Fined thousands for a joke

If Rizal van Geyzel’s life has felt like a comedic farce recently, it’s best physically exemplified by the black paint that was splattered not across the door of his comedy club, but of the bank next door.

“They vandalised the wrong door! The bank’s CCTV picked it up. If you are going to throw paint over a door, at least pick the right one,” he laughs.

Van Geyzel is a Malaysian comedian who was the co-owner of the now closed Crackhouse Comedy Club in Kuala Lumpur, the site of the intended paint job. Days before the protest in July 2022, old clips of his stand-up were uploaded onto social media, a move which landed him in court, changed his life and inspired his recent show, Arrested.

“There were three videos overall. In one, I made a joke that despite having a Chinese father, I am what you would call a “privileged Malaysian”, those with government benefits usually entitled to people born to Malay heritage, which I also am.”

These videos were then investigated by police, and van Geyzel was arrested on suspicion of sedition. Spending the night in a jail, he quickly found himself hauled into Kuala Lumpur’s Cyber Crime Court, where sedition was replaced with charges under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. The act criminalises “improper use of network facilities or network services” and can result in a maximum fine of 50,000 Malaysian ringgits ($10,000) or imprisonment, or both. He plead not guilty to all charges and was allowed bail set at 12,000 ringgits ($2,500) with one surety.

“It was such a hassle. It was hard because comedy is my sole income. I’m a single father, and my father was clinically ill,” van Geyzel said. His passport was taken by the court, which he had to request if he had shows in other countries.

After a court mix up, further indicative of the farce-like element of his experience, he was also banned from social media for three months. “The judge said I just couldn’t post anything about the ongoing case, but the official court documents stated I couldn’t post on social media period. It took three months to resolve,” he said.

Looking for positives though, van Geyzel laughs about the ban: “I have to say, not going online then was a peaceful time in my life!”

Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 has its critics, who believe it’s being used to target writers, performers and the public in general for expressing their views on social media and in the press. Making it an offence to create ‘offensive’ material that could make its way online and ‘annoy’ viewers means the act is too open to interpretation, according to the Malaysian writer, poet, and former President of PEN Malaysia, Bernice Chauly.

She said: “It is so broad that any Malaysian can make a police report because they are ‘annoyed’, regardless of whether they are the intended recipient. There is no legal definition of what ‘annoyed’ means.

“It is very disturbing that this provision is being used to silence dissenting voices in a punitive manner…and to target writers and others whose views are critical of those in power.”

Van Geyzel doesn’t speak about the act directly, but believes it’s had a negative effect on the comedy circuit in the country. While he feels comedians in Malaysia are comfortable making jokes about themes such as religious and race issues within the confines of a comedy club, the problem is when people start to record on mobile phones.

“The only paranoia or danger we should feel is what is put online,” he said. “People like to record and post on social media during a show, and this is where it gets dangerous because you don’t know which part they are recording. Fellow comedians will ask what we think about each other’s routines, because things can so easily be taken out of context.”

In July 2023, van Geyzel pleaded guilty to one charge of Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, for the “privileged Malaysian” joke, and was fined 8,000 ringgits ($1,700). As a result, he faced no conviction record and no further court proceedings.

Why did he plead guilty if he thinks he did nothing wrong?

“I had to view it as a very expensive parking ticket as I couldn’t deal with the court proceedings anymore, and I faced no criminal record. I also wanted my passport to be free!”

Van Geyzel took the positives from his experience and decided to tell his story in a new stand-up show. Arrested is performed around Malaysia, and in August ran at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where he enjoyed anonymity as a performer, unlike at home.

“In Edinburgh people had no idea of the situation, so I could easily talk about my comedy club being shut down, vandalised, how I was investigated for sedition, then picked up by the coppers, put in lockup for a night and had charges in court, all for jokes that appeared online.

“But then I also talked about how my government perceives stand-up comedy to be a dysfunctional Western import, you know, like democracy, and how easy it is for comedy and freedom of speech to come under attack. It does sound very heavy, but it is a fun show. “Come see how I got arrested for comedy!””

