The Godfather of Malaysian Stand-up, 51, on his Netflix special, Kevin Hart and memories of working on a certain Hollywood movie.
8 DAYS: Congrats! You’re the first comedian from Southeast Asia to have his own Netflix showcase, I Told You So. premiering this Friday (Jan 19). How often do you say that phrase?
HARITH ISKANDER: Actually, that came from my mum. I think every parent has that moment in their lives when they say to their child, “I told you so,” after telling them not to do something, and then the child goes and does it. I named my show I Told You So because now that I’m a parent myself, I’ve found myself saying that to my three kids, and I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m becoming my mum.”
How did this gig come about?
Netflix got in touch with me, and I was ecstatic because at that time I didn’t know Netflix had an office in Singapore. They asked whether I’d be interested in doing a stand-up comedy special. I had to think about it for a long time — about three-and-a-half seconds. It was a no-brainer; I’m already a Netflix subscriber and all I actually watch are the stand-up comedy specials. I believe in the power of intention and manifestation, [and to have my own special] was like the universe suddenly saying to me, “All right, go ahead, have your own.”
When did you shoot the special?
I think Netflix contacted me around April or May [last year], and I went down to Singapore and met with them a couple of times. I met the director of the show in KL as well as in Singapore, and we eventually shot it at the end of August in the HGH Convention Centre in KL. However, we were not allowed to reveal that it was a Netflix special to the audience. So when I marketed the show, I just said, “I’m shooting a TV comedy special, come and watch it.” But really, it was very hard to keep it under my hat because most of the comedians I watched came out and said, “Hey, you’re here on my Netflix special!” They’d announce it at the beginning of their shows, but I couldn’t do that (laughs).
For the special, did you do anything differently from your regular shows? Like, you’re more conscious about your appearance?
Fortunately, I’m always dressed in suits when I do a show, so wardrobe wasn’t an issue. However, Netflix being Netflix, and because this is a global release, they still needed to know what was going on to happen on the show. They asked for the script for vetting. But what was good was that when I asked Netflix, “Hey, should I aim my show at an American audience?” They said, “No, Harith, just be yourself, we’ve chosen you for who you are, do what you do, and there will be an audience somewhere in the world for you.” So I was very grateful for that. I wasn’t customising it for any particular audience — it’s just me being me. But Netflix, being an American company, is a lot more stringent than we are in Asia about copyright materials. So there are various things I could say in Malaysia, but in America they’d say, “Oh, we don’t have the rights for that.”
You’re called the Godfather of Malaysian Stand-up, and you probably have tons of younger comedians eager to open for you. But if you could open for someone else, who would it be??
My current favourite is Kevin Hart. I’ve watched his shows and read his book [I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons]. I’m a big fan of his, and his comedy style is actually fairly close to mine. I’m a storyteller. I don’t tell jokes per se, because I grew up on Eddie Murphy and he’s a huge stand-up and storyteller who could tell one story for 12 minutes, and that's very much Kevin Hart’s style as well. With a majority of American comedians, they set up a joke, and then drop the punchline. So if I had a chance to open for someone, it would be Kevin Hart. Not to perform in front of his audience per se, but just an excuse to meet him as well.
Speaking of stories, have you thought about writing a memoir? And what would you call it?
I’m actually in the process of writing a book, but it’s not really a memoir. It’s [a collection] of my observations, or, basically, my stand-up comedy, except you’re reading it. But if I were to write a memoir, I would call it something like, Do What You Love, Love What You Do. Because that’s what I’ve been doing for 27 years now. I can safely say that I haven’t worked a day in my life. It is work, but I don’t get up going, “(fakes groans) Oh, I got to go to work.” I’m doing what I love, and that’s the most blessed thing about my life.
In interviews, you are rarely asked about Anna and the King, the King Mongkut biopic starring Chow Yun Fat and Jodie Foster, where you played the king’s bodyguard. What are your memories making that movie?
I had a great experience. It was Hollywood. It was 1999. Hollywood came to Ipoh, Malaysia. The treatment we got was pure Hollywood. Compared to the Malaysian TV productions, it was miles ahead. So I was just basking in the glamour of being treated like a Hollywood actor, which was really amazing. Everything you can imagine, it’s 10 times bigger than that. I had my own room in the hotel. I had a driver picking me up. And I wasn’t even playing a big part.
Your character did blow up a bridge...
I’ll give you an anecdote that you’ll love. That bridge was in Ipoh, and the explosion was in Ipoh. But the part where I was running along the river, hiding behind the rock, pulling the detonating cord — that was in Sacramento, California (laughs). I know! They’d already shot the whole movie but instead of keeping the whole crew there to shoot me for one day, [the producers thought] it was cheaper to fly me to California to shoot that scene.
I Told You So is on Netflix.
Main Photo: @johansopiee