Life as a humorist

By Aqalili Azizan

Harith Iskander opens up about his past and future as a comedian. 

Born in 1966, Harith Iskander Musa has been in the entertainment industry for a few decades, and we have seen him on the big screen and international stage. As a well-known Malaysian actor, comedian and television personality, he has starred in Sepet and Talentime (directed by the late Yasmin Ahmad), Baik Punya Cilok and Cuci, to name a few. He also appeared as Nikorn in 1999 Hollywood film, Anna And the King starring Jodie Foster and our April 2019 cover girl, Melissa Campbell.

In 2016, Harith Iskander was announced as the winner of the Laugh Factory’s Funniest Person In The World competition held in Levi, Finland. He beat four other finalists – Alex Calleja, Katerina Vrana, Mino van Nassau and David Kilimnick – and was the first comedian from Southeast Asia to win the competition. In 2018, Harith made a comeback on streaming platform Netflix with a stand-up comedy special, I Told You So.

In August 2018, the father of three decided to open a space that promotes local comedians, called The Joke Factory. Located at Publika Shopping Gallery in Solaris Dutamas, the comedy hub is connected with Joke and Lok where guests can enjoy a meal and drinks before they move on for the performance or they can bring their drinks along. 2018 was a busy year for Harith as he was also the first Asian host commissioned for Got Science? on BBC Earth Asia.

Known as the godfather of Malaysian stand-up comedy, Harith, who has been a comedian for 30 years, shares his plan for the new year ahead, including the future of stand-up comedy.

How did you start your career as a stand-up comedian?

It was Aug 31, 1990, at the lobby lounge of the old Subang Airport Hotel. To cut a long story short, my friend from university was the hotel’s Marketing PR manager, named Marina Mustapha. She said to me: “Hey, nothing is happening at the lobby lounge, why don’t you get on stage and tell your stories?” It wasn’t called stand up comedy because people didn’t know about it at that time.

I knew about stand-up comedy because I watched VHS videotapes from the States. People would bring back Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor tapes back home. Murphy was my main inspiration.

So, that was my first show. There wasn’t any plan after that to continue, and I got back to my normal life. But, what happened was a few weeks later, I went to a jazz bar-restaurant called All That Jazz to watch a gentleman named Rafique Rashid. In those days, he was a singer-musician and he used to change the lyrics, and it was so funny.

During his break time, a friend that came to my first show told Rafique that I tell jokes and he asked me to go up and make impromptu jokes. Then, someone came up to me and said: “Hey, I got this function, can you do that thing, make people laugh?”. Through word of mouth, I got more gigs, and I wasn’t thinking of it as a career because I was doing it as a hobby.

 

You have been a stand-up comedian for 30 years. What were the challenges that you faced?

In the beginning the challenge was in educating the audience about my performance. Earlier in my career, my manager took off with my money. When I did corporate shows, a few agents would disappear before paying.  But every business goes through that. Then there were ordinary things like self-doubt because you will have your bad shows. The biggest hurdles are searching for new materials and keeping yourself relevant.

You have your Netflix shows, a beautiful wife and kids. Do you have more goals to achieve in life?

Well, yes! So, that’s the difficult part. I don’t think I can do that much else – it’s not my goal and desire to be more famous, because it doesn’t mean anything. I want to use what I have created (branding and goodwill) to introduce and promote the stand-up comedy scene, not just in Malaysia but also in Asia. My ultimate goal is to make KL the centre of stand-up comedy in Asia. Stand up comedy is still being watched on YouTube. In terms of live performance, it is still a reasonably small market, so I need to create an audience for that. There is no point to create a comedian if there is no audience. Rather than just educating the comedians, I am also teaching the audience.

There are comedy festivals all around the world, in Melbourne, Toronto or Edinburg. I‘m trying to grow Kuala Lumpur International Comedy Festival, which I did in 2015 with a little government support. I did it again in 2017 by myself without any help, and I’m trying to get more support this year as part of Visit Malaysia Year. My
goal is to create a destination where people want to head to next as part of the festival.

Any updates for us regarding the Joke Factory?

We have shows six nights a week. After Chinese New Year we are now open every day. What I’m doing here is new, tapping into a Tamil speaking market and trying desperately to get into the Chinese market. There are Chinese speakers who want to enjoy the comedy but not many comedians who can proficiently do it in Mandarin or Cantonese.

So, I’m trying to grow that market. We have Tamil stand up comedy shows here, which are doing well. We have gamers night and opened up the space to musicians, so at least the club has different vibes. There are various types of comedies: group, sketch, talk show, podcast and comedy competition. There are also different improvised comedies. If you want family-friendly shows, we also provide that.

What is the future of The Joke Factory? Are you planning to branch out to other places soon?

Yes, another goal would be to venture out via different branches of the Joke Factory. Starting in Penang, then, Johor and eventually Jakarta and Bangkok. That’s a slightly longer-term goal. Going back to my statement of making KL as the centre, we are actually in the best position if you want an authentic local feel and also to support the stand-up comedy here.

What advice can you give to upcoming new comedians?

Most comedians don’t realise there is a business side to it. You want people to laugh at your jokes, but then you ask yourself why there aren’t more people watching my show? In comedy, it’s not just about how good you are, it’s also about how well you market yourself.

For example, if you do an opening show for Harith Iskander, you should greet and thank the guests after the show. If you do that, the fans will keep coming back for more if you keep a good rapport with them. So, this is how I encourage comedians. Do it regularly, keep on practising and don’t forget the marketing part.

Any updates for your fans who are waiting to see you on the big screen again?

I used to be a writer, director and actor. I don’t enjoy the process of acting and I only did it for friends (such as the late Yasmin Ahmad and Afdlin Shauki) whose company I know I will enjoy. It was not about the money. I don’t search for acting jobs, and you are likely to see me only if I’m producing the movie. I think the last time I was on the big screen was Talentime.

You are planning to commemorate your 30th anniversary as a stand-up comedian, can you give away some details?

It’s still in the midst of planning. Other than doing a big concert featuring myself, it will be a big concert to highlight  other comedians. There is no specific date, but I aim it to be around Aug 31. It’s a busy period, and everyone is fighting for the time, so we will do it either before or after that date.

 

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