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Saturday April 9, 2011

That Effing Show: New twist to comedy

Love them or hate them, you’ve got to hand it to the guys of That Effing Show for reinventing comedy. Politics is finally interesting again. Or at least funny.

Ezra Zaid is on the phone: “Do you know it’s our 50th episode? To celebrate, we’ll be filming a sex video of some sort tomorrow!” exclaims the 27-year-old.

Wait a minute. A sex video “of some sort”?

“Yeah, there’s been nothing else in the media lately. It seems like everyone has forgotten about Japan,” he says, before pausing for good measure. “Do you, uh, want to join us? We might need a female lead.”

Although they do it “pro bono”, the guys of That Effing Show are having a ball of a time. — AZMAN GHANI /The Star

Such are the perks of the trade when you’re a co-producer of an idiot-bashing, toy-tossing online TV show called That Effing Show. You can be unapologetically goofy. You can be viciously honest. You can even take the mickey out of the Big Boys. Of course, I couldn’t possibly refuse. I had to see what these guys were like in person.

That Effing Show burst onto the online scene a little over a year ago after producers of PopTeeVee, Hardesh Singh, 35 and Mark Teh, 30, hatched a simple idea to generate some laughs on the World Wide Web.

Says Hardesh: “We didn’t really know what we wanted, only that we wanted to do something in the spirit of Jangan Ketawa and Gila-Gila. The country had a good history of comedy, but it has fizzled out now.”

The guys’ grand plan began to take shape over a couple of teh tarik: There will be comedy and there will be satire. There will also be blood. Now all they needed was a host. Teh thought Ezra was perfect for the job, although the latter was hesitant at accepting the offer at first.

“His big pitch to me was how we could reap benefits from the Internet, which was booming at the time,” explains Ezra. “By benefits, I don’t mean financially, but in other ways. We decided then that our model would be The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert . . . you know, stuff that our generation grew up with.”

In the studio with (from left) Faiq, Yong Xian Tze, Uma and Ezra. — RAYMOND OOI/The Star

Not surprisingly, the guys were excited. They were set to become the vanguard of that new kind of TV news commentary which dared to tread where their local predecessors had not gone before: the rough and tumble world of politics.

“I thought like, oh my God, looking at what’s happening in our country, we’d have so much material and we wouldn’t have to write them! We’ll just regurgitate what our politicians say and it’ll still be hilarious!” sniggers Ezra.

Their first episode (Feb 3, 2010) poked fun at JAIS’s (Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor) war against the Valentine’s Day no-panties movement in public universities, among other things. With it came a torrent of response, both good and bad.

The show clearly hit a raw nerve among Malaysians, which range, according to Ezra, from “students to the people in Parliament, to the egg banjo guy in Taman Tun, to my mother’s ustazah group.”

What a joke!

I arrive on a Sunday evening at Hardesh’s place, where filming for most episodes takes place. After making a few calls, the show’s co-writer Umapagan Ampikaipakan comes whizzing out with an apologetic look.

“I’m sorry, we’re just working the script. Technically, we should’ve been done by now, but we never finish on time,” says the 30-year-old breathlessly.

Umapagan, or Uma, is one of the seven guys behind the show. He leads me to a room upstairs, to the rest of the team, namely Faiqsyazwan Kuhiri, 23 and Yong Xian Tze, 19. Producer Grey Yeoh, 27, meanwhile, is MIA because he is in Singapore. Nevertheless, the show must go on in this makeshift studio formerly occupied by Hardesh’s sister.

Clearly, space is a major issue. There is just enough space for two work desks and five fully-grown men. But there’s also something else, something intangible. It only dawns upon me moments later that it’s the whiff of youthful idealism. Within these four walls, the guys don’t have to filter their image or opinions. There is plenty of testosterone-charged banter and hot-button debates, and it’s rather thrilling to watch.

“Isn’t it much smaller than it looks?” says Uma, grinning.

“After 15 episodes, we thought we couldn’t possibly go on since we had used up every angle that was possible. But then it occurred to us that if there was such a thing as an illusion of space, so we created our very own green screen.”

In other words, they splashed green paint onto one of the walls. It was a rudimentary way of doing things, but no less ingenious. Take the teleprompter or a professional filmmaker’s camcorder, for instance. The boys settled instead on a white board and a Canon DSLR with high-definition video capabilities. But hey, it’s cheap, it works and no one’s complaining.

Besides, none of these guys are cashing in on That Effing Show. They work in a miscellany of day jobs (publisher, project manager, student, writer) and they aren’t in it for the money. It is, in Ezra’s words, a pro bono effort.

“Actually, pro bono means that something good comes out of it in the end, so it’s not really pro bono,” Ezra says, laughing. “You would think that the show could help politicians see where they went wrong, and that they would take certain steps to rectify the situation . . . but no, it’s always the same old mistakes cropping up.”

Including being squeamish about Valentine’s Day.

