‘Lawak Mantul’ and defying inter-ethnic assumptions

JULY 26 — Malay comedy has a pretty bad rap, even among most Malays. 

The jokes are either too slapstick or too tone-deaf, the laughter too forced, and the louder you shout the funnier the audience think you are.

In local stand-up comedy, comics who do their sets in English tend to be more established and popular. But this too has started to change, with the resurgence of comics who perform in Malay, such as the Cerita Malam Jumaat collective.

For many, there was a specific golden age of Malay-language comedy which coincidentally happened at a time when polarisation was less prominent and there was no need to pander to conservative sensitivities.

Many would agree that the 90s was this era, with gems such as sitcoms Pi Mai Pi Mai Tang Tu and 2+1, and sketch show Jangan Ketawa — which then ushered the era of comedy troupe Senario which dominated the early aughts. 

I especially had fond memories of Jangan Ketawa, and I think it was partly responsible for introducing me to bite-sized sketches.

On Friday night, I had a chance to relive that feeling with Lawak Mantul, a one-off performance produced and directed by Harith Iskander of The Joke Factory, who made his name in Jangan Ketawa. Joining him was drag actor Dee, who with the late Moon, were the shining stars of that same show.

Rounding up the cast of Lawak Mantul were up-and-coming stand up comics Filzah Azmi, Farid Azmeir, Anwar Hadi, Abe Latte, and Ajak of Shiro fame from Maharaja Lawak Mega (MLM).

The Shiro duo won MLM in 2018, and this reality show is important to understand the current landscape of Malay-language comedy.

Running for almost a decade on pay-TV broadcaster Astro, the show has become a commercial spectacle with its finalé combining music performances and aggressive product placements. 

And since popular vote plays an important part in determining the winner, comedy takes a back seat compared to self-deprecation, being as silly as possible and pandering to the status quo.

For example just last year, champion trio Puteh’s sketches were a mix of ringing endorsement for Shariah moral policing, and banking of public sympathy over the recent death of one of its members’ infant child.

In short, social commentary and “punching up” can be rare to find in mainstream Malay-language comedy.

This is where I found Lawak Mantul to be refreshing. (“Mantul” is a slang-portmanteau of “mantap betul” or roughly “damn awesome.”) Social commentary, particularly on ethno-religious issues and divide, was put front and centre. And it was unapologetic about it.

The show, which was also live-streamed on Zoom to some 500-plus audience around the country, presented six sketches on various topics including the Buy Malay-Muslim First campaign, to riding on religion in politics, to Arabisation of the Malay community.

One theme cropped up over and over again: on the Malays’ skewed perception of the minorities, and how perception supplants intent in worship.

The first sketch set the tone of the show: of two Muslim men, seemingly on their way to Friday prayers, complaining about non-Muslims “taking advantage” of the crowd to double park along the road together with other adherents rushing to the mosque.

The main message then was a reminder against casting aspersions and assuming one’s religious background by physical looks alone. 

But for me, the underlying message that was not implicitly mentioned was how religious obligations can turn one into an inconsiderate and selfish person — just look at the traffic chaos near mosques during Friday prayers in the past.

Lawak Mantul’s sketches were not always laugh-out-loud funny, but they were most surely uncomfortable most of the time. And I think this was by design. Speaking about ethnic relations is never easy — but couching it with laughter helps.

Speaking briefly to Malay Mail the next day, Harith said that the issue, especially involving the Malay community, has long been close to his heart. And this sentiment was shared by the scriptwriting team that included Muzakir Xynil, Mad Sabah, KC Nazari and Aisyah Tajuddin.

“I have always believed that comedy is a great tool for dealing with and addressing controversial issues or topics. Humour via looking at the absurdity of a situation is an effective, non-threatening way to deliver a message.

“People are less inclined to argue since they’re laughing,” he said.

The discomfort throughout Lawak Mantul ran both ways — it is particularly piercing if one is a racist, but there was a duller pain felt too even if you think of yourself as anti-racist.

Since a lot of the jokes are takes on racism, it inevitably required outbursts against the Chinese and Indian communities by antagonists, and sometimes the acts skirted too close to endorsing such vile behaviour, especially in one sketch that involved a racist refusing help from non-Malays.

Also regrettably, while the inclusion of Dee was one of the show’s highlights, a flamboyant drag regrettably invited transphobic jokes and sentiments from both cast and audience.

For me, the standout sketch was a no-holds-barred critique of Putrajaya’s decision to ban non-citizens from entering mosques during the Covid-19 pandemic, with guest star Prakash Daniel playing an emphatic role of a long-time migrant resident of a village treated as a second-class Muslim.

At the end of the sketch, his question rang before the stage turned dark: “Is this mosque for Malaysians or Muslims?”

This was an especially hard-hitting and powerful message to be played on the same day Bangladeshi national Md Rayhan Kabir was arrested by Immigration enforcers for criticising our treatment of migrants during the pandemic in an Al Jazeera documentary.

Rayhan will now be deported and permanently banned from entering this country. And amid fervent xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiments, playing this egalitarian message right into the heartland (or at least as close as you can get with a Zoom show) was nothing short of a brave calculated move.

Lawak Mantul got some laughs, but will it change anybody’s mind over how we see our fellow Malaysians? It may be too much to ask for that, but even if it had sowed some doubt to sway the public away from fascism and bigotry, it would have already been a mantul show indeed.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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