Show me the funny
On screen and off stage, host and comedian Suhaimi Yusof makes people laugh. -ST
SINGAPORE - Local English television viewers know Suhaimi Yusof as one of the most prominent Malay actors on Channel 5, who plays Jojo Joget, the "mat rock" reporter on satire programme The Noose, and Sergeant Dollah from the sitcom Police & Thief.
But for the Malay community, the 43-year-old was a popular voice on radio way back in the 1980s and 1990s who went on to conquer Malay television as a multi-award-winning host and comedian.
And as Life! discovers, the plus-sized winner of Best Comedy Performance award at the most recent Asian Television Awards last year is just as big a ham in real life as he is on screen or onstage.
Zesty and prone to making corny jokes, he peppers every other sentence with a hearty laugh and a permanent twinkle in his eye.
During the photoshoot backstage at the Esplanade in between rehearsals for a hosting gig for Malay arts festival Pesta Raya, he clowned around with exaggerated facial expressions and gave the photojournalist a new pose with every shot, each one more ridiculous than the next.
A wardrobe assistant brought a jacket that was several sizes too small for his burly stature. Instead of throwing a hissy fit, he swung the jacket over his shoulder and turned it into a prop instead.
Suhaimi, who counts American funny guys such as Robin Williams, Bill Cosby and David Letterman as influences, is the kind of comedian who would do a stand-up comic set at Chinese New Year dinner events while wearing a Malay baju kurung, just to get the laughs.
The winner of 11 accolades in annual local Malay entertainment awards show Pesta Perdana might be a well-known comedian now, but the father of three was not always the funny guy, he tells Life!.
He was, in his own words, a "shy and quiet child" in school, one who was so timid that he would rather hold his bladder than interrupt the teacher to ask for permission to visit the restroom.
"Many of my former teachers are very shocked that I ended up in showbusiness, much less a comedian," he says during the interview session that was conducted in a mix of Malay and English.
The turning point in his life came while he was a Secondary 3 student in Montfort Secondary School when his teacher asked him to put on a skit for a Teacher's Day performance. "No one wanted to volunteer and the teacher picked me."
He panicked for a while but got his wits together and came up with the idea of spoofing the late King Of Pop Michael Jackson, creating a character that he named "Montfort Jackson".
To his surprise, his schoolmates laughed during his performance. "It was a light-bulb moment for me. Hey, I can make these people laugh!"
Brimming with confidence, he started ad-libbing lines, sending the audience into stitches. He did not know it then, but this newfound ability to come up with off-the-cuff quips would become a staple of his future career.
"I don't have scripts when I'm hosting. I've learnt how to read the audience and see what makes them tick," he says of doing live shows.
It was on Malay radio that he honed his presentation and hosting skills.
Malay radio veteran Zakiah Halim from the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), now MediaCorp, was so impressed by his performance at an inter-secondary school Malay debating competition that she offered him a part-time job as a host on a new radio programme aimed at teenagers, Majalah Remaja (Teenage Magazine). Throughout its run from 1986 to 1992, it was a hit with young listeners.
"The teens didn't have Internet back then, we were the Facebook and Twitter of that generation. We played the popular songs of the day, read out listeners' letters, interviewed interesting characters and we were in tune with whatever the teenagers were doing at the time."
The show's fans did not just tune in to listen to him, they also turned up in droves whenever Suhaimi and the other hosts did live road shows. "Even our clothes were sponsored," he recalls.
When he quit radio to concentrate on television in 2001, he had climbed the ranks from a junior radio presenter to assistant programme director on Malay radio station Warna 94.2FM.
Born to a housewife mother, Madam Fatimah Adenan, 72, and a technician father, Mr Yusof Bujang, who died in 1991, Suhaimi was the seventh of nine children. He grew up in a now-demolished kampung in Jalan Kampung Tengah in Punggol, before moving to an HDB flat in Hougang when he was 16.
After his O levels, he spent two years in Tampines Junior College and joined SBC as a full time radio presenter after national service. The now full-time DJ was soon bumped up to hosting the morning show and the prime-time slot exposed him to a wider audience. The move boosted his popularity within the community and Suhaimi became a household name. Not content to be a presenter, he spent his early years trying to learn as much as he could about the world of radio.
"I'd stay on after my shift was over to learn how to create sound effects for my shows. I would even pop by the marketing department to volunteer my services and I helped them to make radio advertisements. I wanted to learn as much as I could."
The bosses in SBC's radio department were not the only ones who noticed his talent as a host. Soon, producers from the Malay television division offered him his first onscreen gig, co-hosting a weekly family variety programme Potret Keluarga (Family Portrait).
"It was a boring show," he recalls candidly. "I had to wear a coat and a tie and we were showing audiences how to arrange flowers and that sort of thing, so it wasn't exactly exciting."
The stint did not last long because he was soon offered a television gig more up his alley - hosting entertainment programme Hiburan Minggu Ini (This Week's Entertainment), one of the most watched Malay television shows in the 1990s. "I was having the time of my life. In the morning, I'd be talking nonsense on my radio show, and in the evening, I'd be talking nonsense on the television show, and I got paid to do all these," he says, flashing his teeth in his trademark wide smile.
Many days, he found himself in the studio from 5.30am to 11pm. "I was young then and I was eager to learn as much as I could and that kept me going."
