THE name Andrew Netto echoes through the corridors of Malaysian comedy. At just 27, he has had the privilege to be opening act for his idol and world renowned comedy-king Russell Peters in 2012 to an 8,000 strong crowd.
Netto has come a long way from the boy called the class clown. The Petaling Jaya-born lad was discovered at 19 by a veteran and since then, despite his fair share of ups and downs in the entertainment industry, has managed to etch his name in the Malaysian Book of Records as the first comedian to perform on a flight.
Netto’s first opening-act gig for international comedy stars was in 2011 when he set the stage for Egyptian-born American actor and comedian Ahmed Ahmed and Iranian-American comedian and actor Maz Jobrani.
Filling funny-shoes in sombre times
Being a comedian, he admits, is a lot about putting your own concerns in the backseat even at one’s worst times.
“As a comedian, I have a responsibility to the show. The audience does not want to know if I am going through the motions of a break-up or if someone close to me has just passed away.
“They come to the show because they want to release stress and not watch me make a spectacle of my own issues,” he says, adding that there are times when he feels vulnerable and that his talent is being exploited.
Worse, he says, is when his career is priority and his personal life is not — a scenario widely exposed, given recent events (the demise of actor Robin Williams, also Netto’s idol).
Netto puts right the common misconceptions of comedians; that they live an easy and luxurious life, get paid handsomely, travel, party, drive luxurious cars and meet famous people.
“That’s not how it is. We have commitments too and we work hard for our money.
“It is through social events that we network with others, show appreciation to our supporters and touch base with the fans. Also, it is important to be friendly in this line of work.
“People remember you from your shows and will come up to you if they see you on the streets or malls. So, it’s always important to smile, even when you’re at your lowest,” Netto said.
At one performance, he shares, he received news that a friend had passed away just before his 90-minute set. Still, he said, he had to fulfil his responsibility to entertain before letting emotions get the best of him.
“In times like this, you just have to leave your issues, troubles, pain and whatever else off the stage, make the audience laugh and then deal with all of your emotions later.
“That is simply the crux of being in the business,” Netto explains, adding that a time-out from being funny is necessary.
“From time to time, I just want to be left alone. When MH17 happened, I had just finished my set. Instead of heading to the clubs, I went home and sat with my parents until 4am watching the news.
“Personally I did not know anyone on board, but I was sad and devastated. Tragedy, especially one like that, is hard to comprehend and it affects us as a nation,” he adds.
After eight years in comedy, Netto says his fears are the same from the first day he took the stage on Aug 19, 2006; that is if no one in the crowd finds him funny and all he gets are pity and scattered laughs or worse — no laughs at all.
“I can still ‘bomb’ [have a bad show]after all this time. Anyone can have a bad show regardless of how long they have been doing this. And for me, it happens at least once a year. I have my friends to thank because I rely heavily on them to cheer me up,” he said.
It’s okay to feel bad about how the “bomb” fell but there is a rule for moping over a bad show.
“You are only allowed to mope until 11.30am the next morning. Then, build a bridge and get over it. You can’t change the past so make the future count,” Netto says matter-of-factly.
Are there any other challenges in being a funny-man? But of course, with the likes of dodgy crowds, crowds that don’t pay attention, crowds that don’t speak English as a first language and above all else, venues.
Another factor that stand-up comedians struggle with is venues as to date only the Petaling Jaya Live Arts (PJLA) cater to such events. And while performances in artisan cafes and upscale restaurants do take place, comedians cite “environmental noise” as a turn-off factor when they take the stage.
“There have been occasions in which those who have not come for the show but are patrons at these eateries want to be louder than the comedian. It is very unsettling for us because while we are able to shut out some noise, it is in our human nature to be distracted,” Netto explains.
Chatting about the contents of his comedic material, he credits his family, the political state of the country and the events that take place during his travels.
Netto’s style is simple — no frills, no sugar coating and no lies ... He gives it as it is and his style is something that almost anyone can relate to. Not only because he says it with much panache but also because it is culturally accurate.
His shows are so clean cut, and deep that government officials have walked out of his shows and arrest threats have been thrown for taking a swipe at politicians.
Yet, his belief of freedom of speech, and conviction that it is ludicrous to arrest a stand-up comedian for the joke he or she belts out, spurs Netto on. Further, he says, comedians have the buffer of the public to turn to for defence as “after all, they too are about freedom of speech.”
On his outspoken nature, Netto says it runs in his blood and that he has his father and grandfather to thank.
At home, the rule was “if you’re wrong, I’ll correct you, but if you’re right, then speak the truth,” he shares but adds that his bold nature has gotten him into trouble at home too.
After years of observing the growth of the comedy scene in Malaysia, Netto has set some standards — don’t lie or insinuate anything that you are unsure of, don’t overkill a joke with excessive swearing, keep things simple and understand that everyone has a limit, even when it comes to laughing.
“The body can only release a certain amount of endorphins. After that, the crowd is mentally drained and no matter how funny your jokes are, there will be no laughs.”
A true Malaysian at heart and admitting that he loves his “tanah tumpahnya darahku,” Netto aims to always have a mix crowd for his shows. He wants everyone regardless of race, religion or creed to have a good time and enjoy his shows because his comedic material caters to all and he wants everyone to be entertained.
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 24, 2014.