverse people laugh at themselves and each other, you know there is hope.

Ultimately, as part of any scene, the point is to always keep looking forward. In my humble opinion, the future seems very bright for Malaysian stand-up comedy. It’s not without its challenges, though.

“The concern is the number of shows compared to the audience. People might feel that they’ve seen the talent before and may not return if it’s the same one. Comedy has to keep the quality up to keep people coming back. We’re still very optimistic,” says Matt.

Remaining interesting and relatable to the audience are always the biggest concerns for a comedian. That, however, is the fun part. In such a relatively short amount of time, people have taken notice of what has been going on, and more and more comics are beginning to appear and perform not only all over town, and occasionally, in other states as well. The best thing about the future is that we honestly can’t predict what the next big thing will be. The industry is too young to make that call. What we do know is that it falls on us, the comedians, to make sure that we become the best performers that we can be and grab the opportunities that present themselves as part of a booming scene.

So back to the question: “What do you call a Malaysian stand-up comedian?”

The answer: here to stay.

First published in the January 2016 issue, Esquire Malaysia.