The Serious Evolution of Funnyman Harith Iskander
The multi-award-winning comedian, actor, producer and director talks about adapting to new norms in entertainment, embracing social media, and his charitable endeavours.

By Raajeish Taalver

Harith is using his fame to make a positive impact on causes that need support. (Harith Iskander pic via Facebook)

Harith Iskander has come a long way since his initial days as an entertainer. The funnyman’s start dates to the early 1990s as a stand-up comedian with his eternal brand of irreverent, shoot-from-the-hip humour. The multi-award-winner has since hosted and headlined some of the biggest shows at home and abroad, curated comedy festivals, and starred in, directed or produced several specials, movies and TV shows. Harith’s humanitarian work in recent times is undoubtedly a significant progression, too. Like many celebrities making a positive impact on causes that need support, he’s using his fame to contribute to his passion areas. Harith and his wife, Dr Jezamine Lim Iskander, set up NGO The Hope Branch nearly two years ago. The couple and their volunteers have been busy helping lower-income families with groceries and care packs during the Covid-19 economic crisis. “We’ve ramped things up a notch. We’ve put it out there that if you need help, contact us. Our number’s ringing off the hook, and we’re trying to coordinate efforts to find ways to provide urgent groceries and meals initially.” That reach has extended to other states, too, like Kelantan, Penang and Melaka. “We’ve also put out a call to those who can help in various small towns. But, equally, we’ve had many people reach out to say they also want to help.” Harith adds that The Hope Branch is exploring ways to help deserving communities receive extended assistance. “The white flag community initiative was unique because it was completely spontaneous and was an effort by people for other people. As an NGO, we’d like to see a follow-through, so we’re exploring different sustainability programmes. “It’s one thing to feed someone, and it’s another thing to see how they can create the means to feed themselves. That’s a long-term plan that takes more coordination and a different mindset. The Hope Branch is moving in that direction.” The NGO was born out of Harith and Jezamine’s desire to help other charities during last year’s first lockdown. “We asked friends behind established NGOs like Datuk Munirah (Hamid) of Pertiwi Soup Kitchen how we could help. Friends also told us about how hospitals were running low on PPE (personal protective equipment),” he explains. “We ordered some PPE for hospitals and front-liners and initially helped out Pertiwi with meals one night a week. That eventually increased to three meals a week, and we had more hospitals call us for additional PPE. We eventually saw the need to register an NGO to streamline our efforts and contributions,” he says. Harith hopes the NGO will grow to be as successful as other eminent charities. “An example is (Tan Sri) Dr Jemilah Mahmood of Mercy Malaysia. Moved by the plight of women and children in war-torn countries, she started Mercy with just a few like-minded friends.” Harith is appealing to Malaysians to do more for the less fortunate. “Many NGOs are out there right now helping 10, 50, 100 or 2,000 people. What if we had each person in the M40 and T20 income groups put aside money every month for one needy family each? You’d have 20,000 people helping another 20,000 individuals, rather than just 20 NGOs trying to look after 20,000 people. So it’s much less of a burden when an individual can take care of just one family.”

Harith and his wife, Dr Jezamine Lim Iskander, set up The Hope Branch nearly two years ago. (The Hope Branch pic via Instagram)

Harith will have you know he’s not entirely done evolving as an entertainer. In the age of lockdowns and social distancing, he’s gone digital in a big way, adapting his performances from the stage to live streams to social media. The man who has taken up the mantle of “Malaysia’s godfather of stand-up comedy” discloses that he’s working hard devising new ways to engage his audience virtually. “The idea of performance is engagement,” Harith says. “How do you keep your audience’s eyes on you when they have 20 other things going on around them? It’s the same with live performances: the challenge is getting people to attend a show with free alternatives. Engagement, entertainment value and creating an experience for them is what matters. “I’ve worked out for myself how to create engagement value; to have the audience feel like they didn’t waste their time looking at their phone for 30 minutes or an hour.”

‘You have to be able to create, innovate and push yourself as an entertainer’, says Harith. (Harith Iskander pic via Facebook)

Harith embraces social media also to stay relevant and to set the scene for the future. “It’s creating that social media presence, but with the idea of turning it around once people are allowed to go out. That’s just how it works now. If a good number of people enjoy seeing you on social media, they may be willing to watch you when you reappear in person later.” He’s grateful for not being adversely affected by the pandemic. “My corporate events and speaking engagements carry on. They’ve all been online since March last year. An advantage of going online is that you can be anywhere in the world without leaving home,” Harith says. With his vast success and experience, Harith is sincere about helping his peers in the entertainment industry. As the first lockdown went into effect last year, Harith banded with several live entertainment groups and associations to organise a few live shows before continuing restrictions put a stop to them. “This is indeed the worst time for everyone, including performers, entertainers and those behind the scenes. Thinking that a singer, for instance, is non-essential is pathetic. Consider the people behind the singer – stage engineers, production people, stage builders. To me, any job you do that puts money in the bank and food on the table is essential. “Entertainment isn’t non-essential. You entertain yourself by watching or listening to music or comedy when you have nothing to do. However, not many people realise this.” “In the meantime, shift and find a way to make it work for you differently. It might mean starting from ground zero. You have to be able to create, innovate and push yourself and build your audience again. Some entertainers are doing it and are getting somewhere.”