Up Close & Personal with Douglas Lim


BORN: Oct 11, 1977 in Kuala Lumpur PERSONAL: Married HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: B.Ed. TESL from Canterbury Christ Church Unive rsity, UK CAREER: Entertainer NOTEWORTHY: Malaysian Video Awards best music video for Kopitiam; Asian TV Awards runner-up for best comedian FAVOURITE FOOD: Korean BBQ HOBBY: Playing computer games VALUES: If you want to get paid, do the work. INSPIRATION: Nope, nothing at all.

COMIC book character Edward Blake from Watchmen sums up the essence of a comedian succinctly: “Once you realise what a joke everything is, being the comedian is the only thing that makes sense.”

While what the fictional Blake says rings true of comic actors, these entertainers are often some of the most grounded of sorts, with an unflinching eye for stripping reality down to its barenakedness and then colouring it with humour.

Behind the mike, Douglas Lim is a deluge of jokes but off the mike, he is a practical man who has to plan shows and think about his livelihood.

The all-round entertainer says he has no muse and that he does not wait around for inspiration.

His ideas for jokes come in the most fleeting and common moments in life, like how “the red traffic light always come on when you are speeding towards the junction but is never long enough for you to finish typing a text message”.

As for music, it was all about spending time working on the chords. “I would just get as much information on what the client expects and grind it out. You don't wait for a song to come to you fully formed, you work on it note by note.”

He says that is especially true when he is working on a deadline and the clients want something in a week or less. “Just don't tell me you want it to be unlike anything in the world, I can't do that because it doesn't exist,” he jabs with a straight face.

“If I need to write a song, I'll write a song,” he says matter-of-factly, “I think I have started to rely a lot less on inspiration and a lot more on just grinding out the results because inspiration takes darn long, you do not know when it will come to you, it's unreliable.”

While he takes pride in writing the theme songs for local television series like Kopitiam and Ghost, he prefers acting and comedy to music now.

“I used to work a lot more on music but I do more comedy now,” he says. When asked why, he quips: “More money lah in comedy.”

Douglas' first taste of the performing arts is when he starts out as a singer-songwriter right after high school.

But it did not take long before he found himself on television.

During his first two years of matriculation studies, he lands himself a decent role on local production Kopitiam and the then 18-year-old decided acting was the better choice.

He was so happy with his acting stint that when the Government sent him off to the Canterbury, UK on a Public Service Department scholarship to complete his teaching degree, Douglas was reluctant.

“I was quite happy. I didn't really wanted to go because I had Kopitiam going on and at 18, I was making not bad money and getting recognised when I go out,” he says.

Even so, being written out of the script could not keep Douglas away from performing.

As the economy was doing poorly in the late 1990s, Douglas and his fellow students were allowed to take on part-time jobs in the UK.

“I tried working at a restaurant. It was terrible. And I tried telemarketing to sell windows, but I didn't even sell one so I ended up as the cleaner for that company,” he shares, claiming in defence that the cleaning job was quite high-paying.

But still inclined to the arts, he picked up his guitar and went out busking around Canterbury.

“I got my guitar and thought, alright, let's do some busking because no one knew me here,” he recalls, “So I went to the streets, played my guitar and hit jackpot!”

Douglas says he collected decent money from playing contemporary music outside a war memorial where visiting school children and tourist hung around.

“The response was great! I would collect £50 to £70 per session and I had money to buy a ticket home for Easter,” he says.

When he graduated, he did not pursue teaching. Instead he went back into television and emcee-ing jobs started to roll in.

“That was a step-up in terms of payment because to emcee for a six-hour event was equivalent to shooting for television for three or four days,” he says.

One thing leading to another, his brief emcee stint opened the doors for Douglas into the world of stand-up comedy.

“People started asking me if I also did stand-up comedy as well. I didn't, but when I heard how much they were willing to offer, I said I will try,” he chuckles, saying that for 30 minutes of comedy, he would be paid almost twice of that for a six-hour emcee event.

However, Douglas “bombed” his first six shows. In the comedy world, that meant he flopped.

Once, the audience even threw a pillow at him.

“I really bombed the shows. Clients wouldn't want to pay me and the agents said that I spoiled their reputation. But then Harith Iskandar saw me and asked me to be the opening act for his shows,” he recalls.

