Kuah Jenhan on The Art of Being Funny

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After his international debut at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) late March, where he performed 22 shows for 22 consecutive days with his fellow counterparts at the Comedy Zone Asia segment, the young comedian returns and shares with us some pearls of wisdom he has picked up along the way.

How did things come about for you to be a part of the Comedy Zone Asia segment for this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival?
It has always been a dream of mine to be part of MICF, and I was already in the midst of producing my own special at this year’s festival, when I got an email from the MICF Associate Director Gideon James, telling me about Comedy Zone Asia and their interest of me headlining the show. It was their first attempt for a lineup that consisted of Asian comedians, which was based off Comedy Zone that features the best upcoming comedy acts in Australia. I like to see this as a great indication that we Asians have been doing good work here, and there is a demand for us outside of the continent. So, of course I said yes when Gideon offered me the slot, and thinking back now, I’m definitely glad that I did.

Is there a particular reason why you chose this Festival as your “international debut”?
Well, for the most part, Melbourne isn’t too far from home, yet it’s not too foreign a place for me to perform at. I do believe that MICF is the third most popular and prestigious comedy festival in the world, after Edinburgh Fringe and Montreal, although MICF is the biggest comedy-centric festival thus far. I’d opt for Edinburgh, but alas, I have not the money and guts, and Montreal is only by invitation, so Melbourne it was! It has always been an ambition of mine to take my stand up career beyond Malaysian borders, and do that while I still can, you know. I don’t want to learn complacency and build my glass ceiling low so early on in my career.

How was it like, performing to a crowd that is not only of another ethnicity altogether, but people who are not brought up the same way as you were, hence the higher risk of misunderstanding or lost in translation?
The difference in ethnicity was definitely daunting for me, and more so for me than my other compatriots; I admit I probably had the least experience in dealing with an international audience. I was very concerned with the demographic of my audience, mainly because they play a big part on what kind of jokes I would pitch to them for the night. Fortunately, I had the upper hand of feeling them out – not literally, of course! – throughout the first five comedians’ sets. Comedy Zone Asia had 22 shows at the Festival, and it was the longest run of shows I’ve ever done in one go. Whilst I did 22 shows every day with the same set, I experienced 22 different sets of audience: there were nights when the audience was predominantly Australians, and some predominantly Australia-born Asians, while others a potpourri of non-local Asians there for work and studies. There was one night though, when we had a crowd full of Malaysians! It was a Tuesday, and they had cheap tickets on that day – don’t worry, I made the joke about that during my set already (laughs). Through them, I got to improve some of my jokes that were five years old. Nothing drastic, just adding a simple gesture here, taking an irrelevant word out there… You know, have them lose some weight, so they come out leaner and better.

How different was it, performing to a Melbourne crowd compared to the one in KL/Malaysia?
A general difference would be that the audience in Australia is a lot more comedy savvy than back home, but this is kind of expected; comedy appreciation in Malaysia is only in its infancy. However, the general public in Australia is a lot more concerned with being “politically correct”, so much so that it becomes a joke in itself!
For example, I planned a joke about bimbos and the advantages of speaking like one, when I learned that the word isn’t very acceptable anymore. I’ve been told it is unsophisticated, because it sounds like I’m saying all women are airheads. So, I tried explaining it in a different way, and even used a Venn diagram, can you believe it? (One circle was “Women”, and the other circle was “Dumb People”, and “Bimbos” are overlapped between the circles). My friend and fellow MACC-comedian Jason Leong had a problem understanding this, so I told him: “It’s just like how we can’t say ‘whore’, so we say ‘prostitutes’,” and just as I said it, our director interrupted us: “Err yeah, we don’t say ‘prostitutes’ either now. We have to call them ‘sex-workers’.”
It was then I realised how liberal the Malaysian comedy stage was still; I suppose that’s a perk of being in the infancy stage. Performing for an international audience does drives me, because I’m out of my comfort zone, but at the same time, performing for Malaysians does afford me more local references, which is nice sometimes. It’s always nice to feel at home.

Did you pick up any valuable lessons while you were down under?
Humility, I got baskets full of them from most of the comedians at the festival. Everyone was really friendly and supportive. In the evenings, some comedians were out on the streets themselves, handing out flyers for their shows to people leaving work in the city centre. The task can get quite tiring and depressing, especially right before you have to step on stage to be funny! But you know, knowing that the other comedians have your back is definitely a very comforting feeling, especially for someone like me, performing abroad for the first time.

You pretty much threw yourself in the deep end here, when you took up the opportunity to perform internationally. What was it that assured you that it was the right time and place to do this?
You know, I wasn’t even planning on doing my first solo show Tall, Dark, and Comedian back in 2011. Back then, I’ve only been doing comedy for two years, and I didn’t think I was ready for a solo show, let alone an hour long solo show! But Teri Choong, the then Director of PJ Live Arts talked me into it, and even insisted that I have two shows instead of just one. As it turned out, both nights sold out, and looking back now, that pivoting point of my life played a part in my decision to participate in MICF. It will always serve as a reminder to me that I will never be ready for most things in my stand up career, and I can never truly be ready for something with an outcome that’s out of my control. All I can do is lay down the groundwork: to do a good show on stage, and just keep doing that every single time.

Besides an international status as a comedian, what else is different when you return from this gig in Melbourne?
I did come back feeling reinvigorated and inspired. I used to think that comedy was broad enough, but it is much, much broader than what I had in mind. Creativity is such a beautiful tool when put to use the right way.

Now that you’ve done “the big time”, what’s up next for you?
I’m already working on my fifth show, slated for Children’s Day 2015. It’s a show primarily for teenagers and young adults, the 13’s to18’s. You know, that awkward age. The challenge is to get them and their parents interested in my jokes. I can’t really say much just yet but I have a few tricks up my sleeves that I’d want to try out. We’ll see if they work out! Besides that, I’m also working on a tour for next year, and if that goes well, fingers crossed, I’ll be away for the entire year!

Will #BadBoi be with you on this tour you speak of?
(Laughs) I don’t know, man. We’re not exactly on talking terms right now. I don’t even know if he will ever come back again; he hasn’t gotten in touch. We both need some time apart to do our own things a bit, you know. But when he does, I’ll let you know!

This article was featured in the HANGER SS15 issue.

www.kuahjenhan.com