How to be funny by Kuah Jenhan
KUALA LUMPUR, May 16 — Watching Kuah Jenhan getting nervous is not something expected of a celebrated stand-up comedian. But there he stood, apprehensive in front of a few teenagers as he coached them in an hour-long workshop on being funny.
“I was more nervous than everyone else — I know I’m going to ruin their lives, but I want to ruin it correctly!” he jokes later, adding that he’s never coached anyone before, let alone teens. “I’m a stand-up comedian, and it’s a very structured craft. There is a premise, and there is a punch, and it’s hard to explain all these umbrella terms to them.”
Kuah was conducting the first Haha Mini Workshop, done in conjunction with the PJ Laugh Fest 2012. The month-long event also features performances by Kuah and other local comedians Papi Zak, Andrew Netto and Phoon Chi Ho.
The hour-long workshop, conducted by a roster of comedians, had Kuah introducing teenagers to a set of improv games to lighten the mood and get them laughing. Which then begs the question: Can one teach other people how to be funny?
“Structure can be taught, but humour is dependent on how observant a person is,” Kuah says. “Many people say comedy comes from a sad place, which is true to a certain extent, because things like sadness, heartbreak... those are things that everyone can relate to.”
But comedy, he says, is more than self-deprecation and poking fun at others. “Comedy works because people can relate, and when you share this story and craft it well, it’s then that people would go ‘damn, I know how this feels like’,” he says.
Laugh out of graft
Though comedy can be made into a profession — as Kuah has done with corporate shows, solo performances, and box-office sellouts — it’s not an easy one. Especially when one spends up to months crafting out material for a 20-minute set, and then get criticised a month later for recycling the same jokes.
“Part of the reason why that happens is because the pool of audience isn’t big enough,” Kuah says. “In Australia, a solid one-hour set is worked on for over a year, and can last comedians for six to seven years because the circuit is just so big. In the US, an hour can last for decades.
“Over here, I perform one show, and one month later, at least half of them coming to see me are the same faces,” he says. But in some ways, he adds, it’s a blessing in disguise because it forces him to write new material every day, and acutely observe things that would otherwise go unnoticed.
“The thing about comedy in Malaysia is that it exists everywhere,” he says. “At the mamak, every table is a comedy club; people exchange stories all the time there. The only difference in a stand-up show is one person stands up, the rest sit down — but few people notice it.”
For Kuah, the core of his comedy stems from being honest and relatable. “People can tell when you’re being dishonest. Comedy is about having a conversation with the audience. I don’t have politics, sex and religion in my jokes, not because I want to stay clean, but because I feel I don’t know enough about these topics,” he says.
It helps that YouTube now is teaching and inspiring many amateur comedians about the craft of making people laugh. However, Kuah advises, one should view them with the context that veterans such as Russel Peters and Jerry Seinfeld have honed their skills over years.
“What you’re watching is 20 years in the works,” he says. “You can’t immediately pull that swagger off, and you’re not staying true to yourself. What they should learn is how they structure their jokes, and how they acknowledge the crowd.”
Kuah Jenhan will be performing “But Why?”, a solo stand-up comedy performance on May 26 and 27 at the PJ Live Arts Centre in Jaya One. The Haha Mini Workshop for teens is conducted every Saturday during May from 12-1pm (admission is free). Click here for information on ticket prices, and the schedule of shows.