8 Questions with Harith Iskander: Malaysia's godfather of stand-up

Harith Iskander (above).
Harith Iskander (above).PHOTO: COURTESY OF HARITH ISKANDER

Harith Iskander, who started his career as a comedian in 1991, is a pioneer in the country's stand-up scene

Full-bodied, smooth-pated and sporting a neatly trimmed goatee, Harith Iskander strikes an imposing figure.

But his heft and stern gaze lend themselves easily to comedy. In his shows, the 49-year-old comedian unspools joke after joke, lunging across the stage in time with his anecdotes, arms windmilling, face scrunching and brows furrowing.

This is, after all, the man known as Malaysia's "godfather of stand-up comedy", who has made people laugh for the past 24 years.

He will be in town this week for the Kings And Queens Of Comedy Asia, a 21/2-hour laugh-out-loud extravaganza at the Esplanade.

The event by The Comedy Club Asia is in its sixth year. This time, it boasts a line-up of five comedians from Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

Harith, who was also part of the show in 2010 and 2011, will take the stage alongside fellow Malaysian Rizal van Geyzel, Singaporeans Kumar and Rishi Budhrani, and Gina Yashere from the UK.

"The line-up this time is probably one of the strongest ever," he tells Life in an e-mail interview.

"You have world-class acts, including Kumar and Gina Yashere - who, in my opinion, is among the top five comedians in the world - plus young kids such as Rishi and Rizal, two of my favourite young comedians today. So you can expect a wall-to-wall, chock-a- block show full of laughter."

You can always learn something from any comedian. Each one is different. But the best ones have one thing in common - they're highly intelligent. You've got to be smart to do this well.''

HARITH ISKANDER

Born in Johor Baru to a Malaysian father and an English mother, he grew up in Kuala Lumpur and got a degree in film and TV productions from Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

He was producing TV commercials in advertising agency Leo Burnett when a spur-of-the- moment decision to leap on stage to tell a small audience "some funny stories" in 1991 set him on the path to comedy.

The lone voice in Malaysia's stand-up comedy scene then, he taught himself the tools of the trade, binge-watching VHS tapes of shows featuring American funnymen such as Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock.

Since then, he has established himself as a comic with a keen eye for observation, cracking irreverent jokes about himself and the world as he sees it.

Harith, who has two children with doctor and model Jezamine Lim, 31, is now considered a mentor and pioneer by a new generation of comedians.

Last year, he played to a crowd of 9,000 in Kuala Lumpur's Stadium Putra for Laugh Malaysia, the biggest stand-up comedy show in the country's history.

But the stand-up comedy scene there is still in its infancy, says Harith.

"There's a small group of comedians who have established, or are establishing, themselves and there's another batch of open- mikers who are chomping at their heels," he adds. "We have our first full-time comedy club, the Crackhouse Comedy Club in Taman Tun in KL, so that's a good sign. But it's still new. We have a long, long way to go."

  • BOOK IT/KINGS AND QUEENS OF COMEDY ASIA

    WHERE: Esplanade Theatre

    WHEN: Friday and Saturday, 9pm

    ADMISSION: $38 to $98 (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

1 How did you get into comedy and what has kept you around?

In 1991, I jumped up on stage at the old Subang Airport Hotel lobby lounge to tell some funny stories. Someone saw me there and invited me to a function to tell my funny stories, where someone else saw me and invited me to a function to... well, you get the picture.

Twenty-four years later, I'm still jumping up on stage to tell my funny stories. What's kept me around is leading a life that continuously allows me to see how I can tell more funny stories.

2 How would you describe your comedy?

Totally observational and personal. But here's the thing about the human experience: We're all connected, so my personal experience may not be too far from yours.

That's why the romantic ballad will never go out of fashion. We've all wanted to say to the one person who ignored us, "Hello? Is it me you're looking for?" (lyrics from the Lionel Ritchie song Hello)

3 Is there someone or something that inspires you in your work?

My sense of humour came from my late mum. She was English and had a dry wit. She would say things that would make people fall over in laughter, all the time keeping a straight face.

Currently, the political and economic situation of Malaysia is keeping everyone in stitches - whether it's in pain or laughter depends on how you see it.

4 In Malaysia, you're known as the godfather of stand-up comedy. How do you feel about this title?

I'm called the godfather only because of the new batch of comedians who broke onto the scene about seven years ago. They looked to me as the pioneer.

Prior to that, I wasn't a parent, much less a godfather to anyone. I was alone, so I was just that guy who told funny stories. The title is amusing and I don't mind it, except that I expect to go down in a hail of bullets one day.

5 What would you say is unique to Malaysian comedy?

The fact that we are so casually racist sometimes. We still operate in a space devoid of political correctness. And for comedy, that's a good thing.

6 What's your process when coming up with a routine? Do you have any pre-show rituals?

My routine depends very much on who my audience is for that show. Although I can prepare what I'm going to talk about, it may all change the moment I get up on stage. It's not as spontaneous as I make it look, but it definitely isn't planned.

Some of the best shows come out of me being completely at the mercy of what the audience is telling me - via their laughter or non-laughter.

And I don't have any real rituals, other than pacing up and down like a hippo in a small cage.

7 You've worked with comedians from all over the world. What have you learnt from some of them?

You can always learn something from any comedian. Each one is different. But the best ones have one thing in common - they're highly intelligent. You've got to be smart to do this well. Not many people realise that.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

As someone who made a difference, even if it's just one kid who goes on to become a comedian, who says, 'I wanted to do stand-up comedy because I wanted to make people laugh the way Harith did'. That's making a difference.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2015, with the headline 'Malaysia's godfather of stand-up'. Print Edition | Subscribe