[LETTER FROM KUALA LUMPUR]

Politics, race, sex, religion - all fodder for comedians in Malaysia

"No Smoking unless you're on fire," says a sign inside. Outside, a handwritten paper sign reads: Crackhouse Comedy Club. Pasted over a red door, it is the only clue that behind that door is Malaysia's first stand-up comedy club.

For five nights a week, the premises host comedic entertainment to near full-house audiences, poking fun at everything and anything.

Comedy is the new big thing in Malaysia.

Only a year ago, Mr Rizal van Geyzel, 31, was holding down two jobs: a day job in a hotel and nights as a stand-up comedian. Then last July, with gigs pouring in fast, he took the plunge as a full-time comedian.

Soon after, he and two other partners set up this permanent venue for stand-up comedy.

The Crackhouse Comedy Club opened on April 31.

The timing was good. There are now at least eight full-time stand-up comedians working in Malaysia, a far cry from two just a few years ago.

"Stand-up comedy in Malaysia, and Singapore too, is booming. And most of the audience in these two countries are locals, rather than expats," he said.

"The response has been awesome."

They are not playing to scant crowds either. Comedy shows sell out fast, wherever they may be hosted.

It is often standing-room only at the Crackhouse Comedy Club, situated in a first-floor shop unit. It packs in more than 150 people most nights, five nights a week.

Like many trends in Malaysia, this phenomenon had its roots in the Internet's no-holds-barred space. Being cheap, easy to use and having a wide reach, the Internet became a natural venue for people to experiment with comedy.

One of Malaysia's earliest Internet comedy skit shows was That Effing Show, hosted by comedian-writers Ezra Zaid and Umapagan Ampikaipakan. It has now run for four years. The duo produced witty skits poking fun at the issues of the day, from politics to religion, and hosted it wholly on the Internet.

"The show has grown exponentially," said Mr Ezra.

The Internet also introduced foreign stand-up comedians to Malaysians, said Mr van Geyzel, feeding the thirst for live comedy in the country.

Mr Kavin Jayaram, comedian and radio deejay, said the novelty factor also helped, giving the comedy scene a boost, as people began to tire of the movie, club and pub scene.

People want to laugh, often at themselves.

"We make fun of anything, including serious things," said Mr Kavin, 34.

And that includes politics, race, religion and sex - all deemed "sensitive" topics in touchy Malaysia. But, of course, comedians do know where to draw the line, said Mr Kavin.

They are all too aware that it takes just one person to get offended for a full-blown controversy to explode.

Comedians, thus, have a finely- honed sense of self-censorship, and strive not to fall into meanness, nastiness or cheap laughs.

To Mr Kavin, political jokes are all too often cheap shots as it's too easy to get a laugh by dropping the name of politicians into a routine.

"Some comedians make fun of politicians but the great ones make fun of politics," said Mr Kavin. "The good jokes make us laugh, not cringe."

Their brand of comedy is less political than That Effing Show by Mr Ezra and Mr Umapagan, which makes full use of any raging current issue to dissect the ills plaguing the nation.

To the extent that it does touch on these issues, some say comedy has become a new way to tackle the painful racial rifts and economic uncertainties that plague Malaysia.

Mr Ezra noted that some people have begun looking towards That Effing Show to address thorny issues "but it shouldn't be us".

"Comedy is the best way to address these issues. In the past, we could laugh but in the last three to four years, the debate has been angry. Comedy cuts through all that," said Mr Umapagan. "It feels like therapy."

In general, the authorities have taken a lenient view of such satirical performances. So far, few comedians have suffered any repercussions although there have been sightings of mysterious men tape- recording entire shows.

Mr Ezra was the target of police reports for an Effing Show episode last year on a controversy over the use of the word Allah.

Comedy sometimes can strike a raw nerve, too.

carolynh@sph.com.sg