Crowned as the funniest person in the world last year, Harith Iskander is seen a must-know figure when it comes to the local comedy scene.
His career started in 1990 when the comedy scene in Malaysia was barely nascent. Now, using his 25 years of experience, Harith has made sure to play his role in grooming the comedy industry into what it stands as today.
Vulcan Post spoke to him in an exclusive interview where he shared what goes on behind the scenes of a comedian, how he uses his influential voice as a public figure, and how he has seen the industry grow from the early days to now.
From The Bottom
Being the pioneer of an industry has its ups and downs. The beginnings are usually tough, and the burden falls on you to prove for yourself as well as others that there is potential hidden beneath.
Harith shared that when he first started, the first 15 years saw him being the only one pursuing comedy and he was mostly doing it alone.
“It wasn’t until about 2006 when YouTube became more accessible that young kids began watching stand up comedy and venues held open mic sessions once a month. So though the scene started 10 years ago, I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve seen how things changed,” Harith said.
The past decade saw comedy grow in the form of official comedy clubs holding frequent open mic sessions and shows almost weekly in Kuala Lumpur.
“If you consider Los Angeles and New York jungles, Malaysia’s like a new forest. We’re just planted. But KL is quickly gaining attention from foreign comedians because of our English speaking audience, mixed culture, great people and food. It’s become a definite spot for travelling comedians to go to,” said Harith.
When asked if there was any downside to being a comedian after all these years, he said there wasn’t anything specific.
“It’s actually a hot career now, especially in the Malay community. Comedians are the rock stars of this generation by being highly paid and seen everywhere on television and billboards. Like any industry, there’s the negatives and positives but that’s the choice you make,” said Harith.
If he had to choose, Harith said that the downside is more on the audience than the comedian. He explained that it’s mainly because the Malaysian audience is still maturing and we may need a few more years to truly grasp what stand up comedy is.
“If you look at international comedy festivals, the audiences have seen comedy for 25 years. They’ve seen 100 different comedians with 100 different styles. That’s where the maturity part comes in. So when you step up on stage, you better bring something new because the audience is mature enough to catch you out on it,” said Harith.
He admits after doing this for two decades, he sees a personal responsibility in helping the comedy scene grow. All the mistakes he had done were fixed on his own so as a veteran, he said it’s unfair for rising comedians to experience the same.
“I went through the experience of agents disappearing and not being paid for shows. So I want to share with fellow young comedians to tell them how it works. You might come across agents who do this, so here’s what you do to not let that stuff happen. No point having info like this and not sharing it,” said Harith.
Balancing The Fine Lines
Sometimes it’s difficult for people to distinguish the lines between a comedian’s act and how they are in real life. After all, if he’s funny on stage, shouldn’t the comedian be funny in real life too? If his stage persona is loud, most viewers assume that the comedian is the same offstage.
Harith said to avoid this, he separates his persona on stage with his real life personality by not changing himself but rather amping it up by a tenfold.
“The 30–45 minutes I’m on stage is very much confined to the stage. You won’t find me like that the other 23 hours of the day. But it’s authentic, I’m not putting on a character. You can’t technically say the comedian I play on stage isn’t me because all the stories I tell are connected to me but the persona is just amplified,” shared Harith.
He personally finds no pressure when leaving the stage and living his daily routine since there is no act to begin with. He finds that there is no worry that there would be any stigma against him that he’s so different off stage.
Right now, he’s just appreciative of the stage of his career that he’s at. “In a few more years, maybe no one would want to even take any photos with me so I make sure to enjoy it as much as I can for now,” said Harith.
Using His Voice
Harith is known to constantly inject his brand of humor with his social media postings. But what many don’t know is that he specifically constructs his social media to be that way. He agrees that setting limitations to his social media is important, so that he doesn’t cross any boundaries, which is quite easy for comedians to do.
“Social media is there forever. Once it’s up, you can take it down but it will remain online. As humans, we have constant shifting points of views so you might not think the same way in a few more days even,” said Harith.
So he makes sure to always imagine social media as a window for others to look at him and to only portray the side of him that he wants people to know.
“I don’t use social media to update people about what I do. Similarly, I wouldn’t want people to know everything in my heart and mind. I’m a little bit old school that way. You should share those only with close friends, not the entire world. I understand why people do it but I don’t think it’s a life goal to share everything to everyone,” said Harith.
There are past things he has posted that he regrets because he believes that information is always new.
“The trouble now is every time you hear, see or read something, you share it without verifying the source. Nowadays, I don’t share something until I’m sure its validity. That’s how I avoid controversy,” said Harith.
Harith shares his upcoming plans to travel to the states for the next month as part of his duties as the recipient for funniest person in the world award. He’s also working on a 2-year plan to bring his brand name there and grow it further.
Other plans down the road include shooting a 4 episode comedy and travel series where he will take foreign comedians around Malaysia to show the beauty and humour of our country in order to promote Malaysia further.
“When I was in L.A, they were excited to hear about KL. The Americans were blown away that firstly, I’m Malaysian, secondly, where the hell is Malaysia and thirdly, how come a comedian from Malaysia won? There’s really a lot of interest in this region so I’m glad I’m able to help spread it further,” said Harith.
Harith’s next show in Malaysia is the Kuala Lumpur International Comedy Festival happening from the 21st to 23rd of April. For more information, you can head on over to this site to get the details.
Feature Image Credit: astrogempak.com