The King of Malaysian comedy and parody gives Tatler the lowdown on his journey as an entertainer, dealing with depression, and how he pivoted during difficult times

There's the Jack of all trades, then there's Douglas Lim. A household name for comedy, the Asia's Most Influential honouree had the honour of representing Malaysia on the global stage when he performed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) Gala, a defining moment in Lim's career as an entertainer. "The Gala is where they only pick a handful. When I say 'handful', it’s about 20 comedians performing a two-hour show," he says.

"During the festival, there are over 800 acts so we get about five minutes each. Being selected as one of them is a big deal and getting the laugh... because I had been doing comedy in Malaysia for so long already, sometimes I question myself, 'Am I that funny? Or are people just letting me win?'"

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"Going there, performing to about 600 people in that theatre who don’t know who I am, and getting the laugh within my first joke and having them with me and laughing along and talking about that performance. That was vindication and a really nice reminder that I’m still funny! Even the Mat Salleh who didn't know me were also laughing."

Unbeknownst to many, Lim actually grew up in an airforce base because his father was a helicopter pilot with the Malaysian airforce. This meant strict discipline always, a polar opposite of the funny he now surrounds himself with. "We moved around a bit because as airforce people do, they move around to where they're based," he shares.

"Eventually, we came to Kuala Lumpur and I went to school there. I was in this 'hawker children school' or as they call it, Sekolah Kebangsaan Jalan Pasar. A lot of hawkers would send their children there so all my friends were all like the mee kari sellers, chicken rice sellers, pork sellers, and all that. But I made some really good friends there! Then, I studied in Victoria Institution before going to a teacher's training college where I got my degree in teaching English as a second language."

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"I started my career in entertainment as a singer-songwriter first. That didn’t really pan out, it didn’t really go far. Some people aren't meant to be like Yuna lah, what can I say? Luckily, I got an opportunity in a sitcom called Kopitiam and of course, some theatre projects by the Actor’s Studio as well. From there, I decided to do comedy loh."

Kopitiam, a beloved English language sitcom that was very much like Malaysia's own version of Cheers or Friends, ran on ntv7 from 1998 to 2003 for seven seasons. In 2019, the show 'reopened' for business with a reboot titled Kopitiam: Double Shot, with Lim attached to write and star alongside a cast of millennials: Sharifah Amani, Melissa Campbell, Harvinth Skin, and Charles Roberts.

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Shortly after the first edition of Kopitiam wrapped, Lim decided to venture into stand-up. "The market in Malaysia was still small and incredibly segmented when I was acting in Kopitiam. For example, you can be a really famous artist in the Chinese market but the Malays and the Indians, and the English-speaking people won't know you. This applies to all. We're segmented by race, by rural and urban areas, and language," he explains.

"As an actor, the money was okay but I couldn't just do one movie or release one CD then chill out for the next one or one-and-a-half years. So I started doing emcee work and that was quite fun but I wasn't the type who'd command the room like the way the late Mahadzir Lokman used to. I was a humorous emcee like those naughty joker fellas who'd rock up and crack jokes to liven up the event."

Lim continues: "I watched Harith Iskander do stand-up and I was like, 'That one. I want to do that one!' I didn't want to just take people through an event, I wanted to be the event. I was naturally drawn to comedy and am quite obsessed with it. If I can find the funny in something, I will. That's how it all started."

Experimenting with stand-up and establishing himself as a comic was exciting but unlike acting, where there are takes, cuts, and editing, it came with a whole new world of challenges. So, was it all cracked up as he had expected it to be? Lim admits that he thought it'd be easier. "From the very beginning, it was going to be very hard. As a stand-up comedian, you're going to face some very severe and debilitating rejection," he says.

"To put this into perspective, on social media, people get hurt when they get bad comments or maybe... if they don't get enough views. But stand-up comedy is way more brutal because you're there and the audience is right in front of you. They don't have to reject you by booing or walking out–they just need to not laugh."

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Lim reveals that he has faced rejections in all shapes and forms, from people turning around and blatantly ignoring him, to eating and loudly talking, and even right down to (you guessed it) purposely walking out of the room.

"While it was slightly easier for me compared to my peers because people remembered me from TV, if my jokes didn't land within the first five minutes... I put all my work into this joke and I’ve given you this joke as a gift. If you don’t laugh, that’s rejection. So it’s brutal. I went through that for the first two years of my stand-up career. People don’t care how famous you are, man. They're just sitting there like, 'Why is he wasting my time? He's invading my space and my ears. I'm trying to have dinner with my colleagues and he's wasting my time!'" he laughs.

"I've even had one uncle who got so angry, he threw a pillow at me."