Douglas then moved into public shows, doing ten minutes of comedy before Harith came on.

“Public shows are more forgiving because the audience would not be there unless they enjoy comedy and understand the language well enough,” he says.

The pair-up also meant that Douglas had the opportunity to build his skills.

“If I did badly, Harith would then come out strong and show how it's done right and if I did well, he would come out to a hot crowd,” he describes the win-win scenarios.

Through the exposure, Douglas began to garner more jobs on his own and about three years ago, it became too expensive to hire both himself and Harith for the same show.

Having established himself, Douglas decided on organising his own public shows. In 2009, he founded the Malaysian Association of Chinese Comedians (MACC) with fellow comics Phoon Chi Ho, Jason Leong and Kuah Jenhan.

He admits that MACC is an advertising vehicle for the team to gain exposure and secure more corporate shows. When he brought the show to Penang a year ago, the requests for MACC was astounding, beating the number of shows the team had in Kuala Lumpur.

For stand-up comedians, corporate shows are the real bread and butter.

“The lowest-paying corporate show would be about RM1,500 for a 30-minute act but comics don't get shows every week. Some don't even get shows every month. A very senior comic will hit a five-figure paycheck per show and probably get four shows per month,” he says. “So corporate shows, that's what you work towards.”

Even with such promises and a name for himself, Douglas confesses that he has to deal with many volatile factors in his career.

“I live in a constant uncertainty. You never know when the next job is coming in. You don't know if people are going to continue liking you or if a better guy comes along and tears you to shreds,” he says earnestly, “Or if something big happens to the country and people could not hire comedians anymore; or if society becomes so perfect there's nothing more to joke about.”

Perhaps being constantly on the lookout has made Douglas the resourceful, multi-dimensional entertainer.

With MACC, Douglas is not just a comedian. He also takes the helm as a producer, pulling strings together for the team to perform at various events. For him, it is the least appealing part of his job as there is no creative-thinking involved.

“It would be great if I have a business partner to handle the numbers and ledger but that would mean extra cost as well.”

As he is still involved in performances, Douglas juggles two roles of contradicting objectives.

“The producer's role is to reduce as much cost as possible and be as efficient as possible, but on the creative side, we want to put the best material out there, not caring about the cost,” he says.

For the team, he writes new sketches and delegates the team to events and shows that he could not attend. When clients change dates for their performances, the funnyman would have the headache of rescheduling for everyone involved.

Nevertheless, he always wants the best deal for his team. “A part of me wants to pay the guys to go and work because I remember what it is like when I was doing all these launches for products and sketches,” he shares, “To go there and wait the whole day and be paid RM500. It's still a lot of money for ten minutes but it can be quite demoralising.”

“I want to make sure they stay at a proper place, (preferably) at the venue. If (the clients) think that place is good enough for their event, that's where I want the guys to stay for convenience if anything goes wrong or there are changes in the programme,” he says.

While he certainly looks out for his fellow comedians, Douglas opines that he is not the best person to share words of wisdom to those carving a career in comedy.

He feels that his journey into the entertainment world had been somewhat smoother than what most have to go through, having played a notable role in Kopitiam that put him on the entertainment industry map so early on.

“I wouldn't say it's written in the stars or what but it's a combination of things happening one after another,” he says.

Now that he has done music, acting, emcee-ing, comedy, directing and producing, Douglas has eyes set on scriptwriting for a local movie production.

While he remains rather mum about it, he is excited about having the opportunity to dabble in another facet of the entertainment world.

Douglas is currently performing in Cuci the Musical Last Kopek. He is glad for the chance to finally star in the muscial which he has co-written the script and music since the first season.

“I am also in the process of talking to two others to set up a website for funny advertisements,” he says, hoping that he will find time in his busy schedule to get something up online by May.

“Commercials are going more web-based and becoming more advertainments as opposed to just advertisements so (I can use) my strength as a comic,” he says, adding that the few comedy videos made for MACC shows had received good response.

He says that with online advertisements, he would have more creative control over the advertisements as they can be “more wacky” than television advertisements.

“This would be like an advertising agency with an emphasis on soft sell and humour,” he sums up.

When it all goes live, Douglas will again take on a multi-tasking position to direct, write and “if we cannot find people, act also lah” in his latest venture.