‘India’s standup com­edy scene will keep ex­pand­ing’

Standup co­me­dian Sorabh Pant speaks to Priya Singh about his new on­line shows, his cre­ative ap­proach to writ­ing jokes and the fu­ture of standup com­edy in India.

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Sorabh Pant is a standup co­me­dian who gained promi­nence with his Amazon Prime Video’s show Make India Great Again. In the show, he talks about the not-so-stellar po­lit­i­cal and so­cial facets of life in this coun­try. Pant also has a pop­u­lar Youtube show, called Sorabh Re­views Any­thing: #Norules, in which he fo­cuses on sub­jects—like cricket, movies and food— that In­di­ans ob­sess over. In con­ver­sa­tion with Guardian 20, he talks about his on­go­ing projects.

Q. Tell us about your lat­est Youtube show, Sorabh Re­views Any­thing.

A. In this show, I get to re­view a plethora of top­ics. With this, we wanted to do some­thing cre­ative and un­ex­plored. I am hop­ing to re­view a lot more in the next few months. Let’s see how it goes.

Q. You used to work with the co­me­dian Vir Das be­fore you made pro­fes­sional in­roads into standup com­edy your­self. How did that as­so­ci­a­tion came about? A. Yes, I started my ca­reer with Vir Das in 2008 at India Habi­tat Cen­tre. Ac­tu­ally, he is my first boss and first men­tor. Vir and I worked on a show on CNBC, called News on the Loose, which ran for two years. Dur­ingthis span we worked on a bunch of other things—like we wrote for Film­fare [Awards] and a few other award shows.

Q. What’s your cre­ative process when it comes to writ­ing jokes?

A. My cre­ative pro­cesses keep chang­ing, be­cause if there is only one stan­dard cre­ative process you will churn out sim­i­lar con­tent. So I keep brain­storm­ing in new ways. It could be some­thing as ba­sic as switch­ing from writ­ing on the lap­top to pa­per, or record­ing au­dio mes­sages for my­self. The one con­sis­tent cre­ative process I have is this: writ­ing in all pos­si­ble for­mats.

The only suc­cess­ful way to write jokes is through do­ing shows. Tech­ni­cally, when you think about it, a standup co­me­dian’s boss is the au­di­ence be­cause they pay us. But in the case of Sorabh Re­views Any­thing, I like to con­sume as much as I can be­fore writ­ing a re­view, whether it per­tains to Thugs of Hin­dostan or Kof­fee with Karan. I am watch­ing stuff to keep abreast of what is go­ing on be­cause the more in­for­ma­tion you have, the more you get to play around with.

Q. You have per­formed shows in India and over­seas. Are you now able to pre­dict the crowd’s re­sponse at dif­fer­ent venues more eas­ily, in terms of which jokes are more apt to gen­er­ate a laugh?

A. I don’t think the crowd is pre­dictable. I do a lot of shows and not all the shows are for my fans. I do cor­po­rate shows and col­lege shows. In fact, I did my third school show re­cently and they have all been sur­pris­ingly great. The con­tent [for the school shows] is ob­vi­ously toned down, and is sans any vul­gar­ity. There is a fun chal­lenge that comes with it all.

Re­cently at the Melbourne In­ter­na­tional Com­edy Fes­ti­val, we did around 11 shows in about 10 days. It’s a dif­fer­ent thrill per­form­ing for the Aus­tralians be­cause they come in with a dif­fer­ent set of ex­pec­ta­tions. I never take any crowd for granted. If I am do­ing a one-or two-hour set, I will throw in 20 min­utes of an ab­so­lutely sell-out where I am just pan­der­ing to the crowd and I guess it is fine. I don’t think it be­comes pre­dictable or easy, though. With Youtube and other emerg­ing plat­forms, things are ex­pand­ing so quickly that you can’t re­ally pre­dict the direc­tion in which it [com­edy] is headed un­less you sit down to study the trends. Q. How do you pre­pare your­self men­tally and phys­i­cally be­fore a gig? A. There is no one process. I think the sim­plest thing to do is to ex­er­cise and get your­self in the mood. Also, get­ting into a pos­i­tive frame of mind and sur­round­ing your­self with pos­i­tive peo­ple adds to the en­ergy.

Q. Have you ever been in a sit­u­a­tion where you told a joke but the au­di­ence failed to re­spond to it? How do you deal with such sce­nar­ios?

A. When the au­di­ence doesn’t re­act to a joke, I have mul­ti­ple ways to deal with it. I don’t think there is only one way. The worst way you can deal with it is get­ting emo­tion­ally en­tan­gled. You have to be in con­trol and you have to have fun with it. For ex­am­ple—re­cently, I was do­ing a free show among 400 peo­ple. There was a lot of po­lit­i­cal con­tent in it and about 30 peo­ple walked out through my hour-and-a-half long performance. I started playing with it, I was mak­ing fun of them while agree­ing with them. So the best you can do is to not let your own emo­tions get the best of you and that’s when you re­spond the best.

Q. Who are your in­flu­ences, pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally?

A. I watch a lot of com­edy— global and In­dian. While grow­ing up, Jas­pal Bhatti, Raju Sri­vas­tava and Johnny Lever were my in­spi­ra­tion. From the global sce­nario, I am a big fan of Bill Burr and Michelle Wolf. I re­ally like Brian Re­gan, James Acaster and Maria Bram­ford, they are re­ally funny and weird.

Q. How would you de­scribe the standup com­edy scene in con­tem­po­rary India? A. We are still grow­ing. Ac­tu­ally, In­di­ans are con­trary to ev­ery­thing that is said about them. We are very happy and we have a good sense of hu­mour. For­tu­nately, the au­di­ence is very sup­port­ive. It is a prefer­tile ground and I have a feel­ing that it will just keep ex­pand­ing.

Q. Any ad­vice for am­a­teur co­me­di­ans who want to make a liv­ing do­ing standup?

A. I would say—keep writ­ing. I don’t think there is a bet­ter way. Keep writ­ing and keep grab­bing on-stage op­por­tu­ni­ties. It is like any other job. The more ex­pe­ri­ence you get, the bet­ter you be­come. Also, don’t be too ap­pre­hen­sive about putting your­self out there. The likes of Youtube are great plat­forms to help you do that. Take your time, en­joy standup, do it be­cause you love it. It just gets bet­ter and bet­ter.

“My cre­ative pro­cesses keep chang­ing, be­cause if there is only one stan­dard cre­ative process you will churn out sim­i­lar con­tent. So I keep brain­storm­ing in new ways. It could be some­thing as ba­sic as switch­ing from writ­ing on the lap­top to pa­per, or record­ing au­dio mes­sages for my­self.”

Q. What’s next in the pipe­line for you?

A. We are do­ing more of Sorabh Re­views Any­thing, which in­cludes “India vs Aus­tralia”, and the women’s T20, and both are go­ing quite well. I hope to ex­pand to other top­ics. As I said, “No Rules”. Let’s see where we go next.

Standup co­me­dian Sorabh Pant.

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