In a few hours, comedy duo Munah & Hirzi will stage a farewell show at the Capitol Theatre, dubbed “Munah & Hirzi Live: Curtain Call”. The one night only, two-hour show –in their own words– celebrates “the end of an era”. The twosome has always said that they would leave the scene after 10 years.
Amidst his busy schedule in preparation for the show, Hirzi Zulkiflie visited the ZYRUP office for this interview, which, more than anything, turned out to be an hour-long career retrospective.
It all started in 2007, where the then-polytechnic friends paired up and participated in a video competition. Thankfully, it wasn’t a one-off partnership. Recognizing the potential they possessed, the pair continued to make regular videos (“with our bags as tripods!”) on YouTube under the mantle “Munah & Hirzi”.
“When we were ending [our time in polytechnic], one of my biggest worries was that I was going to end this ‘era’ with her. The YouTube channel became something to sort of ‘sustain’ that friendship.”
“There’s something honest and earnest [about the early days] that I miss a lot,” he added.
“It was beautiful. It was just us. We had no pressure, no qualms. I think that was the magic of ‘Munah & Hirzi’. It was just two friends who captured themselves in the most honest and raw form; no filters.”
It was this authentic, organic brand of content that allowed the pair to connect with viewers online, and as the years went by, they garnered thousands of fans not just in Singapore, but also across the causeway, striking a chord with the Malay-speaking audience.
By 2012, which he refers to as their “peak year”, they had their own talk-show (Munah & Hirzi: Action!) that was broadcasted on national television, as well as starring in comedy production Happy Ever Laughter, alongside veterans like Gurmit Singh and Kumar.
Meanwhile, their YouTube channel, with music video parodies and the now-iconic series like ‘10 Dares’ and ‘Sex Appeal and Jokes’, catapulted them to top status among YouTubers. Fan-favourite characters played by Hirzi, like Leticiacia and Corporal Hassan, also featured prominently in their videos. No other YouTuber balanced slapstick humour and social issues like they did.
The immense growth meant reaching a wider audience – and not everyone approved.
“Some in the Malay community were up in arms against us having our own TV show,” he explained.
“The conservative Malays felt that ‘Munah and Hirzi’ [do not] deserve their own show because they were not exemplary to Malay millennials, and by that virtue, they should never, ever get [access to] all these platforms and exposure.”
“[But] we knew who were our die-hards. And we knew that was the direction we needed to go. We knew who were our detractors too,” he added.
“The challenge was to bridge these voices together, or to consistently progress the Malay community towards the concept of pluralism, which is something that is so hard to impart onto our society.”
However, it was when the duo decided to take on the roles as ambassadors for 2015’s Pink Dot event that proved to be the hardest thing they would have to go through.
They were the first ever Muslim ambassadors of the annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) event.
“When Pink Dot happened, even our tribe had to be divided. Here were our die-hards, conflicted between religious convictions and a fanbase connection they had with us.”
Following the announcement of their ambassadorship, they received a slew of online attacks, and advertisers shunned them.
However, Hirzi admitted that it was the reaction from family members was the “hardest thing” to deal with.
Devastated from the backlash they received, the two would meet in Munah’s car every night for a month, crying, with only each other to lean on.
“We didn’t realize how big of a news it would be. It was hard for us.”
“I feel bad that I put Munah through it. All she did was stand up for something she believed in, and what her best friend told her should be done. I have never seen her break down. By then I’ve known her for 9 years – never have I seen her like that, so broken.”
I note that he must have at least been aware of the kind of responses they would receive by taking on the roles, even if he was not able to grasp the magnitude of the situation. Why then, still take the risk?
He took a moment to collect his thoughts.
“Until today, I remember this story. Until today, I remember their faces. I still get goosebumps telling this story.”
It was at the 2015 YouTube FanFest meet and greet session. With some time to spare, the pair opened the floor to fans. While he expected silly, light-hearted banter, things took a surprising, sombre turn.
A 14-year-old Muslim girl had come forward, and asked him how she would be able to overcome her self-mutilation. The girl revealed that she was conflicted with who she was – on one hand, having an attraction to other girls, and on the other, trying to be an exemplary Muslim girl she was raised to be.
“I said to her: ‘For legal reasons, I cannot give you the answer I want to give you. But my best answer to you is to find a support system.’”
“Surprisingly, it was such heavy topic, but the kids in the room were all singular in their thoughts. There was no judgement.”
One by one, other kids in the room started coming out with their issues and problems. It was then that Hirzi realized the impact that the characters he played had on the viewers, beyond being mere entertaining caricatures.
“I didn’t see that what these kids saw was, for the first time, a physical embodiment of gender questioning characters. You see, I had Kumar. You know of Kumar if you’re an adult. But I guess for the kids, to be on YouTube, I was a role-model for them.”
He recalled another incident where a stranger splashed coffee on him on Orchard Road following the news of his Pink Dot ambassadorship. Furious, he posted what had happened on his personal Facebook account, which in turn attracted the attention of his journalist friends.
“[The press] wanted to ride on that story, but [I realized] this is not a time about me,” he said.
“My participation in Pink Dot was for the kids who were waiting for a Malay voice. [Having the story released back then] would feel like one step forward, five steps back.”
In a few hours, Hirzi will revisit said “gender questioning characters” for one last time. While fans can expect their signature no holds barred brand of comedy, it won’t be a surprise to find the show tackling or making nods at deep-seated issues as well.
As the characters who we’ve grown up with over the past decade take a final bow, they leave behind a legacy that Hirzi hopes will inspire the next generation to further progress the conversation.
“What we hope will start after we step down is that others step up to the plate.”