Juliana Heng: Common Ground and Silver Linings

June 27, 2021

Photo Credit

Prakash Daniel Photography

Interview by

Valerie Lopez

Article by

Sara Cline

Listen
2021 Summer Vacation Series

Destination - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The world is in the midst of a host of debuts, including the blinding sight of faces that haven’t seen true sunlight for many months, poking out of doors and taking the cautious first steps back into the great outside.

It’s only fitting that we debut something of our own for the podcast: the 2021 Summer Vacation Series. While we’re in no way on vacation, the theme speaks more to that most summer-y of concepts, traveling to new places near and far. Many of our guests are local to Austin, but during the pandemic we had the honor of “hosting” comics from around the world on our Isolation Comedy series, and the Vacation Series is our way of bringing them back for the full Comedy Wham interview treatment.

Though Ms. Rona (COVID-19, for those who are not on such famil­iar terms with her) has cre­at­ed a lot of strife in the com­e­dy world, one par­tic­u­lar­ly glow­ing sil­ver lin­ing has been the way that vir­tu­al com­e­dy spaces have risen up, bridg­ing the geo­graph­i­cal dis­tance between cre­ators and audi­ences across the world. I will not thank Ms.Rona for much (though I admit that quar­an­tine free­time led me to my won­der­ful new­found hob­by: bird­ing), but if not for the pan­dem­ic, we per­haps would not have so soon become acquaint­ed with Juliana Heng — an ear­ly but ris­ing tal­ent hail­ing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Watch­ing Heng’s vir­tu­al per­for­mances, there’s a spe­cial charm that imme­di­ate­ly strikes you. They (Heng’s pro­noun, as a non-bina­ry indi­vid­ual) emanate such per­son­al joy in their per­for­mances that it is almost as if they don’t need the audi­ence, but are rather allow­ing the audi­ence in to laugh along with them. And it is indeed a priv­i­lege to laugh along with them.

Of course, start­ing com­e­dy in Kuala Lumpur is quite a dif­fer­ent feat than start­ing in Austin, Texas. As Heng explained, com­e­dy is still nascent in Malaysia, com­pared to many oth­er coun­tries. When Malaysians want to do some­thing enter­tain­ing after a hard week at work, they often turn to movies, the­ater, maybe karaōke. But thanks to fore­moth­ers and fore­fa­thers like Harith Iskan­der and Joanne Kam, the com­e­dy infra­struc­ture in Malaysia today (fea­tur­ing two com­e­dy clubs and a hand­ful of inde­pen­dent show pro­duc­ers) is a vast improve­ment from what it was even fif­teen years ago. We are try­ing to work towards a direc­tion where com­e­dy will become some­thing like, Hey, let’s go to the cin­e­ma,’” Heng says. You know, we want it to be that common.”

Inter­est­ing­ly enough, com­e­dy was not love at first sight for Heng; it wasn’t even love at sec­ond sight. Though Heng recalls first attend­ing a com­e­dy show in 2011 — a reward from their boss to make up for a stress­ful sea­son of char­tered account­ing — it took a small career cri­sis before Heng was enticed to get up on stage. But, sure enough, as Heng began to resent their increas­ing­ly bor­ing and mean­ing­less job, their eyes start­ed to wan­der for new oppor­tu­ni­ties. For Heng, oppor­tu­ni­ty appeared in the form of a bright orange fly­er at the train sta­tion that read Stand-up com­e­dy, new­bies wel­come!” And with that, their fate was sealed. Plus, Heng couldn’t turn away from the bar­gain: Do three min­utes onstage, get in free? Sign them up!

The audience are all strangers, they all come from different walks of life, and they only meet each other in the comedy club, but the moment someone tells a joke and the audience laughs, by the end of the open mic or even the comedy show, they become friends.
Juliana Heng

Always a bit of a lon­er, Heng felt espe­cial­ly drawn to com­e­dy for its pow­er to con­nect peo­ple. The audi­ence are all strangers, they all come from dif­fer­ent walks of life, and they only meet each oth­er in the com­e­dy club,” Heng mus­es, but the moment some­one tells a joke and the audi­ence laughs, by the end of the open mic or even the com­e­dy show, they become friends.”

Not only that, but com­e­dy cre­at­ed new rea­sons to trav­el — tak­ing Heng through­out the regions of Malaysia, as well as to Sin­ga­pore, Thai­land, and the Unit­ed King­dom. Of course, just when Heng thought that 2020 would be anoth­er year for trav­el­ing and doing com­e­dy, Ms. Rona had oth­er ideas. Mer­ci­ful­ly, the vir­tu­al com­e­dy space rose up to cush­ion the blow. Ever the one to find the sil­ver lin­ing, Heng con­tends that vir­tu­al rooms tru­ly make tour­ing acces­si­ble for all walks of come­di­ans, even those with day jobs or tight bud­gets: no flight tick­ets nec­es­sary, just a lap­top and an inter­net con­nec­tion. Being on the autism spec­trum, Heng spec­u­lates that their own neu­ro­di­ver­gence may make it even eas­i­er to embrace Zoom com­e­dy as an alter­na­tive to live shows: I look at the audi­ence and have to assume they are the best audi­ence. I can’t tell if they are hav­ing a bad day. Can’t tell the dif­fer­ence.”

