Executed well, comedy is as much an art form as music, dance, theatre and visual arts, requiring passion, inspiration, thoughtfulness and relentless practice to reach peak performance.
As Penang’s arts environment develops, it is perhaps unsurprising that a nascent stand-up comedy scene is following in its wake. And as with any other form of art, behind the movement lies a small group of dedicated people who are passionate about introducing their art to a wider audience.
Justin Heyes, the founder of local monthly Comedy Gold stand-up comedy nights, is right there at the forefront. A KL-based British comedian who met his Malaysian wife while at university in the UK, he is now a well-established comedian who has headlined numerous shows across the world, been part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and was nominated for the Best Comedy Award at Perth FringeWorld in 2018.
But back in 2012, when he moved here, it was impossible for him to make a living as a comedian as only a handful of open mic nights offered aspiring comedians an unpaid opportunity to test their material on a live audience.
All that changed in 2014 when the Crackhouse Comedy Club opened its doors. Co-founder Rizal van Geyzel returned from the US in 2009 after completing a degree in hotel management. He got himself a slot at an open mic night and knew immediately he wanted to be a full-time comedian. He soon landed himself such work as there was – emcee-ing, corporate comedy slots – but was acutely aware that a once-a-month open mic night was insufficient for him and his fellow comedians to get the exposure they needed.
Together with Kavin Jay (now famous for his show on Netflix), Rizal started a weekly comedy open mic, and the number of KL comedians consequently grew from half a dozen to more than 20. And then in May of 2014, with businessman Shankar Santhiram and fellow comedian Jonathan Atherton, Rizal launched KL’s first dedicated stand-up venue, Crackhouse Comedy Club.
Rizal van Geyzel.
Nic Coppin running the comedy workshop.
Crackhouse hosts international comedians almost every weekend to a standing-room-only audience. It offers visibility to experienced local comedians, and a platform for untried and untested material by newcomers. But it is still in its early days, according to Rizal, as even now there are only 30-40 regular performers – less than 10 of whom are able to make a living from comedy full-time, which they do through a combination of shows at KL’s comedy clubs, occasional TV spots, corporate events and international tours.
Could there be a Crackhouse in Penang one day? Rizal would love to see that happen, but he can’t take his eye off the ball in KL quite yet…
Meanwhile in Penang, the stand-up comedy scene looks even less developed than KL’s in 2009, when Rizal returned. Open mic nights come and go, and feature mainly indie music bands and poets rather than comedians. Penang’s self-styled “only stand-up comedian”, Garu, first took to the stage at one of the monthly Say It Like You Mean It open mic nights in May 2016, and quickly became a regular performer, drawing laughs about his experiences as a Bangladeshi Malaysian who grew up in Canada.
There was a short-lived open mic night at the Canteen at ChinaHouse, but the venue has always been better known for its live bands. This is why Garu is excited about Comedy Gold: the energy in the audience feeds the performers, and he himself has the chance to interact with and learn from more experienced comedians.
Heyes had realised during one of his many visits to Penang that the stand-up comedy scene might have the potential to develop here too. He organised the first Comedy Gold at Kim Haus on Lebuh Campbell in December of 2018. That show, as well as subsequent shows, were all completely sold out. Heyes and Garu perform every month and are joined on stage by headline acts such as Kavin, Prakash Daniel (Comedy Central Asia) and Singaporean Sam See (MTV).
Heyes hopes to make Comedy Gold the platform from which the Penang stand-up comedy scene can explode as it has in KL. Apart from that, it gives KL-based comedians the chance to get out of their comfort zones and to experience the Penang crowd, which has a sense of humour similar to that of KL, according to Heyes, but also enjoys “smarter, ‘thinking’ jokes”. In time, he expects to be able to invite other international comedians to delight Penangite audiences, and inspire Penang-based comedians to get onstage. The key, he points out, is to build a consistent audience whose expectations are consistently met by the quality of the show, and not to make the mistake of being either too “expat-focused” and therefore transient, or of being too local and of having too many “durian jokes” (jokes only understandable to a limited audience).
The very fact that Penang has a monthly stand-up night may entice others to take the plunge and join Garu on stage. And some support, albeit limited, exists for those who want to learn. In January this year, Penang’s Little Art House Studios hosted a stand-up comedy workshop in which another veteran of the Malaysian comedy scene, UK-based comedian Nik Coppin, shared the fundamentals of successful stand-up, from research to performance. Coppin also has an impressive CV, with his solo shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Adelaide Fringe Festival, and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. He welcomed 10 participants to this workshop, and hopes to return to train other would-be comics.
Garu at an open mic night in Penang.
Last year, an Improv Club was founded in Penang. Members meet weekly to engage in classic improvisation skits, for example “Surprise Guests”, in which three people improvise the roles of guests with amusing identities, and one person, the host, tries to guess who they are. As Heyes points out, the skills developed by doing improv are interchangeable with those needed in stand-up comedy. Both he and Garu can envisage a future in which there are regular open mic nights in Penang specifically for comedy, whether it be stand-up, sketches or improv, and though the audience may start small, it would be an invaluable learning experience for the performers.
Penangpac has also played a pivotal role in bringing more comedy to the audiences of Penang in the last few years. Once every two or three years, KL-based comedians such as Douglas Lim and Dr Jason Leong pass through Penang while on tour and perform hilarious stand-up routines to full houses.
Heyes at Kim Haus, Comedy Gold.
And very recently, perhaps inspired by the success of Comedy Gold, penangpac launched its own stand-up comedy platform: following an open call in March, four Penang-based comedians were selected to go on stage for their inaugural show on April 17.
Additionally, Penang’s own Fa Abdul – playwright, columnist, TV scriptwriter and producer – has given Penang’s comedic actors a brand new stage on which to exercise their talents, in her preferred format of 10 short plays with a common theme (Tales from the Jamban and Rebound being the two most recent). The audiences of these sell-out shows lap up her deeply insightful commentaries about the Malaysian psyche, which are funny yet thought-provoking at the same time.
As Heyes explains, “Comedy is an art form that anyone can enjoy. Music tastes differ – not everyone likes theatre plays or the same kind of paintings – but humour is universal. Southeast Asia has yet to get its comedy footing established, but as it does, Penang will surely be in the forefront.”
Volume 5 of Comedy Gold will happen on May 20, Volume 6 on June 22 and Volume 7 on July 13. The venue is Kim Haus, Lebuh Campbell. Tickets can be purchased via the ticketing app and website Peatix.