Be Good, Do Good: How 'Alex in Wonderland' comic writes his jokes, lives his life

After the roaring success of ‘Alex in Wonderland’, the stand-up comedian speaks to TNM about his journey, clean comedy and from where he gets his inspiration.
Be Good, Do Good: How 'Alex in Wonderland' comic writes his jokes, lives his life
Be Good, Do Good: How 'Alex in Wonderland' comic writes his jokes, lives his life
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“I used to be the clown in our friends’ group and in the class,” begins stand-up comedian Alexander Babu, in his chat with TNM.  Alex, as he is popularly known, hails from Ramanathapuram and loves and breathes music - which is apparent from his 2-hour-long comedy special Alex in Wonderland which has completed 115 shows worldwide and is now an Amazon Prime special. Through the course of the show, he takes the audience on a joyride with Tamil songs from the time of MS Viswanathan to Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman. The show, which was released on the OTT platform a week ago, has been widely watched and celebrated.

“When people around you say that (being the class clown), it keeps building inside you. I always thought I would become an actor or like ‘Crazy’ Mohan and have a drama troupe. But all those things have become very complicated and not sustainable,” he explains.

It was around six years ago that he saw another comic, Aravind SA of Evam, perform in Chennai. “That is when I figured out that this (stand-up comedy) is something I can do,” he says. That the aspects of the art form - like writing and performing - are fully under the control of the artiste was an important factor that pushed Alex to take the plunge four years ago.

Open-mics and improvs

Stand-up comics spend a lot of time writing their sets and testing it in open-mics. The process demands creativity, improvisation, presence of mind and time. For Alex, it roughly takes around a month to write content worth 10 minutes.

“I take that time to write, tune it, and bring it to shape in open-mics,” he says. A regular at Chennai’s open-mic circuit (except when he isn’t touring), he says that Alex in Wonderland is a product of six to eight months of labour. “The show also evolved over time. When I started performing this show two years ago, it was two hours long after which I added some sets in it and it became 2.5 hours long. Now it is at 2 hours and 10 minutes,” he says, adding that it involves quite a bit of trial-and-error.

“I had to reduce the runtime of the show because performing for 2.5 hours live becomes difficult with the energy levels and all,” he says.

'The initial response was surprising'

Alex in Wonderland, like many other comedy shows, also emerged in the city’s popular cafes and open-mic stages, where it was received well by the audience despite being a musical comedy.

“I did think of whether the audience, who are mostly youngsters and teenagers, will know these songs. But the moment I set the context for the joke, people started enjoying. That was quite a surprise for me,” he reveals.  He also says that he received tremendous support from his family, his wife especially, and many friends who encouraged him whenever he posted short video clips from his shows.

“When I started out, the goal was not to make money. The goal was to see if it is sustainable,” he says. When asked what if it hadn’t worked out the way it has now, Alex unflinchingly declares that he would have gone back to corporate life and considered this brief stint as a deserving break.

Clean comedy

Alex in Wonderland has received rave reviews for also being a ‘clean’ comedy show, without double-meaning jokes or sexual innuendo. When asked if this was deliberate, Alex says that it was more ‘by chance’ than a conscious decision.

“I think how you are deep inside reflects on the content, especially in Alex in Wonderland. Initially, I had also tried material in line with the trend. Slowly, I realised I wasn't enjoying that double-meaning content. I wasn't really happy about it,” he says. Alex asserts that since he is a parent of two boys, it boils down to this – What do I want to talk about, to my kids?

Sharing that even this show, at one point, had such language, Alex explains that he removed a particular line after some of his friends asked him if it was really needed for the show. “My friends told me if I removed that alone, anybody in the family can watch the show and asked me if I really needed that line. I realised I didn’t need that line and hence took it out,” he says. This move made Alex in Wonderland a show which is suitable for audiences above the age of seven.

Audience is key

Holding the attention of an audience for 120 minutes is not an easy task. However, Alex's incredible performance will have you believe otherwise. For Alex, being on stage is a rewarding experience.

“The moment we feel (the belief in the show) within ourselves, the energy will show outside. Once the audience spots that energy from me, they reciprocate it through claps and laughs. We build it up from there,” he says, crediting his audience for the ‘magic’ and the enormous energy he brings to his shows. He has his bad days, too, when he struggles to find rhythm. What does he do then? “I work harder to make the connections between me and the audience stronger," he says. 

Innocence-driven idolising

Alex's show speaks about incidents in recording studios which he claims is ‘largely exaggerated’. “From childhood, you keep hearing and reading about it. The content has all that as background and a lot of exaggeration. Many other jokes are from hypothetical situations I imagine while listening to songs. Those are not at all true,” he laughs.

As a performer, he idolises ‘Crazy’ Mohan’s writings which has an innocence to it, he says. Apart from him, Robin Williams (for his energy on stage) and Jim Carrey are personalities whom Alex admires. “I have always been awed by Jim Carrey. Of course, he uses a lot of foul language, but I think there is an innocence beneath all those; his intent to spread unadulterated joy among the audience is there beneath all those words,” he says.

When pushed to give a ‘message’ to us, Alex says, “Whenever I feel low, I think of this simple quote by Swami Sivananda -- Be Good, Do Good. It is plain and simple. When you are not sure about decision-making, it is always the right thing for you to do. The goodness will come back you.”

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