By Mohani Niza
Behind the curly hair, a pair of glasses as well as a charming ukulele that usually accompanies her performances, 24-year-old Malaysian singer-comedian Hannan Azlan is sharply hilarious and leaves almost no topic spared from her quick wit.
At one show in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia in September this year, Hannan had the audience in stitches when she cracked jokes about mat rempits (motorcycle hooligans common in the streets of Malaysia) and her dysfunctional family! And Singapore. Poor Singaporeans!
This is not to say she is mean.
“If you’re asking me if there’s stuff that shouldn’t be joked about I think it depends on how you do it. Intention and execution is everything. In comedy we talk about “down punch” and “up punch”. Who is the victim in the joke?” she told The Culture Review Mag.
Hannan relies mostly on spontaneity when it comes to material. “Most of my jokes come to me whenever they feel like. My favourite new joke came to me 5 minutes before I was due on stage,” she said. “I also do improvise when I’m on stage. Not all shows, but sometimes I go up with literally nothing and come up with songs on the spot.”
It is the sort of charm that attracts fellow comedians like Juliana Heng (also known as “Quirky Juliana”), 29, who told The Culture Review Mag: “Hannan’s crowd-working is superb as she is able to connect with the audience very quickly. The audience feels that they are part of the show too. No two shows are the same, every show is a memorable experience for the audience,” adding that Hannan’s jokes are “real, relevant and relatable.”
Cat Brogan, 34, an English and drama teacher from Ireland who works in Malaysia, told The Culture Review Mag: “As an aspiring comedian with a poetry background of over a decade, Azlan teaches me how to bring together the disparate threads of genres to be fully vulnerable and unashamedly yourself while playing with characters.”
Hannan grew up in the Malaysian cities of Ampang and Kuching. At the moment, she is based in France where she attends a small theatre school called the Ecole Philippe Gaulier which is headed by the infamous Mr. Philippe Gaulier (his past students include Sacha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter).
This cosmopolitan background adds to the richness of her jokes.
“Culture plays quite a big role in stand-up. I do have to adjust some references to suit the audience,” Hannan said. “There are some jokes I can only tell in Australia, some jokes I can only tell in KL. It keeps it fresh. I learnt to be versatile and sensitive to the audience.”
She added: “In Asia audiences are quite diverse, we usually have a mix of locals and international people in the crowd. I have to say there is a great pleasure in telling very local Malaysian jokes that I can’t tell anywhere else. I often come up with them while I’m abroad and eagerly wait till I’m back in KL to tell them. Certain themes such as love, heartbreak, death resonate with everyone.”
Performing on-stage in Malaysia and globally
Hannan did a few youth theatre programs as a teenager but never attended university.
“This is how I got my start – my third ever stand-up gig, I did my funny songs. This got the attention of the comedy club and I got my first paid gig that weekend. I did many, many weekend shows and at all the open mics in KL. Did my first TV spots, got chosen for my first international festival show in Singapore, saved up money to compete in Hong Kong.”
After that win, an article about it went viral and secured Hannan more shows. She got sponsored by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2018 and made her Australian TV debut on ABC’s Comedy Up Late.
So far, she has performed in 19 cities across Asia, Australia, Great Britain and Europe.
First female winner of the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition
That competition in Hong Kong was called the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition and Hannan became the first woman to win it.
The title is not something she is totally comfortable with, though. “I’ve struggled with gender identity for a while now so I’m not so sure how I feel about being the first “woman” to win, I really don’t,” she said, “I’m the “youngest” winner of the competition. That feels kind of good but also kind of superficial – the world is so obsessed with youth it’s a bit unhealthy in my opinion.”
“I got really depressed after I won. It was a lot of attention and pressure, I don’t think I was ready for it,” Hannan said.
Behind the light-heartedness, Hannan said she suffered severe depression as a child. “I stopped going to school, didn’t leave the house, hated myself and treated myself badly.”
However, she said: “I think that experience has made me empathetic and sensitive to other peoples’ struggles. It was definitely a humbling experience. I’m better now. Not cured, but definitely better. I still struggle but I’m much kinder to myself. All the behind the scenes work – the writing, the saving up money, the crying, are the stuff people don’t really see.”
She spoke of her struggles further: “A lot of comedians or artists or people, in general, go through hard, hard times. It sounds cliché but being broken down and built up again makes us stronger people,” Hannan said, adding that she is grateful to have a career doing something that she loves.
She said: “I didn’t and don’t do shows because I want to “win” competitions, I do them because I love performing and connecting with audiences. That’s all I can focus on at the end of the day. My health and my art.”
Hannan wrote on her website that she has played at clubs, theatres, festivals, family-friendly shows and even a BDSM street-fair.
“[The event’] was Folsom Berlin in 2017, I believe. It’s predominantly a gay man’s fetish festival. It was a pretty tough gig to be honest – it was outdoors, and that’s the nemesis of stand-up comedy, outdoor gigs. but I had fun and the audience was receptive! I did a very short set, maybe 8 minutes but I had fun and got invited to some private BDSM parties after,” she joked mischievously.