MANILA -- When your place of work has become your second home, it is always heartbreaking to leave it and say goodbye.
That recently happened to the stand-up comedians who graced the stage of leading comedy bars Klownz and Zirkoh in Quezon City. The two establishments that became popular for their comedy entertainment for nearly two decades recently announced their permanent closure due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Owned by comedian Allan K with businessman Lito Alejandria as general manager, Klownz and Zirkoh cited “tremendous economic, financial loss,” at the reason for the closure. The employees were assured their 13th month pay, plus additional cash assistance.
One of the pioneers of stand-up comedy in the Philippines is Phillip Lazaro, who immediately became worried more for the workers at Klownz and Zirkoh when the closure was made public.
“My concern was not so much on the monetary factor,” Lazaro said. “It’s more on the passion that was lost. You cannot just worry about the comedians alone. Thirty lang ang comedians ng Klownz and Zirkoh. Yes, they are the face of comedy clubs, the stand-up bars. There are many other people who run the comedy bars. How about the staff? There are waiters, valet and kitchen staff. Kawawa din sila.”
Lazaro lamented no one is helping the stand-up comedians, most of whom became jobless when the lockdown was enforced more than three months ago. “Most people always think comedians are just happy people, he rued. “They tend to forget that this happiness is just put on.
“Everyone is out on a mask. When they take off the mask, they are also ordinary people who have to fend for their families. They weren’t prepared for the rainy season. No one was prepared for this [pandemic].”
Impersonator, singer, actor and comedian Ate Gay is one of the pioneer performers at Klownz and Zirkoh, where he worked for 18 and 16 years, respectively. “Every night, lumalagare ako between Zirkoh and Klownz,” Ate Gay said.
Gil Morales in real life, Ate Gay would easily pinch-hit for performers who were absent and took their performance slots with no complaints. Even if he worked abroad, he would always return facing a busy performance schedule in those comedy bars.
“They always gave me a schedule,” Ate Gay said. “Mahal na mahal nila ako. Even if I came from abroad, meron akong pwesto pagbalik ko. Hindi ako nawawalan ng schedule.”
When stand-up comedian Boobay learned that Klownz and Zirkoh would close, it didn’t sink in right away to him. “Naging issue overnight to me,” Boobay admitted. “I thought about me and my co-performers whose only work was at Klownz and Zirkoh. I realized we need to understand the COVID-19 situation that affected the business.
“For three months, even if we were not performing, our bosses were paying the rent of the place. Yet, no income was coming in. I realized we need to be considerate towards our bosses. We need to understand them.”
A number of stand-up comedians are grateful for performing for years at Klownz and Zirkoh. One of them is Mary Jane Arrabin or popularly known as “Boobsie,” the “giant baby girl.” She was discovered by Allan K in Dubai, where she used to be based.
Allan K saw Boobsie at Comedy Junction, a stand-alone bar in Dubai in 2009. Performing in her diaper and big feeding bottle, she had been featured in that joint since 2007.
Boobsie recalled: “AK (Allan K) told me, ‘Ang galing-galing mo girl. Huwag mong iburo ang talent mo dito sa Dubai.’ He challenged me. Pinauwi niya ako.”
When Boobsie was ready to return to the Philippines, she found out that she was already overstaying in Dubai. “Immigration there wanted me to pay an equivalent of P100,000 for overstaying,” Boobsie said. “But I told them, ‘I wanted to go home. I wanted to go back to my country. I miss my family. I miss my Mama and Papa. I have no money.’
Boobsie was allowed to go home, but not without the required eye scan, which banned her for life in the UAE. She had no choice but to accept her fate.
She started at Klownz in 2010 initially as a sing-along master. Then, Allan K told her, “Tataasan ko ang budget mo. Baby ka na for life. Masarap ang feeling na makapagbigay ka ng kasiyahan at inaabangan ka ng tao sa primetime sa Klownz at Zirkoh.”
Lazaro, who also dabbles into acting, TV and stage directing, insists he cannot just easily turn his back on stand-up comedy.Back in the mid-'90s, he started at Library in Malate, earning only P150 a night.
“Even if I have other work at meron akong ibang offers, hindi ko iniiwan ang stand-up comedy,” Lazaro said. “Kahit once a week on weekends, back-to-back kami ni Wally (Bayola) sa Zirkoh.
“When I’m onstage at Zirkoh or Klownz, I’m a different person. I’m Phillip Lazaro, the comedian. Then, I can also use that when I’m an actor. Onstage, lahat ng jokes mo, you’ll know the audience reaction right away.”
