Last month alone, funny man Dr. Jason Leong had performed at the Melbourne International Comic Festival and sold out several shows. He’s performed in India, Manila, Penang, Melbourne, Sydney, Singapore, Hong Kong and all across Malaysia. Jason has also appeared on Comedy Central Asia and won the title ‘Comedian of the Month’.
Those are just some of his many accomplishments. The homegrown Malaysian talent is consistently testing and outperforming himself and we see that clearly in his brand-new stand-up special Ambitious. If Jason’s track record hasn’t enticed you yet, be ready for new material more polished and fine-tuned than anything he’s done before.
The Daily Seni had the chance to sip coffee and talk to the man of the hour himself and sit in on the premiere of Ambitious at the Temple of Fine Arts in KL. We wanted to learn more about who he is and how that translated into his show. For longtime fans of his work or even newbies to the world of Malaysian comedy, we’ll fill you in on how his energy and personality work themselves into his routine, his disdain for people who show off their business class flights and Jason’s surprisingly serious approach to crafting jokes that soon become crowd favourites.
The Funnyman’s Heart
Since he was practicing his housemanship, Jason knew he was meant for bigger, funnier things. His philosophy has always been to work incredibly hard at what you want, so he started practicing this years ago when he did his first gig back when he was still interning at Penang General Hospital. At Zouk KL, 2010, he participated at a monthly open mic show, took leave to drive down and perform, “and ever since then I never looked back. I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.” Dr Jason Leong injects much of himself and his life into his shows, so before you attend another one of his sell-outs, how about we introduce the person behind all that personality?
What would you consider your favourite thing about performing stand-up comedy?
It’s really the instant feedback! You just know you’ve landed a good punchline or joke when the audience instantly lets you know. They reciprocate with laughter and that enjoyment is highly addictive. It’s like an adrenaline rush or my way of chasing a high.
I like that simplicity in humour, that people all around the world can just break the ice by telling jokes or just have people laugh along with you. It’s a good way to communicate things to your audience but laced with humour and entertainment. And of course, on stage, it’s all of that but amped up.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations?
I believe George Carlin is the best comedian that has ever lived. He was a philosopher, poet and comedian, all things that were way ahead of his time. Paul Ogata is also the funniest person I’ve ever seen live on stage. G.B. Labrador from the Philippines (who is often cited as a favourite among Malaysian comedians) is running a movement now called Comedy Manila which is revolutionising stand-up comedy in the Philippines. Locally, we have Rizal van Geyzel who runs the Crackhouse Comedy Club and his hard work ethic must be applauded, along with all his raw talent. He is a phenomenal comedian to watch.
There are also plenty of non-stand-up comedians that I look up to like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Key & Peele. I try to draw from these artists in the ways I diversify myself. I enjoy writing sketches or videos. Every time I start a project, I think about how all these people would go about doing this too?
What has been the most meaningful part of making comedy to you?
I’ve been able to make it a career of my own, being a full-time comedian. If you travel around the world, you can see that it’s a much tougher market to break into especially in more mature markets like the US or Australia. Malaysia’s comedy industry is still in infancy so I could break in pretty early and that freedom has allowed me to evolve my humour and performance, all while paying the bills.
You mentioned Malaysia’s comedy industry is still in “infancy”. How would you describe Malaysia’s comedy industry in contrast to other international markets?
The stand-up comedy scene in Southeast Asia and Asia in general exploded around the same time, around 6-7 years ago. All these comedians found themselves growing up at the same time ever since Russell Peters went viral on Youtube, it was like Asians could look at that and go, “Oh, we can be funny too!” However, a major difference between us and other countries is that where other places like the Hong Kong market would be made up of transient crowds like expats and tourists, our Malaysian stand-up shows are made up of mostly Malaysians. This allows Malaysian comedians to grow famous among our own people, real homegrown talent and develop their performances and jokes.
Our locals also speak fairly good English compared to other markets, which lets us develop an international comedy set and appeal. Manila has created really good growth in their comedy shows but they perform mostly in Tagalog-English or in India where the performers speak in Hindi. While this is great for natives, our skill in English allows other countries to understand our comedy too. I believe this is unknowingly our greatest advantage.
Singapore also has this advantage but you know, Malaysians just have a better sense of humour.
How do you think the recent political changes will affect your comedy and will there be certain topics we can expect to hear?
Before GE14, there was a climate of fear where comedians tiptoed around certain issues. That fear has now lifted and more comedians are venturing out and doing jokes that are more politically charged. It’s great now because they’re all about the people who aren’t in power anymore! It’s crazy to know we have the freedom to satirise the people in power now too.
Does your distinctly Malaysian humour get in the way of your international performances? If so, how do you switch up your style?
I’m very conscientious about making jokes that aren’t so rooted in Malaysian tropes or stereotypes when I perform internationally. When I perform in Melbourne or Sydney, I talk about things that are uniquely me – my background as a doctor, why I quit medicine, my disdain at people who show off their business class flights. Once I started talking about these more universal topics, people start resonating with my ideas better. Having said that though, after the recent election there has been an overabundance of material. I have to call it out there and it puts in at least an additional 10 minutes’ worth of great material in my shows.