Today, he still has his finger in many pies. Besides his acting and hosting jobs, Suhaimi and his wife-cum-personal manager Siti Yuhana Sulaiman also run an events management and production house Q & Que.
The company has taken on many projects, from Hari Raya light-up launch events and live comedy shows to organising tour packages to China and India. Most of these events and projects were anchored by Suhaimi's gregarious personality and he would be on the frontline, usually as a host.
He also produces VCDs and DVDs of his comedy skits distributed by regional record label Life Records. The first product, a comedy skit recorded live titled Keramat Bernisan Tiga (Three Sacred Gravestones), released in 2004, was, as he puts it, an experiment.
"I saw there was potential in the Malay VCD and DVD market even though everyone was telling me that they wouldn't sell."
He proved the naysayers wrong - 25,000 copies were sold in three weeks in Singapore alone, a figure unheard of in the local Malay entertainment industry. A sign of its popularity - pirated copies of the VCD - were making the rounds in Malaysia. Suhaimi says his industry contacts estimate that as many as 40,000 fake copies were sold.
In all, his discography of VCDs and DVDs have sold 100,000 legitimate copies.
His successful home video "experiment" is an example of the comedian's business acumen, says general manager of Life Records, Mr Osman Ariffin.
"People know him as a comedian but as a businessman, he is a man with ideas. He likes to think out of the box and he is not afraid to take risks."
Another risk that paid off was crossing over to English television when the producers of Channel 5 sitcom Living With Lydia offered him a cameo role as maintenance guy Sulaiman Yusof. His character became a hit with the audience and Suhaimi was written in as a permanent cast member. The sitcom, which starred the late Hong Kong comedian Lydia Sum, ran from 2001 to 2005.
"I had never taken on a regular acting role on Malay television before Living With Lydia. I was a little worried about having to memorise my lines, but I discovered that unlike live shows, everything was done in takes and you had plenty of time to memorise your scripts in between different scenes."
He was soon taking on roles in Channel 5 sitcoms such as Police & Thief, in which he starred opposite Channel 8 actor Mark Lee and eventually, multiple roles in The Noose, for which he won the Asian Television Awards accolade for his role in the show.
Getting regular exposure on English and Malay television means that Suhaimi is constantly approached by fans in public.
Yuhana, who is almost always by his side, says that she is used to it, as are their two sons Amirul, 17, and Sufi, 13, and daughter Nurjannah, 16.
Suhaimi says he did not have girlfriends before he started dating his wife, who was from a neighbouring secondary school. Although the couple met when he went to her school for Islamic religious knowledge classes, he asked her out only when he was serving national service.
"I had just graduated from Officer Cadet School and for the commissioning ball, we needed to bring a date. She was the only person I could think of."
Yuhana admits that she thought he was a "cool and funny" guy. "And yes, he was quite handsome in his uniform back then," she recalls with a smile.
Their elder son, Amirul, says that although Suhaimi often makes his children laugh, he can be quite the disciplinarian as well.
"He can be quite strict sometimes, especially when it comes to us fulfilling our religious obligations."
Despite being a celebrity, Suhaimi is adamant that he and his family live a simple lifestyle. Home is a four-room HDB flat in Serangoon and he drives an eight-year-old Hyundai SUV. He says: "I know some people have this mentality that if you're famous, you have to live in a big house and drive new cars. I don't need all those things. Right now, I have only two pairs of shoes that I intend to wear until they are worn out."
Now that the kids are older, he and his wife can afford to make more trips to Kuala Lumpur, where the comedian is trying to make a name for himself in the Malaysian entertainment industry.
The couple have a rented condominium in Kuala Lumpur and a maid helps to take care of the household in Singapore while they are away.
Television viewers across the Causeway recognise him as a finalist in the popular reality comedy television series Maharaja Lawak Mega which ran from late last year to January and Super Spontan earlier this year ("Spontan" is slang for spontaneous).
His stint in Maharaja Lawak Mega (Mega Emperor Of Comedy) has opened doors. He is directing and producing a 15-episode comedy series for cable channel Astro and has landed his first movie starring role in a Malay suspense film called Psycho in which he plays his first non-comedic role as a murder suspect.
"After spending 25 years in the industry in Singapore, it is time to expand my horizons and branch out to the bigger market in Malaysia. There are so many opportunities there."
Earlier this year, he caused a stir in the local Malay entertainment scene when he penned an open letter on his Facebook page criticising MediaCorp's Malay television station Suria for not showing enough appreciation for local talents. He called on his fellow Malay Singaporean artists to seek greener pastures in Malaysia instead.
"It was constructive criticism," he explains. "It wasn't a personal attack on anyone in Suria. It was meant to be a wake-up call to fellow artists that there are bigger things out there than just the local market and that they should seize the opportunities in Malaysia."
Suhaimi knows that he has not reached the level of stardom achieved by Aaron Aziz, the local actor who is one of the most popular movie and television stars across the Causeway.
"Aaron spent more than eight years building his career there, I've spent less than two so I'm still a beginner over there." In any case, Suhaimi says that he intends to become less actively involved in the entertainment industry in 10 years.
"Even after I retire, I'd like to still contribute to the entertainment scene by offering to pass on whatever knowledge I've accumulated over the years."
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