Comedians, in my opinion, need to be funny. That’s it. That's your basic. That's your purpose.
Douglas Lim

As the saying goes, rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success. By remaining steadfast and thick-skinned, Lim succeeded in making a sizeable dent in the Malaysian stand-up comedy and in 2009, founded his own band of comedians, the Malaysian Association of Chinese Comedians (MACC) alongside fellow cheeky comics Kuah Jenhan, Dr Jason Leong, and Phoon Chi Ho.

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MACC would go on to stage hilariously entertaining performances for various themed shows such as Planet of the Apeks, I Want to Touch a Douglas, Internal Affairs, Bromance of the Four Kingdoms, Now That's What I Call Jokes Vol.8, and selling out each time. After enjoying applause and praises from audiences from all over Malaysia for a decade and earning its title as Malaysia's leading comedy troupe, in conjunction with their 10th anniversary, they brought their show to a close in 2019 with MACC Mania X: The Goodbye Tour which took the quartet to all of Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia.

To say it was a good run would be a completely undeserving understatement.

That said, Lim opened up to Tatler about this time, that ordinarily would've been a very celebratory one, but turned out to be one of his darkest.

"I was diagnosed with depression just before the 10th anniversary show. I think it came about because of the pressure. I had to go to Melbourne then to New York, then come back and write the new season of Kopitiam, then do the final MACC show. I remember feeling panicky back in January and February. I was thinking, 'How am I going to do this ah, with all these things coming together?' I started getting panic attacks. It just got more and more and worse and worse. To the point where... as the head writer of the sitcom, I was lost. I was like, 'Guys, you’re going to have to lead me.' I felt like I lost my power. I didn’t know how to be funny anymore." he reveals.

"Everything to me wasn't funny. I didn’t find anything funny. For a comedian, that's horrible because the one thing you’re good at, you suddenly can’t do anymore. I remember one thing: I didn’t want to answer the phone. I wanted to just stay in bed. It was horrible." he says.

"But... you know, my friends pulled me through and I went to the doctors, got some medication, and that helped. Because I experienced it, I got a lot more respect for it, for its existence, and its effect on people. How paralysing it can make you feel. It’s easy for it to be dismissed but because I’ve experienced it or maybe a small part of it, I can no longer dismiss it."

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Then came 2020 and Covid-19 and the Movement Control Orders (MCOs) that would follow. Lim would pivot to become a full-fledged digital content creator and do a stellar job at it.

In speaking about why he decided to get into it, Lim says, "Seven years ago, I was told that I had to have a bigger digital presence–Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms. But because I'm from traditional mass media, I was reluctant like, why? What for? Why am I trying to be known through YouTube when I'm on TV? It didn't make sense. Then the pandemic happened and TV work stopped because we couldn't shoot. Live shows stopped too because people couldn't gather!"

"I had all these funny little thoughts in my head but with no outlet. I didn't know what to do! Until my wife said, 'Can you please start doing something for social media since you have the time? Just get a camera, shoot something, and put it up!' So I started doing that. But unlike JinnyBoy, So I'm Jenn, Aruwin, and Namewee, the native content creators who do everything from writing to shooting, to music and sound, and post-production, I can only write and perform–and maybe sing. I had to learn everything from lighting to camera work to editing–a very slow and tedious process."

Lim's bite-sized videos are observational monologues and 'subtle' commentaries on local trending topics and news, and political happenings, and most if not all have gone viral at some point, clocking at least 10,000 views each. Shot in a makeshift home studio, his content provided much-needed comfort and laughs in dire times and Malaysians lapped it up.

These days, however, he can also be heard on Fly FM, having recently joined the station as a radio announcer on the morning show. Because of that, contrary to his solo gig during the multiple MCOs, Lim says his days are now much longer: "I wake up at 4am–that's insane! It's like Ramadhan the entire year through because I wake up so early to eat breakfast. So, I wake up at 4am, I question life (laughs), and then I go wash up and all that." His routine includes recording the morning show, prepping for the next day's show, going home and sneaking in a nap (because he has to, he insists) before getting on with his other commitments.

"The meetings, the videos I have to do, and a lot of conference and video calls with potential clients who want to brief me. I try to finish all of that by 6pm then it's dinner, prep my stuff for the next day, go for my run, shower, drink, and sleep. I'm asleep by 9:30pm. I'm like a schoolchild now. At 9:30pm! I'm literally a schoolchild," he jokes.

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What's next for Lim? "I definitely want to do more Malay-language content to get into the Malay industry or Malay shows, even Malay radio! I feel that... if I were to call myself a Malaysian entertainer, I must've at least entertained 70 per cent of the country." he shares.

"But if you're asking if I've any plans to go international uhh, no lah. I mean, if it happens, great! But I think I've missed the bus. Anyway, we have Henry Golding repping us internationally so that’s cool. I think I’ll stay here. Ampang represent!"

Tatler Asia's Asia’s Most Influential is the definitive list of people shaping Asia. Asia’s Most Influential brings together the region’s most innovative changemakers, industry titans and powerful individuals who are shaping the region through positive impact. View the full list here.

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