Van Geyzel’s case was so prominent in comedic circles that other comedians under fire for jokes contacted him for advice such as Jocelyn Chia, a Singaporean American comedian. She was heavily criticised online after a video went viral featuring a joke about Singaporean and Malaysian relations, as well as the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. What did van Geyzel say to Chia?

“She asked if she should apologise. Despite what happened to me I said don’t, wait it out, in a few days people will move on to the next thing. Though I have a friend who ‘liked’ the video Chia was in, and he then got heavily abused online.

“When it comes to stand-up you should be able to joke about whatever you want, it’s proper freedom of speech. Unfortunately, though, once it’s online it’s out of your hands.”

For more articles about comedy and comedians under attack, read our new issue Having the last laugh here

How to celebrate Putin’s 71st birthday? At the Ukrainian festival telling him to ‘fuck off’

The war grinds on, the cemeteries grow bigger by the day and comedy as a critical engine of power has ceased to exist in Russia. Not so in Ukraine where Vladimir Putin’s 71st birthday will be celebrated – that isn’t the right word – on 7 October by the second VPDFO festival. The letters stand for Vladimir Putin Do Fuck Off, a phrase that Index readers won’t tremble to read but the digi-lords at Meta/Facebook don’t favour. In Cult Motive, an old grain warehouse in Podil, the Shoreditch of Kyiv, people will be treated over the weekend to the very latest in Ukrainian bands, fashion, cuisines, stories about the war – and jokes.

Our two-day festival will do its best to reflect Ukraine’s unique sense of humour, anthracite-black as it is. Bleakness is all. For example, two soldiers, Dima and Vova, are discussing who is sending the best kit to Ukraine: the Americans, the Swedes, the Germans, the British?

Dima: “The British stuff is best.”

Vova: “But the steering wheel is on the wrong side.”

Dima: “Yes. The steering wheel is on the wrong side. So the Russian snipers shoot the passenger. What’s not to like?”

The festival will feature stand-up spots from four top Ukrainian comedians, Bohdan Vakhnyc, Ramil Yangulov, Max Vyshinskyi and Andrii Berezhko.

With soldiers dying at the front, the lion’s share of the humour will be directed at the Russian killing machine, at the tyrant who sent it to Ukraine and the Kremlin’s useful jellyfish in the West. Donald Trump will get it in the neck, the buttocks and the front bottom too but it’s bad form to write out comedians’ jokes in print.

Ukraine’s democracy is being forged in war and a robust honesty about the failings of civil society, from President Volodymyr Zelensky and the people around him down, comes as standard. Zelensky was a comedian, or, better, a comic actor before the big war. It is, to put it mildly, unlikely that whoever takes over from Vladimir Putin in Russia will have the same CV.

It’s hard to define Ukraine’s sense of humour but it’s a combination of Jewish and Yiddish themes of self-deprecation under terror, a Soviet or post-Soviet love of irony written in cement and a wonderful, anarchistic fuck-you-ness. Even in the darkest days of Russia’s war against Ukraine, when the Kremlin’s heavy metal was just 12 miles from the centre of Kyiv, jokes blossomed, memes about Ukrainian tractors stealing Russian tanks flooded the internet. A year ago, when fears of a Russian nuclear strike against Kyiv were at their height – Putin won’t send nukes to Ukraine because the Chinese have told him not to – the word was that the moment the nuke birds were in the air, there would be a massive orgy on an unpronounceable hill in Kyiv. The beauty of the hill’s unpronounceability is that it would defeat Russian spies from gate crashing the orgy. And, it has to be said, British journalists too.

If you wish to support the festival, go to VPDFO.ORG  

“I’m not a fan of Alexei Sayle but he has a right to hold his views”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116788″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]I think that it is fair to suggest that Alexei Sayle isn’t one of my biggest fans. We agree on little politically and in the last few years I believe that his interventions on the issues of antisemitism and racism in the Labour Party were not only factually incorrect and morally wrong but also made my life, at a time when I was very vulnerable, even more difficult. So, it would be fair to say that I am not a fan of his either.