Although Lazaro didn’t join Klownz from Day One, that doesn’t make him any less of a loyal friend to Allan K. “Matagal na ako sa sing-along, Library days pa,” Lazaro said. “I was part of the group that opened Punchline. Then, after several months, I joined Klownz.
“Allan K never told me to transfer. I was the one who decided to transfer. That was a non-issue. Doon lang ako sa kaibigan ko. Nagbibihis pa ako sa condo niya. After eight months of Klownz, I officially transferred. But from Day One of Zirkoh, I was already there.”
Through Lazaro’s many years onstage, performance is really close to his heart. “I’m a pioneer of stand-up comedy,” he said. “I started from scratch. I wasn’t born to be a comedian. I was born to make people laugh. I’m a serious person. I was never the clown in the group.”
The jittery feeling whenever he’s onstage never left Lazaro and he believes that is important even if he has been performing for years. That also keeps him on his toes every time he’s onstage.
“I never became complacent about performing onstage,” he admitted. “Never nawala sa akin ang nerbiyos. Every night, you don’t have the same crowd. You test the waters first. Then, always treat every show as your last performance.”
Last February, Lazaro directed a Valentine’s stand-up comedy show, “Tinder Love Soooo Much,” with John Lapuz, Tuesday Vargas, Mike “Pekto” Nacua, Divine Tetay and Kim Idol at the Music Museum.
“The money that I earned from directing that show, that’s what I use now,” Lazaro said. “Though I know we need to work so we can save for the future, you don’t need to grab every offer. I think of my health first before I accept any project.”
Ate Gay is grateful to Allan K for all the good breaks and unbelievable opportunities through the years. “Natuto akong maging professional diyan [sa Klownz at Zirkoh],” Ate Gay said. “Si Allan K kasi, ayaw ng late. He never showed us that he’s a boss. Performer din siya like us. He’s more of a friend, co-worker and someone who owns the establishments.”
Every night was always “happy” while Ate Gay was performing. “Ang dami kong naging opportunities at Klownz and Zirkoh,” he acknowledged. “I was very fortunate. Every night I worked for Klownz and Zirkoh. Bahay ko na ‘yan. Pag-gising ko, magbibihis na lang ako at papasok na ako diyan.”
He is undoubtedly grateful for having fulfilled his dreams through his stints at Klownz and Zirkoh. “Diyan lahat nangyari ang mga pangarap ko,” he proudly said. “Nakapag-perform ako sa Mall of Asia Arena (MOA). Nakagawa ako ng pelikula. Nakapag-show ako abroad.”
Ate Gay, Gil Morales in real life, starred in the 2006 light comedy-drama, “Jupit,” megged by Alvin Reyes Fortuno. The movie was screened in all SM Cinemas.
Boobay started performing at Klownz back in 2009, after he met Ate Gay in Manila. “Sabi niya, ‘Bakla ka, bumibiyahe ka pa dito sa Manila!’ He offered to introduce me to Allan K, who asked me to sing in my audition at Klownz,” Boobay recalled.
Two years before that, Boobay had finished his college course – Bachelor of Arts in Communication – at St. Louis University in Baguio City. However, even before he graduated, Boobay already had an early stint at a comedy bar in Baguio.
Boobay’s TV stint came much earlier. While still a student, he snatched a walk-in role in “Idol Ko si Kap,” a sitcom that starred Bong Revilla, Jr. “I merely sent a video for audition then, I was given a role,” he shared.
After he graduated in college, Boobay originally planned to work in Baguio until opportunities opened for him.
“On Mondays, I would go to Manila just for the sitcom taping. I would just take Victory Liner for six to seven hours. Right after the taping, I would ride the bus again and go straight to school.”
The eldest in a brood of four, Boobay, who is Norman Balbuena in real life, is a native of Zambales City. His father is a retired military officer. When Boobay was still in high school, he was the Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) chairman in Zambales.
“I attended a leadership training of SK chairmen in Baguio in 2003,” Boobay recalled. “Another chairman who was with me didn’t push through with his entrance exam at SLU. So, I took his slot and signed the application form. That was how I spent my college life in Baguio.”
He merely tried his luck to enter SLU. “I told myself, kung hindi pumasa, babalik ako sa Olongapo,” he said. But fate had a different plan for Boobay.
In 2009, Boobay became a regular performer at Klownz along Quezon Avenue. The following year, he was seen onstage at Zirkoh in Tomas Morato.
He started his stint at Klownz, performing at 9 p.m. and leading the sing-along sessions once or twice a week. “Then, Allan K gave me a chance to perform three times a week at Klownz and two nights at Zirkoh.”
After the set, Boobay relished the constant bonding with his fellow stand-up comedians. “We refused to go home right away. Tinutuloy pa namin ng chikahan and bonding with my fellow performers.”
