Be Grateful!

While the role of tragedy could be seen as investing the sublime with a human face, the role of comedy, particularly stand-up comedy, is much closer to home. The comic holds up a mirror in which we recognise ourselves. Including the worst aspects of ourselves – the racial stereotyping, the passive acceptance of authority. It is, critically, funny.

A successful comic can look at the world with honesty, and pick on the tiniest minutiae that reflect our own lives. Perhaps the laughter is curing us of self-importance, of folly. If Malvolio had learned to laugh, he would have ended differently.

Harith Iskander’s line-up at Let’s Get Personal, staged at The Actors Studio Bangsar last weekend, managed this, with varying degrees of success. But I was left feeling that the mirror that Harith was holding up was strategically frosted. It only touched on the aspects of ourselves we feel comfortable ridiculing.

The evening began with Kong Eu, a musical accompaniment to the opening credits, tap-dancing. He had stage presence, flair and rhythm. The romantic in me sees tap-dancing as flowing skirts and men in top and tails, but in his jeans and brown shirt Kong Eu still captured something of that spirit.

The first comic act was Joanna Bessey. She started off a little shakily, her routine centring on the thesis that the fatter and uglier you are, the funnier you are. After the first couple of laughs (mainly at Harith’s expense), she relaxed more, becoming funnier and able to deal with slight heckling from the audience. Her gags largely revolved around the lives of the famous, from her own experiences as a comedian.

While her gaze on Malaysians lacked the incisiveness of Harith, or the playfulness of Rizal Van Geyzel, it was a light-hearted opener to the evening. And gave the audience the pleasure of seeing this Kopitiam girl in the flesh.

Next up was Rizal. Oh, but I liked him.

He was cute and funny, hip and fresh. He wasn’t the consummate professional that Harith is, but as a sharp young talent, he’s definitely on the up. His innocent pout gets him off the hook in even the rudest (in the old-­fashioned sense) comebacks.

His quick run-through of Hollywood stars, and drive-by shootings were amusing. But the big belly-laugh came from the comparison between our shy Malaysian girls and the brash, up-front girls from the US of A.

Unlike Harith, however, he doesn’t yet own the stage. He doesn’t paint the landscapes, the population, with the ease of experience. Give him a couple of years.

Then there was Harith himself.

Let’s start with the fact that it was a very funny, a consummate performance. Harith was relaxed on stage and he rolled out the gags. The minutiae of Malaysian life were held up to the microscope and mercilessly pulled apart. The torture of being a failure at the school sports day, the embarrassment of dancing during the dating years, all the horrors and joys of growing up Malaysian.

A star moment was the portrayal of the character change a Malaysian goes through on reaching Singapore. With change of posture and expression he morphed seamlessly from an easy-going Malaysian to the stiffer-than­-starch Singaporean.

And the show was made poignant by his touching reference to his parents, humour tinged with warmth and affection. He finished with a vote of thanks to his parents, for not forcing him to follow the traditional Malaysian options of doctor, lawyer, engineer, but allowing him to be a stand-up comic. And to make a difference.

This is where the problems come in, the point where I started reflecting. You see, some of Harith’s routines reflected his audience without the sting, and balm, of comedy. Rather than critically examining, they were reinforcing the prejudices of his rich audience, insulating and protecting them from some of the less comfortable realities of Malaysian life.

These few gags were based on three fallacies.

Fallacy number one: Because there are no poor people in the audience, Malaysia has no poor people.

“Things can’t be that bad. You all just paid RM72 to watch the show. Think about it.”

For the poor in this country figures don’t look as good as for the rich. The number of people in poverty has been increasing1. And one of the areas where Malaysia is looking increasingly competitive is the difference between rich and poor2.

Fallacy Two: The way to tackle crime is tougher sentencing.

The crime in question was snatch thieves. Now, I dislike snatch thieves. In Singapore, there are no snatch thieves. But is the solution Singapore’s seven years imprisonment for handbag theft?

Maybe out of the context this seems a fairly reasonable comparison. But let’s take a quick look at those poverty figures again. The rich are getting rich, the poor (comparatively and in real terms) poorer: The real wages of plantation workers have been falling over the last 20 years3. The problem is then compounded by police corruption. What makes you think that the same police you pay off when you speed won’t accept money from a thief? After all, they’re the ones with all your cash.

And given the context of the cry of castration for rapists, this fallacy is not only erroneous but dangerous.

Fallacy Three: We should be grateful.

I kept waiting for the punch-line on this. The last time I was in that theatre, I was listening to members of the arts community grumbling about the narrowing space for freedom of expression. And it isn’t just the arts that’s being affected this way.

Not sure where gratitude comes in.

Harith and the supporting acts really are very funny. But don’t beguile yourself into believing that by doing so either you or he are making any kind of difference.

  1. See the Eighth Malaysia Plan. And don’t forget that unlike high-level salaries, the poverty line is not adjusted for inflation.
  2. According to a World Bank reports that say that Malaysia has the highest differentials between rich and poor in the region (excluding Singapore, Myanmar and E. Timor: no figures available). And that, since the 1990s, this difference has been growing.
  3. Go to for details.


First Published: 10.03.2004 on Kakiseni

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