But… because there is always a but. Whatever my personal views of Alexei Sayle and his of me – he has a right to hold them. He has a right to articulate them and for him as for all of us – occasionally there may be consequences to his actions – but they should be proportionate and considered in the round. The consequences should not be a political football, used by people trying to get a headline. After all free speech is far too important for that – it’s not a toy that can be undermined at a politician’s whim. Especially a politician whose government is currently legislating to protect free speech on campus – would that not also apply to Alexei Sayle?  Which is why I fundamentally disagree with the efforts of British parliamentarian, Matthew Offord, this week to stop the broadcast of an episode of Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4.

Alexei Sayle made his name by being controversial, by being anti-establishment and in my opinion contrary – and he has done so on the BBC for decades. I may not like him – but that simply means I don’t have to listen to him – not that he shouldn’t be allowed to speak. And if I want to listen to him, I have the right, as does everyone else, to robustly challenge him on his views and pronouncements. That’s the joy of free speech and why it needs to be protected.

If you don’t like someone’s views – challenge them to a debate, expose the weaknesses in their argument, demonstrate why you are right, and they are wrong. Don’t try and silence them, you just martyr them and their views. And for a politician to advocate silencing speech it’s not just contrary to our basic human rights – in this instant it’s also really bad politics.

We need to robustly defend and protect free speech. Because not only does it ensure that everyone has the same basic rights to free expression but also because we need to be able to challenge views that offend and hurt so that others don’t have the excuse of ignorance when they espouse them. Our words and arguments are the most powerful tools at our disposal to shape the type of community that we live. So, let’s make sure we use them – rather than silence our opponents.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Comfort zones are killing comedy


Whenever I’m trying to fill an hour of stand-up for the Edinburgh Festival, the last thing I wonder is, “Jeez, will this set land me a spot on television?” The reasons are twofold: first, I do what makes me laugh, otherwise I get bored; second, I’ve done stand-up on television and it ain’t the apex of my career. Television producers and editors seem to have an uncanny knack for siphoning the humour out of just about anything, especially the royals, and particularly the pretty, dead ones.

Yet television comedy is held in some oddly high regard as a move up for a comic. I guess that’s because if you can’t get a TV profile going, your live shows in the provinces don’t sell very well. Why should someone in, say, Leeds, come and see you at the Varieties if you aren’t good enough to be on Les Dawson?

But to be on Les, or any television programme, your set must be “clean”. Which means few or no dirty words. Misogyny within social norms, fine, but save the word “cunt” for the wife beatings, mate. That’s right. No “cunts”, although the halls of the BBC are teeming with them. Which is sad, since “cunt” is plainly the most versatile word in the English language. It’s a verb, a noun, an adjective, and it’s really the last word on earth that, no matter how it’s used, makes my mother angry. One is also discouraged from using the word “fuck” on television, particularly as a verb. Particularly if you’re gay.

See, as an out cocksucker, there are lots of things I can get away with on stage but, on television, I’m already perceived as dangerous. TV companies treat me, in rehearsal for a taping, as though I’m retarded or a child or, worse yet, American. “Please be nice, Mr Capurro. You want the people watching to like you, don’t you? Good. We wouldn’t want everyone to think that you’re naughty, would we?”

Then they go through the litany of words I’m not supposed to use. When the show is edited and televised, other comics’ “fucks” are left in. Mine are removed. After all, being gay is dirty enough. Do I have to be dirtier with my dirty mouth?

I’m not really complaining. I’ve learned to manoeuvre my way throughout television. I can play the spiky-but-warm, take-the-cock-out-of-my-mouth-and-press-the-tongueto-my-cheek game with squeamishly positive results. Usually. But in Australia, during the taping of a “Gala” to honour a comedy festival in Melbourne, the director had a grand-mal seizure when I described Jesus as a “queerwannabe”. I saw papers fly up over the heads of a stunned, strangely silent audience. Later I found out it was the director’s script. Apparently they found him after the show, huddled in a corner, crying like a recently incarcerated prisoner who’d just taken his first “shower”.