Jakim (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia) was, not surprisingly, on the prowl again this year. This time, they had a certain ustazah on their side. She made some pretty big claims about why Muslims and Valentine’s Day don’t go hand in hand (hint: it has something to do with Rome and the fall of Cordoba).

Her argument was eerily convincing, and it remained so until the release of That Effing Show’s episode 46 a.k.a. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which received roughly 70,000 eyeballs. When the boys cleverly refuted the Ustazah’s words with a little history lesson of their own, most people I know performed little victory jigs in their heads.

Of course, Jakim will still go about raiding hotels next year, and politicians will still believe that candlelight dinners lead to pre-marital sex. This, then, begs the question: Why are the guys doing it at all?

Why invest so much in something that requires so much time and pays next to nothing?

“I almost see it as an obligation. There are certain issues that we have to address in the country, and no one else will do it,” says Ezra, adding that anyone (yes, anyone) is fair game, including his own father, renegade politician Zaid Ibrahim (whose resignation from PKR was addressed in episode 39 a.k.a. Zany Zahid and Zaid’s Zingers).

“There is a crowd out there who assumes we’re all for the opposition, and they get really angry when we make fun of these politicians, but I think there’s enough insanity out there for us to squeeze the nipples of both sides,” he remarks.

“Yeah, our job is to point and laugh at all the stupidity that happens around us, like the kid from The Simpsons,” nods Uma.

Mad men

These days, the guys joke about everything, from national service to underage marriages. Of course, to dodge the ISA radar, they established, early on, a few unspoken rules, but this has long since been broken, states Ezra.

“We can’t help it; they were all begging to be discussed, like the reality show about finding an imam,” he says.

But retrograde glibness aside, they’ve now hit the big five-oh. To celebrate, they’re doing a silly parody of the infamous did-he-or-didn’t-he sex tape. Because Yong has shoulder-length hair, it was decided that he would play “the woman”. Plenty of wisecracks ensued.

“We all know the public is outraged. They talk and talk about it, but what’s funny is that no-one has actually seen it,” says Ezra.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the guys aren’t incensed with the circus acts that have come to define Malaysian politics. Uma says, “It’s so easy to be ticked off about something. But if we do, our messages stop being funny and start becoming preachy. It’s really not fun to watch, so whenever one of us gets angry, we’d calm down over a few glasses of teh tarik first.”

It’s a matter of comedy first and social commentary second, says Ezra. The idea is to create a healthy debate, not stifle it.

“Each time a public figure says something, it sounds so authoritative, like the Untouchable Word of God,” he says. “We even found ourselves getting convinced by the ustazah after watching her interview about 50 times. But instead of getting worked up over it, we wanted to investigate if there was truth in what she said.”

Now the guys are big-time heroes on the Internet. In fact, Yong was a fan of the show before he joined the team.

“My college mate showed me an episode on Youtube, and I thought it was really funny. After that, I wrote in to see if I could lend a hand,” he says.

Hardesh claims Yong’s e-mail was not the first they had received. Random fan mail pours in from time to time. In one e-mail, a student expressed how much he liked the show and how he’d like to donate something as a gesture of appreciation.

“He said, I don’t have much but here’s five bucks,” says Hardesh. “That was really nice.”

The guys are also used to being approached by viewers who are concerned for their safety.

“It’s really sweet when a makcik comes up to me and asks, “Not scared, ah?’, like she cares for my wellbeing,” says Ezra.

“To tell you the truth, we were very scared for the first 10 episodes. We’re OK now. We’ve not been arrested so far.”

Smirking, Faiq says, “Yeah, we thought we’d get a phone call at least.”

Strangely enough, the show has also earned the admiration of those it targeted. Umno MP Khairy Jamaluddin once asked when he could be on the show. Then, there was Ezra’s chance encounter with PKR President Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

“After our salam, she said ‘We all watch this show as a family’,” he reveals. “I’ve joked about them before, but seeing her smile when she said it showed that she understood what we were trying to achieve.”

Then again, the boys have not really defamed anyone in their videos. They’re not half as worried about the authorities as they are of some online viewers. They’ve got their own fair share of haters, you see.

“Out of all the hundreds of positive reviews we get, we get 10 to 15 people who are pretty scary,” says Faiq, referring to episode 46 as an example.

“They say things like how we’re all infidels (kafir) and how they want to kill us. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this episode could get us into really serious trouble’.”

To their credit, the boys have never once waned in their efforts. That Effing Show is still “a work in progress”.

“It would be nice to reach a wider audience by crossing over to broadcast,” says Hardesh.

“However, I doubt that would happen anytime soon since the big organisations that we’ve met with want us to water down our content.”

And if that dream does not materialise, the guys have only one wish: that Perkasa Chief Datuk Ibrahim Ali, Kelantan Menteri Besar Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat or the PM will take some time off their busy schedules to watch the show.

“If we’d like one person to watch the show, it would be one of these guys,” says Uma.

“Besides, wouldn’t it be cool if Nik Aziz goes ‘wow, that’s funny’, or however you say it in Kelantanese?”

o Follow Louisa Lim on Twitter at www.twitter.com/lolibites

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