When Comedy Clashes with Abuse of Power, is it Time to Mourn the Loss of the Crackhouse?

It’s been a rough month or so following the news coming out of Malaysia from my friends. About 15 months ago, I was lamenting my nostalgia for Malaysia and the fact I’d lost touch with almost everyone I was friends with or knew back in the days I lived in the country. Since then, I reconnected with a bunch of folks, through video, voice, or text chat. I reached the point of looking forward to a time when I’d be able to fly back to Malaysia and reconnect in person (I think I wrote in that blog post that I didn’t think I ever would). That’s part of why the latest news has been hitting me so hard.

So, what’s the news? The first dedicated comedy club in Southeast Asia, the Crackhouse Comedy Club KL, which opened in 2014 and was co-run by comedian Rizal van Geyzel, has been declared permanently shut down, and the co-owners blacklisted from ever running any kind of business in Kuala Lumpur again. This is an obscene abuse of power, and there is no prior precedent for something like this happening. So much so that lawyers are condemning the decision.

Rizal van Geyzel performing at the Crackhouse Comedy Club, Oct 2021
(screenshot from a show broadcast over Zoom)

Since I rarely get any readers on my blog from Malaysia, I should probably back up and explain. I’m sure most, if not all of you might be wondering how something like this could happen. I mean, I lived in Malaysia for five-and-a-half years and I still thought this was extreme. But then, Malaysia also banned Lightyear and Thor: Love and Thunder from movie theatres for minor queer content this year, so if you’d heard about that, maybe you’d be thinking the ban hammer came down for promoting queer content. Well… no.

It all started when someone unknown to anyone in the Malaysian comedy scene took a slot at an open mic night at the Crackhouse Comedy Club. From my understanding, this woman was a known troublemaker in other arts spaces, and reportedly insulted Islam on stage as part of her “act.” Her partner recorded her “performance” and uploaded it to social media, which caused public outcry and backlash. These two people were arrested. Despite the fact that they had both been banned from the club prior to the video going viral on social media, the public was not happy and decided to go after the club and Rizal as well. People dug up old videos of Rizal’s, which led to police arresting him, too. Rizal plead not guilty to 3 counts of cyber crime, was released on bail, and, I believe, is still awaiting trial. Meanwhile, his family has received death threats over all this. Those Western comedians who complain about “cancel culture” have NO IDEA how much worse things could be. They still have freedom of speech. They’re not getting arrested. It’s unlikely that they’re worrying too much about their livelihoods or the lives of their family members.

Right, now that I’ve gotten the backstory out of the way, I’m going to get more personal about why this news is hitting me as hard as it is. Back in 2014, I wrote about how sad it was that I was leaving Malaysia just after the Crackhouse Comedy Club opened. For the month or so that it was open while I still lived in the country, it was the place to be. I could walk there from the apartment I lived in. They had comedy acts from different parts of the world – Singapore, India, the Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, and the USA. They experimented with an improvised stand-up night called Hack the Crack. It was built on community and love of the art of comedy. Whilst living in Malaysia, it felt like the comedy scene was one of the few places people of all backgrounds and races could truly unite in community together.

Dominica May laughing on stage in front of a brick wall as she performs as part of Hack the Crack at Crackhouse Comedy Club.
The author laughing on stage as she performs as part of Hack the Crack, June 2014

Prior to opening the Crackhouse, Rizal co-ran the longest-running weekly open mic night in Malaysia, One Mic Stand. This was where I wound up performing the most once I got back to performing again, in the months before I moved. It’s where I most commonly watched stand-up both then and during my long period of not performing. Putting it frankly, I wouldn’t have had as much fun in the comedy scene if Rizal wasn’t there building it up and making things happen.

When the pandemic hit and Malaysia went into lockdown, the club had to shutter its doors to performances. I followed along on social media as Rizal switched to making pizzas and other food at the venue, and having folks order online so they could keep the business going. Once vaccines rolled out and businesses could start opening their doors again with limited seating capacity, Rizal switched to a hybrid show model – limited seats in person, and Zoom tickets for those who weren’t ready or able to physically attend. I took this opportunity to throw my support – first by sending a bit extra in PayPal to purchase a Zoom ticket, and then when there was a way to purchase tickets through a website, I did that. I was able to watch shows that allowed me to see a majority of the comedians I knew from the days I lived there who were still performing, and a few who had started performing since I left.

Papi Zak performing at the Crackhouse Comedy Club, Oct 2021
(screenshot from a show broadcast over Zoom)

I credit Rizal’s choice to broadcast shows on Zoom as the major reason that swayed my desire to return to Malaysia sooner rather than later. Taking screenshots on zoom and sharing them on Instagram led to my friend Papi Zak (pictured above) reaching out to me, and us reconnecting. I asked if he’d be interested in joining me as a guest on one of my LEGO livestreams, and not only did he join me as a guest very early on, but he became a fairly regular guest while there were still a lot of COVID restrictions in place last year. It was a nice reminder that I hadn’t been forgotten in the years since I moved to California, and I did still have a few friends who were happy to catch up.

When the news first hit about the temporary shut down of the Crackhouse Comedy Club last month, I was hopeful that they would be able to get the business back up once the furore died down. The government was probably using the incident as a distraction. So the club didn’t have a proper entertainment licence, only one for a restaurant? I mean, they’d been operating just fine for 8 years with no crackdown like this, at least give them a chance to try and apply for the correct licence (which, by the way, I’ve heard is notoriously hard to get). The news of the permanent ban and blacklisting feels a lot more grave. Even if they do have lawyers who want to fight it. Because it’s not just the Crackhouse now – the first article I shared in this post said KL City Hall (DBKL) is now watching similar establishments, essentially saying they’re prepared to shut down all comedy in the city the moment someone at a venue takes one step out of line, whether deliberately or accidentally. That terrifies me. They’re going after these comedians’ livelihoods.

Whilst it sounds like the comedy scene is still thriving despite the Crackhouse’s closure, it was the last venue that remained that was open for part of the time I lived in Malaysia. If it stays shut, there’s nowhere left for me to recognise. Just the performers. I’ll still want to go back, but it won’t feel the same.

If this is truly the end of the Crackhouse, then I am incredibly sad, not just for the fact I’ll never get to see it again, but for what this means for so many comedians. Not just Malaysians, either. Comedians from all over the world right now are mourning this loss, because I have never seen a bad word said about it from any of the amazing performers they’ve had grace their stage over the years. Every international comedian seemed to speak very highly of the place. So if this is goodbye, may the Crackhouse live on in our memories and spirits.

A bunch of comedians at the back of the Crackhouse Comedy Club, June 2014

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