He was afraid I’d pollute minds, I suppose. At least that’s what he told his assistant. So now, TV is promoting itself as a politically correct barometer? A sort of big-eyed nanny looking out for our sensitive sensibilities? In the six years that I’ve been performing in the UK, I’ve seen political correctness catch on like an insidious disease, like a penchant for black, like the need to oppress. Comics use the term to describe their own acts during TV meetings, and everyone around the table nods in appreciation and approval. Or are they choking? I can never tell with TV people.

Maybe they’re suffocating under a pillow of their own stupidity, since no one really understands the meaning behind political correctness, the arch, high-browed stance it panders to. The phrase was coined as a reaction to racism in the US, to respond with a sort of kindness that had been stifled when hippies disappeared from the US landscape. PC took the place of sympathy which has, since Reaganomics, had a negative, sort of “girlie” tone to it that few US politicians, especially those who served in ‘Nam, can tolerate. Being politically correct makes the user feel more in control and smarter, because they can manipulate a conversation by knowing the proper term to describe, say, an American Indian.

‘They’re actually indigenous peoples now,’ a talk-show host in
San Francisco told me while on air recently. ‘The word Indian is
too marginal.’
‘But where are they indigenous to?’
‘Well, here of course.’
‘They’re from San Francisco?’
‘No. I mean, yes. My boss’ — we were discussing his producer, Sam —
‘was born and raised here, but his parents are Cherokee from Kansas. Or
was it his grandparents?’
‘My grandfather is Italian, from Italy. What does that make me?’
‘Good in bed.’

Indigenous, tribal, quasi or semi. All these words are used to describe, politely, “the truth”. But, strangely enough, the truth is camouflaged. The white user pretends to understand the strife of the minorities, their emotional ups and downs, their need for acceptance and understanding, when all the minorities require is fair pay. I’ve never met a struggling Costa Rican labourer who was concerned that he be called a “Latino” as opposed to a “Hispanic”. He just wants to feed his family. Actually, I’ve never met a struggling Costa Rican, period. But that’s because I’m one of the annoying middle class who keep a distance from anyone who’s not like them, but who also has the time and just enough of an education to make up words and worry about who gets called what.

To the targets, the people we’re trying to protect – the downtrodden, the homeless, the forgotten – we must appear naive and bored, like nuns. It’s a lesson in tolerance that’s become intolerant. As if to say: “If you don’t think this way, if you don’t think that a black person from Bristol is better off being called Anglo-African, you’re not only wrong, you’re evil!” It’s pure fascism, plain and simple. It’s as if Guardian readers had unleashed their consciousness on everybody else, and so it’s naughty to make jokes about blacks, unless you’re black, and bad to make fun of fat people, if you’re not fat, etc. Suddenly, everyone is tiptoeing around everyone else, frightened they’ll be labelled racist because they use the word “Jew” in a punchline. Or horrified someone will think them misogynist because they think women deal better with stress.

Stand Up For Satire in Support of Index on CensorshipIndex on Censorship has been publishing articles on satire by writers across the globe throughout its 43-year history. Ahead of our event, Stand Up for Satire, we published a series of archival posts from the magazine on satire and its connection with freedom of expression.

14 July: The power of satirical comedy in Zimbabwe by Samm Farai Monro | 17 July: How to Win Friends and Influence an Election by Rowan Atkinson | 21 July: Comfort Zones by Scott Capurro | 24 July: They shoot comedians by Jamie Garzon | 28 July: Comedy is everywhere by Milan Kundera | Student reading lists: Comedy and censorship


Somehow we’ve forgotten that it’s all in how you say it. To read a brilliant stand-up comic’s act is pedantic, but to see it performed is breathtaking. That’s because what we say might be clever, but the way we arrange and self-analyse and present is where the fun comes in. Same with all those words we use. They’re not “racist” or “dangerous” by definition.

Speaking of definitions, let’s talk about the word “gay”. Lots of people I meet are concerned about what I should be called. Is it gay, which pleases the press, or queer, which pleases the hetero hip, since they think gays are trying to reclaim that word? The fact is that all those words are straight-created straight identifiers. Gay is a heterosexual concept. It’s a man who looks like a model, dresses like a model and has the brain of a model. He has disposable income, he loves to travel, and he adores – thinks he sometimes is – Madonna. He’s a teenage girl really and straights love objectifying him the -way they do teenage girls. Or the way they do infants. Try watching a diaper commercial with the sound off. It’s like porn. You’ll think you’re in a bar in Amsterdam.

