Consider context, authorities told after stand-up performance axed

Comedian Harith Iskander says comedy mirrors societal issues, and may render innocuous statements controversial at a later time.

(FMT) – Comedian and actor Harith Iskander has called on the authorities to show a better understanding of comedy by considering the context in which comedians base their jokes on.

Harith said comedy often serves as a mirror to societal issues. What may not have been controversial previously can become sensitive later, he added.

He said that even he has had to stop doing certain routines he would have performed five years ago.

“Stand-up comedy is all about context in the moment.

“And a premise that might have been hilarious to me then might not have the same effect on me today,” he told FMT.

Harith was commenting on the last-minute cancellation of a scheduled performance by Singaporean comic Sharul Channa following police reports on a video clip of a stand-up routine from 2018 which allegedly touched on a 3R (religion, royalty and race) issue.

The video in question, a snippet from “Comedy Central: Stand Up Asia 2”, showed Sharul talking about the Malaysian authorities sending “content police” to ensure her material did not touch on alcohol or dogs.

Harith said while he respected the need for maintaining harmony and order, scrapping Sharul’s performance was “deeply concerning”.

He also called for dialogue on the need to balance between creative freedom and cultural respect.

Harith said instead of retroactively penalising artistes for their past work, the authorities should establish clearer guidelines and foster an environment where comedians can understand and navigate current sensitivities without fear of undue repercussions.

“Moving forward, we must strive for a fair approach that acknowledges past work while encouraging responsible and respectful humour in today’s context,” he said, adding that comedy has the power to bring people together and promote understanding.

Petaling Jaya MP Lee Chean Chung of PKR had said the last-minute cancellation of Sharul’s show ran contrary to Putrajaya’s pledge to make the Klang Valley a leading hub for arts and entertainment.

Lee said the cancellation would also create the impression that live performances can be called off any time the authorities receive police reports made against artistes.