Still, as many come­di­ans even­tu­al­ly do, Heng hit a slump. Fail­ing to get booked like oth­ers around them, they won­dered if com­e­dy was a pipe dream after all. Instead, they decid­ed to return to an old­er hob­by and tal­ent of theirs: poet­ry. With the pres­sure to be fun­ny out of the way, Heng wrote the poem AUsome” — an intro­spec­tive deep dive into their rela­tion­ship with autism. Through this poem — which is fea­tured in Heng’s one-hour med­ley show Walk­ing on Spec­trum — Heng real­ized that these more per­son­al top­ics could be trans­lat­ed into their com­e­dy. The poet­ry [was] like the set­up,” Heng reflects, “ and I just need[ed] to look for the punch­lines.” Of course, though Heng views poet­ry as the cat­a­lyst for their com­e­dy come­back, they also con­tin­ue to val­ue poet­ry in its own right: It’s ther­a­peu­tic. And it allows me to be real. And I don’t need to joke around my cir­cum­stances, if I’m not ready to.”

Heng’s spe­cial has been fea­tured at fes­ti­vals in Aus­tralia, New Zealand, and New York. See­ing the favor­able reac­tion from audi­ences off the spec­trum and from the oth­er side of the globe, Heng dis­cov­ered how much com­mon ground can be found between peo­ple, despite our dif­fer­ences and idio­syn­crasies: Turns out our expe­ri­ences are pret­ty uni­ver­sal, after all,” Heng says. Fea­tur­ing com­e­dy, spo­ken word poet­ry, and sto­ry­telling, the med­ley is what tru­ly makes Heng’s spe­cial, well, spe­cial, but it also allows Heng to bal­ance enter­tain­ment and hon­esty. For the more har­row­ing per­son­al top­ics, Heng relies on the spo­ken word, while the com­e­dy is the spoon­ful of sug­ar,” as Heng puts it.

Turns out our experiences are pretty universal, after all
Juliana Heng

Cre­at­ing aware­ness through com­e­dy is espe­cial­ly impor­tant to Heng because in Malaysia, men­tal health is pret­ty taboo still … Peo­ple don’t talk open­ly about depres­sion, … ADHD, these are all pret­ty taboo … And then we pre­tend to live a nor­mal life because, as Asians, we usu­al­ly want to por­tray just the pos­i­tive façade of our life.” Heng has grap­pled with this lack of aware­ness first­hand when acknowl­edg­ing their own autism in front of Malaysian audi­ences, find­ing that the audi­ences either refuse to believe, or they tune out, mis­tak­en­ly attribut­ing Heng with the men­tal age of a child. Through their mate­r­i­al, Heng hopes to spark con­ver­sa­tion about these top­ics — from men­tal ill­ness, to autism, to queer­ness — ulti­mate­ly aid­ing in their demys­ti­fi­ca­tion and des­tigma­ti­za­tion.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, at the time of Valerie’s inter­view with Heng, Malaysia was under­go­ing its third lock­down. But, in the theme of find­ing sil­ver lin­ings, Heng choos­es to see the lock­down as a prepa­ra­tion phase — a time to sow seeds and water them. For Heng, that means per­form­ing more vir­tu­al com­e­dy, writ­ing, work­shop­ping mate­r­i­al, read­ing books, and study­ing act­ing (because they love watch­ing Kore­an dra­mas). Although it is hell,” Heng admits, I still want to make a par­adise out of hell.”

And with front row seats (from the com­fort of our liv­ing rooms!) to see tal­ent­ed, farflung comics like Heng, even when we’re oceans apart, we’re find­ing it pret­ty easy to see the bright sides and spoon­fuls of sug­ar, too.

Want to know more about com­e­dy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia?

Heng’s rec­om­men­da­tions for comics to check out from Malaysia include: Shaq Munisamy and Garu Rumon. They also men­tioned the very famous Harith Iskan­der and Joanne Kam who are the god­fa­ther and god­moth­er of Malaysian com­e­dy, respectively. 

Heng wants us to know that Malaysia has a rel­a­tive­ly young com­e­dy scene, but it is begin­ning to hit its stride.

Fol­low Juliana

Juliana can be seen and heard:

  • I Laugh KL — In per­son and online show­case pro­duced by Juliana
  • Walk­ing On Spec­trum — writ­ten, pro­duced, and fea­tur­ing Juliana com­e­dy and poetry
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Juliana Heng