From Scrubs to Stand-Up: Meet Dr. Jason Leong, Malaysia's Doctor-Turned-Comedian

Dr. Jason Leong, who swapped his stethoscope for a microphone, is a Malaysian comedian making waves globally. His comedy journey took off after winning the 7th International Hong Kong Comedy Competition in 2013. Since then, Leong has become the first Southeast Asian comic with two Netflix specials: Hashtag Blessed in 2020 and Ride with Caution in 2023.

His Brain Drain tour catapulted him onto the comedy scene, marking him as the first Malaysian to perform at Montreal's esteemed Just for Laughs and Hollywood's Laugh Factory.

Dr Jason Leong: Hashtag Blessed Netflix Trailer

Having graced stages from India to Hong Kong and made appearances on Comedy Central, he is now on his way to New Zealand with a prescription for laughter. He promises to deliver a full hour of fun next week at Auckland's SkyCity Theatre.

Ahead of his show on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, Dr. Jason Leong shared why laughter is indeed the best medicine in a Q&A with the Asia Media Centre.


Could you tell us more about your upcoming show in Auckland?

I'm performing a brand-new one-hour solo comedy show titled Why Are You Like This? Essentially, I create a new comedy hour every year, and this year, it primarily features stories from my life, reflections, and anecdotes.

The show is filled with many stories, and by the end, I expect most of the audience will be asking themselves, 'Why is this dude like this?' It's a very fun show. I've been performing it for two weeks now in Melbourne, and I am thrilled with the positive response it has received. I can't wait for the audiences in New Zealand and Auckland to see it too.

You've mentioned that your comedy is largely based on your personal experiences, almost like offering an invitation into your life. Could you share a preview of what the audience can expect from your material?

 For example, I used to be a doctor, but now I’m a full-time comedian. Last year, while on a flight, there was an announcement over the intercom requesting a doctor's assistance for a passenger who wasn't feeling well. I panicked because I haven't practiced medicine in ten years and felt completely out of touch. I wish it had happened when I was still practicing full-time because, at that moment, I felt totally out of my depth. I tell the story of how I panicked during that flight—it's a funny story, and it really happened. If you want the full details, you'll have to come to the show. That’s an example of the type of stories I tell on stage.

From being a doctor to becoming a comedian is quite an intriguing and uncommon transition. How did you make the switch from medicine to comedy?

 Yeah, so I studied and graduated from UCD, University College Dublin, with a medical degree. Then I worked back in Malaysia for five years, and during the last two years, I was also doing stand-up comedy while working as a doctor. By 2014, I felt the need to choose one career path. I chose comedy. I took some time away from my job, and my wife was very encouraging and supportive. My mum was concerned, of course. But after a while, when she saw that I was doing okay and was happy, she began to accept it. Ultimately, parents just want their children to be happy. So now, my mum is okay with it.

Did you always dream of becoming a doctor, or was that aspiration influenced by your parents?

No. My parents actually never pressured me to study medicine because it is expensive, and they didn’t have much money. So, they didn’t pressure me to become a doctor. I, myself, wanted to study medicine.

Transitioning from medicine to comedy, of course it wasn’t that easy. In my first year as a stand-up comedian, it was okay, and it went well. And that’s the time I decided that I want to do this forever. Yes, once in a while, there were performances that went badly like nobody laughs. But that’s a part of the whole process. It’s a long marathon, it’s not a sprint. Every once in a while, you do need a bad gig to make you better. But overall, it’s been a great journey.

Dr. Jason Leong pursued a medical degree prior to embarking on a career in comedy. His wife supported his stand-up comedy endeavours when he began performing in 2010. Image: Dr. Leong IG account.

You've had your Netflix specials and are now touring Oceania. It's exciting to see Asian comedians succeed internationally. Could you describe your journey from Malaysia to the global stage?

Yeah, so I think, firstly, the appetite for Asian stand-up comedians has been on a steady rise over the past few years. I feel fortunate personally because the Malaysian diaspora is quite broad, with many Malaysians living in Canada, America, the UK, and, of course, Australia and New Zealand. These people are spread far and wide. When a comedian like me visits their town or city, it's like a taste of home for them, so they come to watch my show.

Part of the strategy has always been to be accepted internationally, outside of Malaysia. Most of my stories and jokes don't require you to be from or live in Malaysia to understand them. My approach is to be as accessible as possible outside of Malaysia. I avoid relying heavily on Malaysian tropes, references, or stereotypes. That’s why I think I've been able to carve out a career outside of Malaysia.

