Need a dose of humour? The Malaysian Association of Chinese Comedians has got your back. But as dependable as the comedy quartet has been in blessing us with zany slapstick and political gags, all good things must end. Before splitting up to take a break and explore solo projects (it’s an amicable breakup, they assure us), MACC delivers its last laughs this November with MACC MANIA X, a multi-city tour with brand-new laughs and a smidge of nostalgia (“Things could get emotional”, Douglas warns).
With sold-out shows annually, the awesome foursome – Douglas Lim, Phoon Chi Ho, Kuah Jenhan, and Dr Jason Leong – have brought life and colour to Asia’s still-burgeoning comic scene for the last decade. We catch up with the lads as they head into their last hurrah.
How did each of you get your start in comedy?
Douglas: I started at 19 as a comic actor on a sitcom called Kopitiam. That was my first foray into entertainment – I only started doing stand-up comedy about 12 years ago. Was it tough? Oh yes. I pretty much bombed for the first 2 years.
Jenhan: It wasn’t tough for me at the start because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. In my younger years, I always put on school plays but I’d never heard of standup comedy! One of my dreams was to perform at a local theatre space and they had something called ‘Free Flow’, where you paid RM10 for 10 minutes on stage to do comedy. I was told it’s ‘standup comedy’ only, basically ‘one man on stage telling jokes.’ Having no idea what that meant, I just did it and did okay! Since then I continued doing standup – and that’s when it got real tough.
Chi Ho: I started doing comedy sketches back in 2003 with a group called The ComeBackKings. Then, around 2007, my group mates said I should do something more personal like stand-up comedy. I didn’t know what stand-up was but I wrote a 10-minute monologue piece which I thought was amusing. I performed it, the crowd gave some reaction and I was paid RM200. Ever since then, I found my love for money.
Jason: In 2010, I did an open mic gig. I took leave from my job as a doctor in Penang, drove down four hours and performed for nine minutes. It was the turning point in my life. I had fun!
Nowadays, where do you get inspiration for your comedy material?
Chi Ho: Life lor.
Jason: Everywhere and anywhere! But lately I’m more focused on calling out the nonsense that is happening in our lives, particularly Malaysian politics.
Douglas: I’m basically an observational comic so my material comes from observing people’s peculiar behaviour (mostly Malaysians’). I also have a keen interest in current affairs.
MACC certainly isn’t shy about poking fun at current affairs. Do you strive to be socially engaged as comedians?
Chi Ho: I think current affairs give currency and breathe new energy into our jokes. However, my dream is to write evergreen jokes so that I don’t need to write for the next 20 years!
Jason: My heroes include Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Jon Stewart, and above all Stephen Colbert. So yes, I definitely intend to be as satirising and critical as my heroes.
Jenhan: This is where I differ from my three compadres, since I don’t do topical issues quite as much. Sometimes I do, but I have them flow organically with a story I’m telling. At the end of the day, we share the human experience.
What makes Malaysians laugh?
Douglas: Malaysians like to laugh at ourselves, our leaders, our neighbours. We’re pretty comfortable making fun of our differences and our quirks.
Chi Ho: I can’t really put a finger to it, but I would say Malaysian audiences are too nice. Malaysians laugh at everything – safe jokes, dirty jokes, controversial jokes, a comedian dying on stage. Anything.
Do you find that different from what tickles audiences elsewhere?
Chi Ho: Actually, every audience is different no matter where we play. Even within Malaysia, we sometimes get really different reactions from audiences in different cities when we perform the same jokes with the same energy to them.
Jason: For me, I think laughter is universal. I performed the same show for my 2019 tour, Harmful If Swallowed, which spanned Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. Every audience laughed in the same places of my set, with equal intensity. On the other hand, I know it’s easy to use local references to appeal to your audiences, and it’s definitely harder to be funny across countries. My aim is to be globally acceptable (and rich).
How do you stay funny under pressure?
Douglas: Know your material inside out. And keep fighting.
Chi Ho: Trust in the audience. You’ve written your jokes and done your homework, so no matter what happens, trust that the audience wants to be just like the performers – enjoying themselves!
Jenhan: Short answer, pressure helps. You gotta do the job you gotta do! Some comedians can write on stage but my style is more of marinating in my own self-doubt, writing to entertain myself. When I find something, I take it to a smaller stage to hear how it sounds and then start refining.
It’s been a golden decade of laughs for MACC. What are some memorable moments you’ve had performing together?
Jason: So many! That one time Jenhan nearly broke his teeth trying to do a jumping push-up backstage, and the time Chi Ho forgot to bring his pants for a gig and had to borrow from Douglas. That year we lost two planes and political tensions were running high, and every night someone would tell us that they ‘cried while listening to you’.
Jenhan: There’ve been plenty, but one I will always cherish is from the 9th MACC. By chance, one of our dates coincided with Douglas’ birthday. Douglas had earlier said ‘a surprise wouldn’t be possible’ so challenge accepted! While he was on stage performing, the rest of us secretly coordinated with many parties (from cake vendors to delivery services to theatre crew) to surprise him onstage. We perform individually on stage so we’d pass on the responsibility to the others by turns. We even faked that his stage lights became faulty just to throw him off. He had a really nice time and told us it was his happiest birthday. Drama queen.
What do you think about the current state of Malaysia’s stand-up comedy scene?
Jenhan: It’s really booming. Ten years ago, there was only one show a month. Now there are regularly a minimum of six shows a week across two comedy clubs, plus peripheral satellite shows.
Chi Ho: Agreed. We have a huge group of dedicated, fearless local comedians who love the work. Every week, there are visiting comedians from around the world on our local stages and according to them, this is one of the best places in the world to perform because we have a multilingual society which is open to worldly cultures. I think we have to thank our local fans for shaping the Malaysian comedy landscape into what it is today.
Your days as a quartet may be coming to a close, but you’ll be continuing your comedy careers solo. What’s on the cards for upcoming projects?
Chi Ho: Guess I’ll turn my kids into YouTube stars. Or if I run out of options, I’m a pretty decent househusband.
Jenhan: I’ve always wanted to explore one of my shows, Electric Butterflies, in a more theatrical setting. I’ve toured across festivals in Australia with it and now I have plans to stage it in KL and Singapore. After that, I might take a back seat for awhile and produce a newcomer called Rambo Tan. He’s still relatively unknown, but I have a feeling he’s going to steal the world real soon.
Jason: I’ll be putting together a new tour for 2020, and hope to perform in the UK and the US.
Douglas: I have a few TV and movie commitments that need my attention next year. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal what they are yet!
Finally, any words of wisdom for budding comedians?
Jenhan: Jump into the deep end and just go on stage. Failing is essential to learning what works. Accept the doubts and never let them go for the rest of your career.
Chi Ho: You will die, you will fail, you will hate yourself but that’s all part of the journey to greatness. It’s not about who wins the race but who stays in the game the longest. Also, don’t forget to make people laugh!
MACC MANIA X: The Goodbye Tour is happening from 12 September to 16 November 2019, across locations in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia.
The Singapore leg takes place on 20 & 21 September at Singapore Repertory Theatre. Click here for more ticketing information.