What happens when you find yourself amidst professional comedians? In addition to the sudden pressure to sound funny and appear cool while doing so, you also wonder, “How to break the ice with THIS bunch?"
So, we start with the easiest question - “Tell us about your latest act” -put to five stand-up comedians - Aravind SA, Kenny Sebastian, Naveen Richard, Rahul Subramanian and Baggy, who are seated around a table at The Spotted Hyena, which has newly opened in Chennai’s Phoenix Mall. All of them were at the venue for a three-day comedy fest organised by Club Crest from August 15 to 18. Sonali Thakker Desai joined us later during the course of the interview.
Aravind SA: My latest act is about my experiences in Russia. I visited during the World Cup last year and survived using Google Translate. No one spoke English there and it led to a lot of misinterpretations. I’m still developing it… using the festival to try it out.
Kenny: Is this new material, SA?
Naveen Richards: Brave choice
Rahul Subramanian: Also, lets everyone know you’ve been to Russia.
Naveen: Well… I mean SA is a brave one. He’s coming to a festival… You know, I come to a festival with my best material. I don't try to try anything new. I try to give the audience…
[sniggering and laughing around the table]
SA: They don’t care about all that. She just wants to know what your latest act is
Naveen: Well, I'm talking about stuff like how I learnt to swim when I was a kid and I wasn’t taught properly.
Rahul: That’s intense, man.
Kenny: You know now.
Naveen: Now I know. But I have to lie a little bit.
Baggy: While you’re swimming?
Naveen: Yeah, you have to lie down, man.
While transcribing the entire interview in this format may have been worth it, purely for all the wisecracks that came in from all directions, we also got around to discussing more serious topics like comedy in the age of intolerance, how inclusive the stand-up comedy industry is and their thoughts on political awareness in their jokes.
Though social media has helped stand-up comedians reach a wider audience, there's also a good chance that someone may take offence at their material. How do the comedians at the table view this? Rahul says, “The problem with an online audience is that they don’t see a stand-up video for what it is. They see it like some research material. They go through the video, rewind it, make an analysis of it and then publish it by telling us what we meant.” Sonali agrees. “Most of the bullying for me is on Twitter but if I get hate, I just block them. I simply don’t engage. I don’t want to invite an argument.”
Naveen says that someone taking offence is a job hazard and has to be taken in the comedian's stride. “There’s going to be a catch with everything. We complain here in India but if you talk to Dave Chappelle in America, he’s going to tell you the same. There’s varying levels of stifling everywhere. But there are so many jokes to be made and it shouldn’t stop you,” says Naveen. “This is a very first world comedy problem in a third world country,” SA adds.
While discussing inclusiveness in stand-up, it is hard not to talk about how similar the profiles of comedians in India, particularly Chennai, tend to be. Naveen sees the privileges as allowing stand-up comedians to take more risks. “It all depends on how much time you have to do what you do. If you are upper-middle class, you can probably take the risk. You can always fall back and that is probably why there are a lot of upper-middle-class folks in the business. But now it's all about content and I feel more people are coming in,” he says.
But why are there lesser women stand-up artists when compared to men? Sonali says that the idea of doing stand-up did not seem up her alley at first. “This art form did not strike me naturally. When I wanted to do something creative, I thought of singing and dancing and not stand-up. I hadn’t seen that many women performing and that’s probably a reason. On the bright side, the number has always been increasing. The more women see the performances, the more want to do it too,” she explains.
"There’s a lot of rejection and it was difficult for me as a woman to know that they’re not on the same page. It’s also the hours which can feel taxing. I can speak for myself. I used to live with my folks in Mumbai and it was difficult because I used to come after 11.00 pm and my family is disappointed that they don’t get to see me more often," she says.
Baggy adds, “I don’t think it is disparate from any other industry. We need to figure out how to fix it but this is common in other industries too.”
We also get around to talking about the scene in Chennai and SA, who hails from the city, says artists from here are not recognised enough nationally. “I feel the Chennai market is often overlooked. The rest of the country has little idea of what’s happening out here. Chennai comedians hardly get mentioned in the same breath. There’s someone like Alex but not many know his work in the country. I think it is our job to spread the word. But independently, we have grown so much,” he says.
While everyone at the table agrees that stand-up hasn’t been hard on their pockets, for some who came from already lucrative jobs, breaking even took time. “I started making money while I was doing stand-up during my law college. My expenses were less than Rs 12,000 a month and I used to make that money from comedy. So I was able to stay independent. And as soon as I got out of college, I did not need a proper job. It has always been profitable I guess,” says Naveen.
But as far as stand-up in the country goes, the comedians say that they do not feel that the audience here is ready for comedy that also discusses politics. It is a comedian’s personal choice to come up with content that’s politically aware, they tell us.
"A stand-up comedian has equal responsibility as that of a Bharatanatyam dancer to talk about politics. I don’t understand why people think we have more responsibility,” Kenny says, sounding bored by the question.
“No one follows environmentalists. Anyone who talks about issues is considered boring and people stop following them. The reason they follow you is because you're entertaining and that’s the irony. If you are talking about issues, you are considered boring. The crowd just switches off. I think the audience decides what they want to see,” he points out.
Rahul explains that a lot of it depends on the artist, too. “I think it is great to be aware and at the end of the day, if you feel strongly about it, you can talk about it. But I don’t know. Tomorrow I can make a joke about a pressure cooker and someone can get offended. You don't know what can get you in trouble.” Baggy sums it up thus: “You should never crack a joke that you won't feel like backing up afterwards. If you are not convinced about it, don’t.”