Comedians often incorporate racial stereotypes into their routines, and this includes Asian comedians. While some audience members find this humorous, others may not appreciate the jokes, and some may even find them offensive. How do you handle this situation?

It's interesting. I do include some racial content in my set, but I believe that in the hands of someone experienced comedians who knows what they are doing, it can be acceptable. Australian audiences, for example, can be predominantly White. However, if you present racial material and guide them through it, they'll generally understand.

Ultimately, it's all about the intent of the performer. If the performer's goal is to entertain and make people laugh, they usually accept it—well, sometimes. If Western audiences don’t fully engage, it’s not necessarily because they're uncomfortable; they might simply not understand the references, so they're unsure of what to laugh at. An experienced comedian would recognise whether they are not laughing because they don’t understand or because they are uncomfortable, and that’s how we navigate the potential landmines.

Another Asian comedian, Jo Koy, noted in one of his specials that not everyone receives the same level of welcome, particularly Asian comedians trying to break into the international scene. Have you encountered similar experiences?

I have not tried to break into the market that Jo Koy is in, but I can definitely appreciate the sentiment. We need to work hard in this business. I see comedians of all shapes and colours struggling and working hard.

Stand-up comedy is, in my opinion, one of the most meritocratic or democratic art forms. It's not 100% meritocratic or democratic, but overall, it is the most. If you're funny, you're funny. You post clips on your social media, perform live shows—if you're funny, people will recognize it. If you are very funny and work hard, the harder you work, the luckier you get.

So, I think it's best not to think of doors being closed because of your race. Just focus on working hard and spreading your material across all platforms. Eventually, doors will open, even those that were initially closed, which I'm sure isn’t because of race. More doors will eventually open. This is the same pattern I see among white, black, and Asian comedians. The struggle and the hustle are really the same, in my opinion.

In 2018, Leong brought his solo comedy tour, Ambitious, across Asia, with stops in Singapore, India, Manila, and Hong Kong, before culminating in four sold-out shows at Kuala Lumpur. Image: Dr Leong IG account.

In your personal experience, is there still a room for stand-up comedians in an era when most people appear to be overly sensitive and often can’t take a joke at face value?

Actually, it's because we are, or were, in an overly sensitive world that stand-up comedy has become even more important. Someone has said that stand-up comedy is the last bastion of free speech, and I believe that's why it is so popular nowadays. There are many things you shouldn't say, but at a stand-up comedy show, someone will say things you shouldn't. That's one of the thrills of going to a live stand-up comedy show. However, I think the whole cancel culture—this outrage over jokes—is beginning to recede because people are starting to push back. A joke is a joke.

We don't have to cancel a man's entire career over a joke. That's not to say that being sensitive, empathetic, or kind—online or in your stand-up—is wrong. I'm not saying that at all. We are living in an era where we avoid jokes that involve fat shaming or are overtly misogynistic and sexist, which is great. But at the end of the day, it's about the performer's intent. If the intent is to tell jokes and make people laugh, like Jimmy Carr, who has made jokes at the expense of women, children, and minorities, he remains a very famous comedian because people understand that he's just joking.

What advice would you offer to aspiring comedians, especially those who are in a similar position as you were and are looking to make the transition to becoming stand-up comedians?

Well, I would say this: We are about to enter a golden age for live events and live comedy. A lot more people want to watch live stand-up comedy. Nowadays, young people have access to so many tools that weren't available to us. For example, social media is rampant—there's TikTok, Instagram, and many other ways to push out your material. It’s an exciting time.

However, I know it's hard to break into stand-up comedy or any other live performing arts. So, I would suggest getting a job that provides a steady income and then using whatever free time you have at night to hit the open mics and dive into the stand-up comedy scene.

Produce your own shows. Be good at it, because I've seen many people who weren't great at first but kept at it and are now selling out stadiums and arenas. The possibilities are endless, but the goal is to be consistent in your work. In the first few years, you might not perform well, but over time, as you find your voice and footing, many more opportunities will open up. I would advise securing a job to pay the bills and cover living expenses, but in all the other free time you have, focus on stand-up comedy.

Catch Dr. Jason Leong on his one-stop show in Auckland next week. Image: Supplied.

For more information and tickets click here.

-Asia Media Centre