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George Town Festival 2019: An Interview with Kavin Jay and Friends


PENANG, MALAYSIA – According to Malaysian comedian Kavin Jay, Penang is his second favourite place to perform in Malaysia, after KL. “I love performing here in particular because of the Penangnite sense of humour,” he says. “They’re always so appreciative of everything that comes their way, compared to people in KL who can be a bit spoilt. And we connect on that level.”

It’s perfect then, that the star of recent Netflix special Kavin Jay: Everybody Calm Down!, and ‘Malaysia’s grumpiest comedian’ ended up headlining comedy club Funny Business with their virgin foray in the George Town Festival. Joined by fellow comedians Brian Tan, Mike Saddi, Nuha and Jhonney Athie, Kavin Jay and Friends saw a sold out two show run at the 2019 edition of the festival, playingat the Soundmaker Studio in the final week of the festival.

Personally invited by Funny Business to perform at the show, Kavin’s lineup marks a change for the festival with the introduction of more comedy acts, following Singaporean icon and comedian Kumar at the 2018 edition. Says Kavin: “While Kumar was the one who started the ball rolling last year, it’s still an honour for me to be a part of the Festival this year. The George Town Festival used to feel like a very upmarket, hoity toity festival. But to give a ‘low market’ art form like stand-up a chance to be presented, there’s something very brave and wonderful that’s it’s being legitimised as a viable form. It’s also very encouraging that we ended up being sold out for both nights, something no one could have foreseen!”

Speaking on the changes the scene has seen in recent years, Kavin explains: “Years ago, comedy was looked upon as the pariah, as dirty and unsavoury. But if you think about it, it’s actually the art of the people, something that’s just more accessible to more people, something even the everyday person selling char kway teow can relate to because it’s just so relevant to all os society. Of course, it’s still growing at this point in time, but I do think that at some point, Malaysians really will end up choosing to stay in town and watch a local show, rather than constantly travelling overseas to find an international comedian to watch.”

“It’s amazing that I’m here today because years ago, being able to get up onstage and perform comedy was just something to tick off my bucket list. But now it’s become my life – the reason I wake up in the morning, and how I make a living to feed the family,” he adds. “A few years ago I never would have imagined this could be a full time job, and thought there was no way Malaysians would come pay money to watch someone who wasn’t Harith Iskandar. But now, it’s seeing this resurgence as a viable source of income. It was so unexpected that Netflix came to Malaysia of all places to scout for material for comedy specials, because even I didn’t know there was a Malaysian market. But then it happened to Harith, and the whole community got so excited because hey, it could happen to any of us! It’s definitey changed the game for the industry, and made sure that it’s now an actual, viable option for future would-be comedians.”

But promotion of local talent continues to be a problem to Kavin, and he believes it’s still not getting the support it needs, be it in terms of funding, audiences or marketing. “The media is problematic these days, because they’re using the news to help themselves get eyeballs,” he says. “There’s a lot of bias and prejudice going on that’s evident even in places like TV stations, where they won’t sell ads on local programmes as opposed to international ones. They act like they’re doing you a huge favour when you need your show to get marketed. There needs to be a symbiotic relationship between arts and the media, and really, they should do more to promote and support their own country’s arts scene.”

“I genuinely enjoy being a comedian, whether it’s at the festival or even an open mic, mostly because I just want to stand up and perform,” he adds. “To this day, at the age of 39, my parents still can’t accept that this is what I do, constantly breathing down my neck and asking me how I’m doing all of this. Parents from their generation tend not to appreciate comedy as an art form, just like how when I told my mother I wanted to learn culinary arts, she just said ‘you wanna help me in the kitchen when I cook is it?’ I want to show people that yes, it’s a viable industry, and to reverse the backward Asian thinking that a child is either a doctor, lawyer, engineer or disappointment.”

On whether he hopes his own child will follow in his footsteps, Kavin shares: “When we went to Kidzania, every other kid was going up to be a doctor or firefighter, but my daughter went straight to the mic, picked it up and started talking. Now, at the age of 6, she’s started taking an interesting in dance, so she’s very into the arts. When some people came up to me to ask for autographs, my daughter asked my wife why they were doing that, and my wife answered that I was famous. My daughter’s eyes widened, and she said she wanted to be famous too. As much as possible, I want to be able to help her achieve her dreams once she’s serious about what she wants to do.”

As a comedian doing live, unscripted interactions, the potential pitfalls one could face are incredibly huge. While he does get it right most of the time and manages to pick the right audience member to ‘hamtam’, there are moments he does encounter awkward moments: “Reading the audience is very hit and miss. Once in India, I made a joke about my dad, and I pointed to this one guy and asked him ‘hey! Is your dad like that too?’ and the guy answered ‘Oh, I don’t have a dad.’ It happens, and a comedian’s skill is then dependent on how they can turn that awkward energy back into comedy. There’s no formula, and all of this really just comes from training and experience.”

The life of a comedian certainly isn’t an easy one, especially as one has to continually conceive new material each and every day, something few friends or family can put up with. Elaborating on this phenomenon, Kavin elaborates: “Ever since I started comedy, all of my friends have become comedians. We share an affinity, mostly because normal people can’t stand the idea of us constantly testing new material on them, and never being able to have a normal conversation or just eat their dinner in peace. So comedians understand each other and all the things that we go through both onstage and offstage, and it’s a very close knit community, almost like a family. I hang with them after shows, then when I wake up I end up meeting them again and work on developing my material while we write together. It’s really just something that’s taken over my life.”

Comments fellow comedian Nuha: “We’re so proud to be working with a star like Kavin. We’re hanging here and it feels like we’ve known each other a long time already, where every comment is a joke and the laughs and warm feelings come so easily.”

Adds comedian Jhonny Athie: “It’s great to work alongside this team and really craft a good comedy show together. I’ve been learning a lot about the production that goes into it, and it helps that the four of us think along the same lines, so it’s more often smooth than not.” 

On how to dispel bad energy one might bring from a bad day to the stage, comedian Brian Tan explains: “A professional comedian is able to separate his personal life from his work life. You shouldn’t bring negative energy onstage with you, but if you do a good show, by all means take that positive energy offstage and into your life after. Stand-up is never a way to have a semi-therapy session with the audience as your therapist.”

For Mike Saddi, comedy ended up being a form of escapism and respite from his 9-5. “My day job is as a software engineer,” he says. “So honestly, I need comedy as my form of release, instead of being parked in front of a computer all day long. It’s amazing how you go up onstage and talk about the most mundane things, like whether clothes fit or something stupid that happens at work, and if the crowd eats it up, you feel on top of the world.”

With how much his career has skyrocketed over the last few years, where then does Kavin go from here? “I’m not really a goal setting type of person,” he says. “I’m currently in the midst of planning a couple of tours, but if anything, I really do want to bring the Malaysian brand of comedy and introduce a couple of our brightest talents to the world, and just make them laugh.”

“This is my life now. I can’t give up comedy, because I’ve stopped being able to get up at 9am or willing myself to get to an office. Back when I was still an engineer, comedy ended up being my place of respite, my happy hour and my home away from home,” Kavin concludes. “Comedy is the kind of thing that brings everyone together – you might be upper class, you might be working class, but the issues we talk about, well, everyone can relate to them. That’s how the art of the people works, and why so many people end up liking comedy more than ‘high art’, and slowly but surely making its way into society.”

Funny Business with Kavin Jay and Friends played at the Soundmaker Studio on 20th and 21st July 2019 as part of the 2019 George Town Festival.

George Town Festival 2019 ran from 13th to 28th July 2019.

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