Those Stand Up Guys

18 May 2016

The beloved art form takes on new heights at two of Kuala Lumpur’s exciting open mic and stand-up comedy nights. We talk to two comedy organisers about their experiences.

Stand-up comedy is hard to do. People’s reactions to comedy and what they find funny, are hard to pinpoint under most circumstances. Jokes about race or death may be funny to some, but may offend others. Stand-up becomes an arena then, where comedians find themselves having to perform, to find a balance with the crowd, but most of all, to connect with an audience of total strangers. Open mic nights add to the stress, with most performers being “newbies” to the scene, where even three minutes of comedic material takes hours or days to produce.

Crackhouse Comedy Club in Taman Tun Dr. Ismail is one such place where fresh stand-up comedians can test their chops, or to just sit down and enjoy shows from both local and international acts. Running the shows there is Rizal van Geyzel. The known comedian, now 32, started in the business when he was 19 at Liquid Bar, in Central Market. “It was sort of an odd open mic or talent show, and you could go there and play music, sing, do magic tricks, so I went to tell some jokes and that’s where I met Harith Iskander and he gave me a chance to keep doing it. But I realised after a few bombs (what they call failing miserably on stage), that what was missing from my stand-up was life experience.” From here on out, Rizal started researching comedy and realising that it had to be personal. The former hotelier worked really hard in learning his craft, and finally left the hotel business to work as a full time stand-up, touring in much of Asia since.

Joining him are industry familiars - Keren Bala Devan who runs the One Mic Stand (OMS), Malaysia’s first weekly open mic night with his friends Prakash Daniel and Brian Tan, who emphatically says stand-up comedy is truly about honesty. “Because comedy is actually very much about being vulnerable, the best comedians are the ones who are honest. You have to really dig deep and see what makes you laugh, and the sum of your own experiences, before you can genuinely start killing it on stage,” he says.

OMS first started in May 2012, when the three friends and comedians decided that Malaysians could do with more laughter, and that the time had come for Malaysians to join the stand-up scene. All of them starting together, some three years ago, it’s easy to see during their shows how passionate they are about their craft and how much they love doing it.

“It’s a bit like instant gratification, to be honest. And your honesty with the crowd also gets you honesty back. If they like you, man, there will be real laughs and when they don’t, no one will talk to you after. There’s no middle ground in stand-up and that’s part of the thrill,” says Brian with conviction. Prakash is more lyrical about it saying that, “Comedy is deeply personal, and it’s nice to see people reacting to me. And it actually really gives me joy to watch people laugh.” Keren adds jokingly, “We do it for the girls and the money.” The persona on-stage and off-stage sometimes differs, and that is a part of stand-up that delights audiences as well. “Honestly, comedy is the one thing I’ve done in my life that has consistently made me happy. So I keep doing it.”

Does it pay the bills though? All of them let out knowing laughs. “If it’s a particularly bad month, you will probably get nothing,” says Brian without sugarcoating it. Even after three years and numerous shows, the guys mention that stand-up, as with any other artistic endeavour, is tough to pay bills with. While Prakash and Keren continue to do some freelance work, Brian has plunged himself directly into comedy as a full-time job. Corporate gigs for banks and for private companies are still the go-to for comedians in terms of big pay cheques, however, they do mention that it can be tricky staying true to some of the jokes they truly want for the audience as some of these shows come with strict guidelines, on taboo topics and using polite language which sometimes dilutes the authenticity of the show.

Rizal concurs, and says the actual business aspect of comedy is exceedingly tough. “Comedians really shouldn’t be running businesses. We are too honest!” he says with a laugh. Along with his partner in Singapore, Jonathan Atherton, the Crackhouse Comedy night has grown in the past years, hosting many international acts Malaysians would not have been privileged to see, but of course the profits are slow to come. But Rizal is passionate about the scene.

Comedy nights at TTDI run through the week and well into the weekend, with prices that are accessible to all. Crackhouse has seen a rise in numbers for Malaysian audiences and they continue to ensure that standards are met, with their choice of comedians. “For me and Jonathan, it’s about ensuring that we don’t give stand-up comedy in Malaysia a bad reputation. Because part of [why] Crackhouse [exists] is also for us to keep growing our grassroots comedy scene, and encouraging the younger ones - and also more women - to try out and come to the open mic nights.”

New material isn’t easy to write either, say the three comedians. As beginners, they may have shared their material and asked for input or even performed in front of friends and family before getting on-stage, but with more experience, they’ve realised going in blind is far better. “Because you’re more animated with your family and friends, and it doesn’t sometimes reflect the reality of what you’ll do on the day itself,” explains Brian. Prakash says he prefers working on his material alone, “Yes, because the more you share, the more you end up overanalysing and part of this journey is also to be inspired by your own personal stories. And inspiration for everyone comes quite differently.” He does however, say that punchlines are never the main ingredient for stand-up. “Punchlines can be done by anyone; it’s really the delivery and the set-up that has got to be amazing.” Rizal says he would give three tips for those starting out at open mic nights with the intention of being a stand-up. “Firstly, be yourself. Be humble, and don’t take any advice from anyone else, because you’ll end up using that as a dependency. Use your own voice.”

With shows featuring international acts starting as low as RM30, Rizal succeeds in making comedy accessible to all. “We don’t want it to be some elitist thing that only rich people can afford, so we try our best to ensure the prices are good for people to keep coming back, and keep laughing.”

With these efforts in place, not just with OMS and Rizal’s Crackhouse, but many more comedy shows mushrooming in KL, it appears that comedy in Malaysia has a bright future, and is definitely in good hands.

By Michelle Gunaselan

Be ready for a laugh. Check out featured stand-ups at:

 


One Mic Stand
Tuesdays at 9pm.
Venue: PJ Live Arts (Theatre and Cabaret),
Level 1, Block K, Jaya One,
Section 13, No.72A, Jalan Universiti,
46200, Petaling Jaya, Selangor

Crackhouse Comedy Club KL
Shows updated daily
Address: 1st Floor, 24A, Lorong Rahim Kajai 14 Taman Tun Dr. Ismail
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

 

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