The same was echoed by Boobsie, who always looked forward to bonding with the other performers. “Before make-up, kwentuhan muna kami, tapos kain,” she shared their routine. “After ng show, kwentuhan pa ulit. Kaya alam namin ang lahat ng nangyayari sa araw amin.”
Although she started as a stand-up comedian in Manila back in 2003, Boobsie became a main performer at Klownz and Zirkoh by 2011, the year after she returned to Manila from the UAE. She undoubtedly gained her loyal following in the comedy bars.
“There was a time may customer nagwala dahil hinahanap ako,” Boobsie recalled. “Couple sila, tapos may mga kasamang ibang guests.”
She performed at Zirkoh on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays. Meanwhile, she was at Klownz every Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. “Madalas, reliever ako ni Kuya Jose (Manalo) at Kuya Wally (Bayola),” she said.
Boobsie is a mom to two boys – MJ or Marl John and “Shot,” which is short for Jose Cuervo. “’Ang names ng mga anak ko, may kinalaman sa work ko,” Boobsie laughed.
Of her erstwhile boss, Boobsie had this to say about Allan K. “Sobrang bait ni Boss Allan. Gusto niya loyal ka sa kanya. Parang tatay, magulang. One time, I got suspended originally for two weeks. But after one week, pinababalik niya na ako. Ayoko pa rin pumasok, kasi may dalawang raket pa ako. (Laughs)
“Last night, we came from his house. I asked for P1,000 pero lambing lang. Nagbigay siya agad. Hindi ‘yun utang. Ayaw niya ng umutang. Madali siyang makaramdam. Magbibigay siya ng kusa. Pero hindi mo siya mabu-budol.”
Meanwhile, Boobay got opportunities he never imagined earlier in life after he worked at Klownz and Zirkoh. Aside from out-of-town shows, he was able to go out of the country to perform repeatedly in the US, Canada and Japan.
GRATEFUL TO ALLAN K
“Lahat ‘yun narating ko sa tulong ni Allan K,” Boobay stressed. “Our co-workers became like family to me. Ate Gay and Allan K became my mentors in doing stand up comedy. Kung hindi dahil sa kanila, maybe I cannot figure out how I really became a stand-up comedian.”
Boobay is also grateful to Allan K for the 2018 Aliw Award he received as best stand-up comedian. “Klownz and Zirkoh gave that award to me,” Boobay proudly beamed.
He constantly keeps in mind the important lessons he learned from his boss. “Once you’re a performer, you don’t have to curse or utter bad or hurtful words just to entertain your audience,” Boobay shared. “Never humiliate your audience.
“They paid entrance fees. They don’t deserve to be humiliated. We should execute a performance or a joke with your co-performer onstage, not with the audience.”
At present, Boobay is performing online live at Kumu. “Most of the comedy artists are there now,” he noted.
Allan K constantly reminded the stand-up comedy artists this important pointer before they start to perform. “No matter what you’re going through in your personal life, iwanan mo ang pinagdadaanan mo bago ka sumampa ng entablado,” Boobay remembered. “Walang kinalaman ang audience sa problem mo o pinagdadaanan mo. They came here to be entertained.
“As a performer, your mindset should be to entertain the audience. Be happy. Be a responsible and disciplined performer. Dapat walang lalabas na hindi masaya pagkatapos ng show.”
Although most of their jobs are in limbo, Boobay still remains hopeful. “This is not the end,” he insisted. “Who knows after this COVID-19, there’s still a big chance for entertainment to bounce back. Bigger and better.
“Gagawa ng paraan ‘yung nasa Itaas na makabaik kami. He gave this job to us. He gave us the chance na makapagpasaya at Siya rin ang magbabalik nito.”
For his part, Lazaro believes that although establishments have closed during this pandemic, entertainment might return slowly come December.
“Christmas is always a big event for everybody. Pinoys love festivities. Naghirap tayo ng buong taon, we need to celebrate come December. Opportunity will be back soon. Hopefully, mag full-blast again ang entertainment early next year,” he said.
He insists the stand-up comedians need not say they will be back with a vengeance. “Because we are not really angry. Pwedeng malungkot. Pwedeng umiyak. But we will be better performers because of the experience we’ve been through. We will not just put laughter on our audience’s faces, but smiles in their hearts [again].”
After all, “Laughter is just like food, humor is just like air, really essential to our living,” Lazaro maintained. “We need humor. This [pandemic] will surely be good material for comedy later on.
The stand-up comedians are known to be a tough and solid bunch. They may be tamed of late – and it’s certainly evident – because of COVID-19, but they will be ready to make their presence felt and surge ahead soon, all better than before.