What happens during open mic comedy night, and why it’s important for stand-up comics

·6-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, July 16 — The country’s stand-up comedy scene was thrown into the national spotlight following public ire against a routine by a woman during an open mic session at local institution Crackhouse Comedy Club which was deemed as insulting Islam after it went viral on social media.

The woman has since pleaded not guilty to a charge of causing disharmony and hatred, and similarly her boyfriend who was charged with using social media to promote and upload content meant to insult the public.

However, Crackhouse remains temporarily shut down, with Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) claiming that the venue only has a licence for serving food and beverages, but not for entertainment.

Furthermore, the co-owner of Crackhouse was arrested and remanded over two videos recorded at the club that were allegedly of a racially sensitive nature, as the inflamed public dug up old materials related to the venue.

He has since been released, but Islamist groups are adamant in calling for the venue to be permanently shut down

In the past week, a number of local comedians have said they hoped Crackhouse would be allowed to reopen soon, as they said it is a scarce and important platform for nurturing talent in what is admittedly still a budding industry here in Malaysia.

Was Crackhouse to blame for the allegedly offensive routine? Did they know what will be performed during an open mic night? What happens in such events anyway?

Malay Mail spoke to three stand-up comics to understand what an open mic comedy night is, how it works, and why it is important to the industry.

Harith Iskander said open mics are perfect for budding and even established comics to gauge audiences’ reactions to one’s routines. — Picture by Azninuddin Ghazali
Harith Iskander said open mics are perfect for budding and even established comics to gauge audiences’ reactions to one’s routines. — Picture by Azninuddin Ghazali

Harith Iskander said open mics are perfect for budding and even established comics to gauge audiences’ reactions to one’s routines. — Picture by Azninuddin Ghazali

Open mics — short for open microphones — are a global phenomenon where any person interested in any arts is allowed onto a stage to perform.

While some open mic organisers allow for any type of art to be performed at their venue, oftentimes, open mics are dedicated to a specific art such as an open mic music night, poetry night, or comedy night.

Though its exact roots are hard to track, studies have documented that in the United States, open mics have existed since the early 20th century, which were hosted on radio shows at the time.

In Malaysia however, according to veteran local comedian Harith Iskander, open mic nights, especially those dedicated to comedy, are comparatively recent occurrences.

Harith said there are two established comedy clubs that host open mic comedy nights in Kuala Lumpur — one being Crackhouse, which opened in 2014, and the other being Joke Factory, which Harith himself owns and opened in 2018.

“Open mic basically means that the mic is open to anyone who wants to go on stage,” Harith told Malay Mail.

Want to know whether your jokes are actually funny? Open mics are perfect for budding and even established comics to gauge audiences’ reactions to one’s routines, Harith said.

“You can sing in your bathroom or studio, you can perfect your pitch, and when it is perfect go in front of an audience. But for comedians, the only way to practice stand-up comedy is to do it in front of an audience,” he explained.

For example, in Harith’s Joke Factory, open mic nights are held every Tuesday, where participants are given three minutes each to complete their set of jokes.

Dr Jason Leong said the audience who show up for open mic comedy are usually fully aware that they are there to see first-timers perform, or unpolished acts from established comedians. — Picture by Razak Ghazali
Dr Jason Leong said the audience who show up for open mic comedy are usually fully aware that they are there to see first-timers perform, or unpolished acts from established comedians. — Picture by Razak Ghazali

Dr Jason Leong said the audience who show up for open mic comedy are usually fully aware that they are there to see first-timers perform, or unpolished acts from established comedians. — Picture by Razak Ghazali

Doctor-turned-comic Jason Leong said he first tried his hands on stand-up comedy during an open mic in 2010. Leong said getting a chance to perform is often as simple as dropping one’s name into a hat.

“Nobody asked me what my set was, or about my experience. They just saw my name and said, ok lah, try, five minutes,” he related of his first-time performing in an open mic.

Leong added however back then, the local stand-up comedy scene was not established and as such he had to wait a few days or weeks after submitting his name before he was put on stage.

“Nowadays, depending on the organiser, first-timers can get put on the night itself, because the very nature of open mic is to encourage new people to do stand-up,” he said, adding that some open mic organisers even set aside quotas for newcomers.

Leong added that the audience who show up for open mic comedy are also usually fully aware that they are there to see first-timers perform, or unpolished acts from established comedians — and therefore would be paying a lower fee compared to established routines.

Writer and stand-up comic Shamaine Othman told Malay Mail that a typical open mic night starts with a host first briefing the audience on what to expect, as there are going to be first-timers and “open-micers” trying out new material.

“The host will always get the audience to sort of be very supportive, especially to the first-timers. Because you want to give them a good experience that they come back and try open mic again.

“So it’s a very nurturing environment,” she said.

Shamaine Othman said a typical open mic night starts with a host first briefing the audience on what to expect, as there are going to be first-timers and ‘open-micers’ trying out new material. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Shamaine Othman said a typical open mic night starts with a host first briefing the audience on what to expect, as there are going to be first-timers and ‘open-micers’ trying out new material. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Shamaine Othman said a typical open mic night starts with a host first briefing the audience on what to expect, as there are going to be first-timers and ‘open-micers’ trying out new material. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

“As they get more popular, as the comedy club owners see that the audience really likes an open-micer, then they’ll get them to do perhaps the weekend show to open for headliners,” she said.

So how would a newcomer know if they are finally ready to be on an open mic? “The audience will let you know,” Shamaine replied.

She explained that when she first began at open mic nights, her jokes fell short with the audience a few times. “The silence was deafening,” she related.

With all eyes on Crackhouse now, Harith said he thinks the comedy club should not be blamed for the debacle as open mics themselves are “just a platform”.

“Open mic is basically a jamming studio for comedians. If a band goes into a jamming studio and happens to sing a song that is anti-religious, do you then close down the studio?” he asked.

Echoing Harith, Leong expressed his hope that Crackhouse will reopen soon, and stand-up comics can get back to what they do best: making people laugh.

“It’s unfair to punish many in the industry for the irresponsible actions of two individuals,” he said.

The offending routine in an open mic stand-up comedy slot in Crackhouse had the woman claiming to memorise half of the Quran, before she removed some of her clothes.

The man’s recording of her performance which saw her removing her headscarf and baju kurung to reveal a spaghetti strap top and mini skirt went viral, leading to the ire of many Muslims after it was reshared with the caption claiming that the routine had insulted Islam.

Crackhouse had then lodged a police report over the incident, and the duo were subsequently banned from the venue.

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