Time for Comedy to Bloom in Penang

By Kristina Khoo-Rhodes

June 2022 FEATURE
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“HI EVERYONE. My name is Juliana Heng. I have autism. Because of autism, I’m a bit slow. When you listen to jokes, you’ll laugh immediately. I’ll laugh a bit later… tomorrow. If you aren’t laughing right now, don’t worry. You’re just like me.”

Autistic, non-binary (they identify as they/them/their), Malaysian and a stand-up comedian, Juliana faces many challenges from struggling to read audiences’ emotions and non-verbal cues to lacking spontaneity on stage during performances. While many would have stopped toying with the idea of being a comedian if they failed to get the audience to laugh, Juliana is the total opposite.

“For 1.5 years, I never really did well on stage. I’d see people with frozen smiles on their faces and think that the audiences were having a good time. People were puzzled as to why I came back week after week to perform. Most people would have felt hurt and concluded that stand-up isn’t for them. But my impression of my audience was that they loved me and they wanted me back!” Juliana laughs, adding that talking about autism has started conversations on inclusivity, diversity and people on the spectrum. Juliana now performs virtually for audiences in the UK, US, Australia and Canada.  

In Malaysia, the comedy scene is flourishing and Malaysian comedians are seen exploring taboo topics and normalising individuals who traditionally have been portrayed as “other”. Today, comedians around the world are connecting with audiences on topics such as racial justice, gender equality, Islamophobia, gun violence and politics. The LGBTQ community, minorities, the underrepresented and neurodivergents like Juliana are part of the pool of comics who are using jokes and funny observations to make their unique situations more relatable to the public while contributing to a more diverse and inclusive comedy landscape.

Juliana Heng, who's sparked conversations surrounding autism.

Although Malaysian audiences still greet Juliana with silence when they say they have autism, they joke that perhaps there would be more whooping and cheering in the future. “I get a whoop with the audiences abroad because they’ve got no qualms about laughing at my condition. But in Malaysia, I’m the only autistic comedian so far. There’s still some stigma and skewed perception.”

Cancel Culture

When I asked what topics are out of bounds in comedy, Malaysia’s comedy queen Joanne Kam highlighted that she was already facilitating conversations that are usually shied away from when she appeared on the scene 30 years ago. “I am a real woman talking about sex, my breasts, my body, sleeping with men, menstruation; topics that you only talk to your closest girl friends about, like on Sex and the City. There’s no such thing as taboo topics anymore. Comedy can be in your face but respectful. Honestly, the younger ones are even more vulgar than me!”

Joanne Kam, Malaysia's comedy queen.

When put that way, it does seem that no topic is too scandalous or controversial to be made fun of. However, comedians these days face being “cancelled” if caught acting or speaking in an unacceptable manner. “Cancel culture” involves calling out and culturally blocking someone from having a prominent public platform or career, by angry, usually “woke” mobs. Some comedians have lamented that it has stifled creativity and can even kill comedy.

“I’m a comedian from the old school guild. Comedy is still comedy. It’s your views. If you put up a gag order and say you can’t talk about this or that, then what sort of comedy are you going to do. We need to have the freedom to express ourselves,” quips Joanne.

Fellow comedian Prakash Daniel, who is easily recognisable by his impressive beard, comments that all jokes are fair game, but only if you know what you are talking about. “You can’t joke about gun control if you know nothing about it, because then it becomes offensive. For instance, I talk about myself growing up, my issues being Indian. I know where I can go. I don’t talk about casteism or classism, I draw the line there. I push the boundaries with religion but I only talk about what I’m familiar with.”

Prakash Daniel is known for his impressive beard, which has invited a lot of attention and jokes.

We have seen how cancel culture plays out on the internet. In 2019, for example, Kevin Hart dropped out of hosting the Oscars after a public outcry against his old homophobic tweets. He spent some time away from the spotlight, but eventually resumed performing and acting.

Social Media, the New Comedy Climate

There is no doubt that the internet has changed the comedy landscape. Social media like Tik Tok and Instagram have made it easier for people to discover new comics like Uncle Roger, and made it easier for normal people to create and produce their own funny sketches. Co-founder of Crackhouse Comedy Club KL, Rizal Van Geyzel, shares that the internet, not other live venues or comedy clubs, is their biggest competitor.

“We’re always pushing for people to come experience the live shows in clubs because there are things that you can never experience online. Say someone’s phone starts ringing in the middle of the show, the comedian picks up the phone and tells the person, hey, you’re calling during my show, and proceeds to put him on the speaker phone and further embarrasses him. Everyone then starts laughing. This sort of experience you can never see on Youtube. This is live entertainment. In one of our shows, we even kicked people out because they were disruptive—and the audience cheered,” says Rizal.

Comedy in Penang

Rizal believes that Penang has all the right ingredients to start a comedy scene. There are great venues, the right audiences and facilities in place. All that is needed are talents and someone passionate to run the show. “You need a local to promote and drive open mic nights, and encourage people to come watch and inspire comedians to perform. The show must run regularly to have repeat customers, and it’s word of mouth that keeps the comedy scene alive. Tickets can be cheap, from RM5-RM10.”

Joanne, who has done comedy shows in Penang and will be bringing more tours to the island soon, is convinced that comedians in KL are willing to travel to Penang to do shows. She thinks that as long as there are enough comedians to rotate, the comedy scene will thrive and grow. “If you were a singer in a bar, you can sing the same song over and over again and the audience would still love you. In comedy, once you’ve heard the joke, after the third time, you can tell the punchline back to the comedians, and it’s something you never want. That’s why I would like to see more new comedians. It’s a healthy comedy scene here and we support and welcome newbies.”

“Penang is ready. The audience and public welcome different comedians. All it takes is for one person to say, hey I want to do comedy.”

Before parting, Rizal laughs and chips in that the best way to keep comedy alive is to book tickets. “Please don’t ask for discounts. Book, pay the full price and support us. I have audiences telling me so and so is my friend, can I get a discount? If you’re really a good friend, then you should pay the full price. Friend should support friend’s rice bowl. We all need to feed our children la…”

Kristina Khoo-Rhodes

is a former journalist with an interest in new media and social justice. A university lecturer by profession, she is happily married to her English husband, and is always planning for their next spine-chilling adventure. She does not take life too seriously, and occasionally daydreams about living the van life.