I grew up in several places because my father moved around. I was born in Johor but because my father was from Penang and we stayed there, I grew up in Penang. When I go back to Penang, it does feel like I’m going home.
Growing up, I never saw fame as being part of my life, the celebrity status or even the stage status. I was quite aimless as a child because I’m not exactly very studious. I’m not the girl that brings back five A’s, let’s put it that way! There were not many options. Can’t be a lawyer, can’t be a doctor with these grades.
My father at one time forced me to learn how to play the organ. His excuse was, at least if you don’t pass your exams, you can go sing in some bar or something like that.
There were not many options. Can’t be a lawyer, can’t be a doctor with these grades.
He was the editor for New Straits Times at that time. So he was in Penang, he was in Ipoh. Then after Ipoh, his last station was Johor. It was hard at first because you keep uprooting and then you have to make new friends. It’s a new town, new city.
My father passed on when I was 16. So I went to work in Singapore. Then at the age of 21, my mum passed away in Johor. So it wasn’t far apart. But at that time I had already started work at Singapore. So that kinda saved me. It gave me a lot of ground to grow up.
I don’t think I really had a choice about performing. When I was asked to go down to Singapore by my mum to look for a job, one of the interviews that I went for was an audition at Har Paw Villa as a performer. I thought okay, let’s do it. I realised, Hey, you know, I kinda like this stage thing.
I think if my father was here with me now, I mean if he was still alive, he would be very proud. I guess it’s a little bit sad because both my parents did not see me exploding on to the stage. In that aspect, it would be nice to see what they thought of it now.
Unfortunately in Malaysia, to find women in comedy is very rare. To find women in stand-up comedy is even rarer. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. It’ll be nice to see my fellow sisters come up and take their turn in the spotlight. It’s always about advocating, giving women the platform to be able to showcase their talent.
There’s this preconceived notion that women are not funny. But before you can begin anything else, you need women to be daring enough to come up and say Ya, I want to do this! Because it is not an easy format. There are women in the industry who would not come up and do stand-up. You know, because…it is scary.
I still get butterflies in my stomach when I go up on stage, you know. Especially right now. Because I’m so used to performing for the club people, the drunken uncles and all that. Then when you’re in a situation of Ooh, let’s so some serious comedy, you still get goosebumps before you go up.
I’m actually quite shy, but people don’t believe that.
I do not believe in putting yourself down. Even Joan Rivers, I remember listening to her, her stand-up comedy act a long time ago. She talked about not having sex with her husband. She said the only reason why her children came about was because her husband just rolled over one night and that was it. You can talk about your life like that. But don’t do it to the point where you have the audience thinking, “Oh, poor thing”. It cannot be like that because it is comedy!
If things had been different, I would have most probably ended up going into journalism because my father was there. You know he would have most probably stuck me in to become a reporter or something like that. I do write now – I write for magazines like Esquire and Faces. So I enjoy writing but it needs to come from a personal perspective.
I love both comedy and theatre. I mean, it’s like children, you don’t want to pick sides. You don’t want to love one more than the other but I’ve enjoyed both tremendously.
Funny is what I do best. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything else. I did a serious play, “The Good Body” with Susan Lankester. But funny is what people might want to see. And sometimes as producers as well, you need to think why you’re doing this. Are you doing this to better your art? Are you doing this to put your name out there? Or are you doing this for the audience, for the public?
I think when I’m alone I’m more reserved. I’m actually quite shy, but people don’t believe that.
The outer Joanne is the persona that sometimes take over in situations because that persona is so strong and it’s second nature. So kinda like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but not so extreme. Not a murderer!
My daughter is eight now. She keeps me busy, but my work keeps me even busier. So I’m trying to balance it out. But with people like us, it’s not only work, it’s also events that we have to go to. How do I manage it? Good vitamins [laughs].
My Sundays are always reserved for family day. I try. You’ve got to have your little pockets. Weekends I rarely do outings, unless there is an important meeting or a show or a screening. If not, weekdays as well I try to stay at home. So at least, I get to spend the evening time with my daughter.
I want my daughter to be independent in whatever she does. Children are children. They would want you with them 24/7. But if you are playing the role of the breadwinner as well, you kinda need to explain to them.
For me, what’s the point of getting married if the only reason is to have someone there?
I’m a single mum so it’s the only bread and butter that is going to help pay for her, for the maid, for everything. If you ask any one one of the celebs, especially working mothers, it’s all about managing it, making sure your children understand why you have to do this.
People ask me, “But don’t you want to get married?” For me, what’s the point of getting married if the only reason is to have someone there? If they don’t contribute into my life, why should having a figure like that be important? I always feel that you don’t take second best. What’s the point of having the man around if he doesn’t contribute? You already have one child to feed, you don’t need to feed another mouth.
My daughter did not grow up like her friends. She asked about where she came from, whether she was adopted. Because she is of mixed parentage, you see. So she doesn’t have the same colour skin. These are the kind of things that perhaps single mums will need to address, especially if the father figure has never been in the child’s life. But you work on it. As she grows older, she’s able to understand.
My anthem used to be “I Will Survive”. But I think that’s become everybody’s anthem. I also really like Katy Perry’s “Fireworks”. If you listen to her new album, there’s a lot of discovery within.
I think for women, you never stay the same. Every year you grow to be a different kind of woman. A lot of woman don’t realise that.
For the next few years, I’m hoping that I can still continue to make people laugh. I’m hoping that I can still impart my brand of humour and also help women in this industry to have a platform. And to grow together as sisters would.
Joanne Kam is a comedian, writer, radio DJ and theatre producer. With over 20 years of experience in the entertainment industry, she is Malaysia’s best known female comedian. She is currently a host on Red FM’s “The Really Late Breakfast Show”. Her comedy show Super Kam 2: The Second Kam-ming opens at PJ Live Arts on 26 March.
Interview and photos by Ling Low.