I’m about as comfortable with the word “gay” as I am with kiddy porn. I’d prefer to be called a comic. Not a gay comic. Not a queer comic. Not even a gay, queer comic, or a fierce comic, or an alternative comic. It’s just the mainstream trying to pigeonhole me, trying to say, OK, he’s gay, so it’s OK to laugh at his stuff about gays. Which is why, partially, in my act, I make fun of the Holocaust by saying “Holocaust, schmolocaust, can’t they whine about something else?”

The line is meant to be ambiguous, initially. It’s meant to start big, and then the actual subject gets small, as I discuss ignorance about the pink triangle as a symbol of oppression, which has since been turned into a fashion accessory. Like the red ribbon, it makes the PC brigade feel like they’ve done their part to ease hatred in the world by adorning their lapel with a pin. When pressed, they’re not even sure what oppression they’re curing, or why they should cure oppression, or how they’re oppressed.

But if you make fun of that triangle, or this Queen Mum, or that dead Princess, suddenly you’re — why mince — I’m the bad guy. I’ve broken away from the pack. I’m not acting like a good little queer should. I’m not being silent about issues that don’t concern a modern gay man, like hair-dos and don’ts. I’m being aggressive, I’m on to. And those straights, those in charge, the folks looking after “my minority group”, don’t like rolling over.

Nor are some cocksucking idiots happy about being bottom-feeders either. Which is why I come out against abortion in my act, and in support of the death penalty since, in the US at least, the two go hand in manicured hand. There I go, losing my last supporters: young women and single gay men. How can I say: “If you wanna talk Holocaust, how about abortion, ladies? 50 million. Can you maybe keep your legs together?”

That is truly evil. No, not really evil. Just wrong. Why? Particularly when I’m only opposed to abortion as a contraceptive device. Who decides what I can and cannot say? Isn’t it the people that aren’t listening? If I’ve got a good joke about it, a well-thought-out attack and a point to make, why is it bad? Why is the world dumbing down almost as fast as Woody Allen’s films? Why does it bother me? Why not just do my same old weenie jokes, keep playing the clubs and sleep with closeted straight comics? Just doing those three things – particularly the last – would keep me very busy and distracted, which is what “life” is all about.

But I imagine that when people go for a night out, they wanna see something different. It’s a big deal finding a babysitter, getting a cab, grabbing a bite and sitting your tired ass into a pricey seat to hear some faggot rattle on for an hour. So I try to offer them a unique perspective. One that might seem overwrought, desperate, or strangely effortless, but one that might make them look at, say, an Elton John photo just a bit differently next time

Look, it’s not my job to find anyone’s comfort zones. I don’t give a shit what people like, or think they like, or want to like. I’m not a revolutionary. I’m just a joke writer with an hour to kill, who wants to elevate the level of intelligence in my act to at least that of the audience.
If in doing that, I get a beer thrown at me or I lose a “friend” (read: jealous comic) then so be it. In the meantime, I’ll keep fending off my growing array of fans that are sick and tired of being lied to and patronised.

Gosh, get her! I mean me. Get me, sounding all holier than, well, everybody. Strangely enough, the more I find my voice on stage, the more serious comedy becomes for me. Maybe I should go back to telling those “Americans are so silly” jokes before I lose my mind, and throw all my papers up in the air.

Scott Capurro is a San Francisco-based stand-up whose performance at the
Edinburgh Fringe in August ended in uproar after he ‘made jokes’ about the
Holocaust. His book, Fowl Play, was published by Headline in September

Index cover June 00 copy 3

This article is from the November/December 2000 issue of Index on Censorship magazine and is part of a series of articles on satire from the Index on Censorship archives. Subscribe here, or buy a single issue. Every purchase helps fund Index on Censorship’s work around the world. For reproduction rights, please contact Index on Censorship directly, via [email protected]