Behind the Punchlines
What is your process like when you craft your jokes? What are the biggest things you look for?
There’s a lot of observation involved. I like to see what happens and then test it out. It sounds very simple but it’s one of the biggest and best career moves I made this year. I put up a work-in-progress type of test show and I did about 3 of those earlier this year. I wrote whatever I wanted to write for the performance and charged a very low fee for anyone who wanted to attend this 1-hour test show, just to see if my material could fly.
Immediately, the rate of creating new jokes increased because I could now test everything. Other stand-up shows are like 7 minutes long and it’s not enough for you to test out your material. Some other shows require about 30 minutes of you trying to build up rapport or good will with your audience before you delve into the material so at least these test shows really helped me develop my work.
My jokes are never really finished but I wanted them to be more precise, better than what they’ve been before. Before embarking on all my shows this year, I decided to perform a good chunk of it in Melbourne and Sydney. I did about 26 shows and this really helped hone and tweak my material to its finest. There were some parts that I found funny and other materials I found even funnier throughout all these shows.
If you had full creative control and the opportunity to do so, what kind of projects (comedic or otherwise) do you see yourself working on?
I’m actually hoping to sell this show to Netflix which is why it will be filmed throughout. Hopefully, it turns out well but if not I have a few ideas. I’m actually very interested in directing a thriller drama series about 1MDB. The whole story from Najib’s, Tun Mahathir’s and Anwar’s roles in it as well as the way the whole story unfolded for the citizens. I truly believe it would be such an awesome story to tell people and hey! We can release it in 2020 too!
The Good, the Bad and The Not-So-Ugly: The Review of Ambitious
Watching his show Ambitious, it is clear to see how, even in conversation we learn things about Jason that he enjoys performing onstage, exaggerating it for the audience’s entertainment. And it worked! His show kicked off with an excellent “additional 10 minutes” of political satire that starts on a relatable note, with Najib’s and Rosmah’s arrest as the all too familiar punchline. He gathers the audience closer in jokes about the 1MDB scandal, highlighting its humour even in the tragedy and the whole “I have no idea how this happened stance” of all the politicians responsible.
While these jokes were familiar BECAUSE of how often Malaysians have made the same jokes about our politics, it could come off repetitive and leave you wondering if this would be it for the rest of the show. While Jason makes sure to keep it enjoyable with his distinct Malaysian style of exaggerating just HOW Chinese he is and how STUPID a lot of people are can be, it has the tendency to come off as grating sometimes. Solid political satire in his material is sometimes held back in order to deliver a punchline about how Chinese he and Lim Guan Eng are which is…funny stuff but not Dr Jason Leong at his best.
Yet he makes clear that he is a versatile man, and proves it as his show progresses, giving us a wider range of material and fun perspectives on the crazy things that happen in his life. We don’t know for sure if he has actually gotten out of speeding tickets by wearing his stethoscope and lying about an emergency surgery, we can’t tell if he was mistreated by New Zealanders because they have a problem of “their Chinese tourists shitting on the floor” and we’re uncertain if he really does hate people who show off their business class flight tickets. We don’t know but that’s not the point! The point is that it is truly hilarious work, and his endearing jokes about his wife, his ‘medical description’ of how much more giving birth hurts than getting kicked in the balls and his stabbing punchlines at traditional medicine had the audience roaring in laughter. There is a universal quality to these jokes that only get better as the show goes on. This is because there are plenty of potential for callbacks to some of our favourite punchlines (which he utilises faithfully). Where he starts clunky and predictable, Jason only gets better as the latter parts of his show stay fresh and trope-free.
Audiences may go in ready to criticise, as many audiences do. And there will surely be things to criticise, if you force yourself to look harder at it. But Dr Jason Leong’s Ambitious in KL is a ride that you should let yourself sit back and laugh out loud at. Do away with your pretensions and poke fun at the hilarity of our own Malaysian society, something that the comedian observes with a very cynical eye. While the stand-up did start off with rehashed punchlines that we would have heard in this day and age of ‘woke Malaysians’ on Twitter, it is progressively more engaging with frequent call-backs and his ability to work material off of engaging with the audience. It’s a skill that we can see Jason has practiced tirelessly and makes us look forward to his newest projects, whatever boat he sails on next.
Dr. Jason Leong manages to manouevre around tropes and give his own fresh take on things – most of the time. But the time in which he performs best is when the premise of his jokes is really about him as an individual. The social commentary or observations are funny, but slightly falls short of the ambitious standards he’s put on himself. However, like any true Malaysian – he’s on his way there.
Featured image credit: All Is Amazing
Follow Dr. Jason Leong on Facebook for updates on his upcoming shows and clips of his stand-up!
The interview with Dr. Jason Leong happened before the staging of Ambitious in KL