Say what you will about Netflix, one of the great things about the service is that it allows us easier access to films, shows and voices that the general public might not otherwise find. Kavin Jay is one of those voices. The Malaysian born comedian’s first Netflix special, Everybody Calm Down, was released earlier this month. Kavin talked to Chubstr about putting together the special, helping start the Malaysian standup scene, and where big Malaysian guys find their clothes.
How did the Netflix special come about? I’ve been doing comedy for 12 years in Malaysia and around Asia. I was kind of in the right place at the right time. They were looking for 3 comedians and they had already found two. I was opening for one of them in their special, and Netflix saw me and liked what I did so they asked me if I would like my own special. It was pretty much me trying to hide my excitement, like “oh, let me check my schedule.” I said yes straightaway and I had about a month to prepare.
Wow. A month isn’t very long to prepare. Did you feel a lot of pressure to get it right? There was a lot of pressure, but I had a couple of friends who helped me out. I just kept telling myself, at the end of this, you’re going to have a Netflix special. There were a few problems, one was that I had to shoot back to back with another comedian. He had gone first, then there was a background and lighting change, but it was the same audience. They had already been through one hour, then I had to come out and do another hour. That kind of freaked me out. Would they be tired, would they be laughed out? The audience was really great. They stuck in there with me for the duration of the performance.
You said you’ve been doing comedy for 12 years – how did you get started? I always wanted to do comedy. I lived in the UK for 5 years and I went to a lot of comedy shows. I always wanted to be in the arts, but I can’t sing and I can’t dance. When I came back to Malaysia, I decided I would try it out. Get 150 of my friends, put them in a pub and try to tell jokes. And, I failed miserably.
At that point in Malaysia, standup comedy wasn’t a thing. There was one comedian, Harith Iskander, who had a Netflix special as well. It was difficult for me because there were no open mics. There was nobody I could go to and ask for pointers. There were a few of us who banded together and just walked into pubs and did some guerrilla comedy. They weren’t ready for comedy, but we went in, got on stage and told some jokes anyway. It built character, in a lot of ways because the people in the pubs were regulars. They had been there since 5PM and were drunk out of their heads. They thought they were funnier than us. It was rough. The pub owners used to go up after us and just tell a bunch of internet jokes and just kill. [laughs] Which is completely wrong. You should never do internet jokes.
After about 2 years of doing that TimeOut Magazine in Kuala Lumpur decided to put on a monthly show. We were the backbone of that show and we started to get good stage time regularly. That ran for 5 years and when it shut down, I opened a weekly open mic show that grew. Now there’s 13 professional stand up comics in Malaysia and about 50 up and coming new ones.
It’s interesting that you were willing to go to these pubs and sort of create your own venues instead of waiting for someone else to give you the opportunity. It takes a lot to know that you love something so much that you’re just going to go out there and do it. Yeah! It’s one of those things where if I had waited, I would still be waiting. There would no open mic, no place that wanted comedy. We knew we had to take things into our own hands, organize shows and do some comedy. The thing is, we didn’t really know what comedy was. We didn’t know how good or bad we were. Friends would come up to us and say “hey, good job,” and you could see the lies in their eyes. We were pretty bad [laughs].
We learned by watching the greats: Robin Williams, Bill Hicks, those kind of guys. We thought that we could be them, but we didn’t realize that we needed to be ourselves. We kind of learned that along the way.
Another challenge is that Malaysian audiences are so used to skit-based comedy, which is quite popular here. They were not ready for standup, for people telling life stories on stage and it being funny. They didn’t realize this could be a form or art yet. We were educating the audiences as much as we were educating ourselves.
There are some big and tall shops here, but most of them are limited in what you can buy. Most of the time it’s just polo shirts, which was fine 10 years ago, you know? You don’t want to keep wearing polo shirts. It’s polo shirts and sweatpants. That’s all you can get here.
You do standup in a number of countries around the world. Do you find that you have to tailor your set to different audiences? By performing in so many places, I realized that the Malaysian sense of humor travels. There are a few jokes that I do that are very set into the culture and stereotypes of Malaysia that I can’t travel with, but pretty much everything else I can.
Last year I did the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is the biggest comedy festival in the world. I was worried about whether they would get my jokes and understand what I was saying. I realized that a joke’s a joke. They get the context and they go with it.
We’ve got to talk about your beard. It is majestic, my friend! It has a glorious sheen in your Netflix special. What kind of product do you use? I didn’t know it was going to shine like that! I use a beard oil that is a mixture of argan oil and coconut oil made by a friend of mine, called Beard.On. Just before the show, I might have overdone it a little bit with the oil, just to give it a little bit of a healthy shine. I didn’t realize in 4K it was going to shimmer like that. [laughs] When I saw the final cut I’m like “oh my god, why does my beard look like it’s been dusted with fairy dust?”
What’s it like finding clothing as a bigger guy in Malaysia? Are there a lot of options? No. It’s very hard. Going out and buying clothes is really hard. I walk into a shop like Topshop and I walk out empty-handed because the largest size they have is XL. It’s Asian XL, not American XL, not European XL, it’s Asian XL, which is much smaller. There are some big and tall shops here, but most of them are limited in what you can buy. Most of the time it’s just polo shirts, which was fine 10 years ago, you know? You don’t want to keep wearing polo shirts. It’s polo shirts and sweatpants. That’s all you can get here.
What I do is shop online in America. I buy online and get it shipped here. There are some places in Thailand where I can get things in my size because they cater to the tourists who travel there. I get most of my clothes from the internet and Thailand.
I live here in the U.S. and it’s the same way! You have to shop online because after a while, you get tired of walking into the stores and having them go “oh no, here we go again,” you know? Exactly! You know how shop associates will follow you around the store and offer to help you? I walk in with my wife and kid and they get hassled, but they just leave me alone.
Now that Everybody Calm Down is out, what’s next for you? To be fair, this [Netflix special] was very unexpected. This was the endgame. If you asked me 12 years ago where I wanted this comedy thing to go, I would have told you that I wanted me own special. Back then, it would have been HBO or Comedy Central, now it’s Netflix. I never thought it could be done, you know? But it happened. I had to go back and reevaluate what I wanted to do.
I want to tour the world. I’ve toured most of Asia, England, Australia. I want to come to the U.S. and do some shows. I’ve been getting a lot of love from the U.S., which I was not expecting. I’m also writing a few TV shows I’m trying to pitch to Netflix as well. Nothing’s confirmed yet, but fingers crossed. That’s probably where I am at the moment.
Catch Kavin Jay in his new Netflix special, Everybody Calm Down, available now.