In April, Kaneez Surka teamed up with fellow comedians Kanan Gill, Abish Mathew and Kenny Sebastian for an Amazon Prime Video special called The Improvisers: Something From Nothing. Now less than five months later, she has another comedy special called Improv All Stars streaming on the platform. It features popular names like Biswa Kalyan Rath, Rahul Subramanian, Aadar Malik, Jahnvi Dave, Radhika Vaz and Danish Sait.
Here she talks about how improv comedy is different from stand-up, how an improviser’s job is to “make everyone else look good” and her funniest memory of a scene gone wrong:
What’s the main difference between seeing a stand-up show and seeing an improv show on stage?
First of all stand-up is like one person going up and doing a scripted piece of comedy. They have written, scripted, rehearsed it and workshopped it. Then they perform those jokes on stage by themselves. Improv is usually a group effort. There are multiple players in a team in an improv show. They are creating and building scenes that are made up on the spot – so nothing is rehearsed, nothing is scripted. There are formats but everything within those formats are made up right there and then.
How do you not get scared of going on stage?
Well that’s the thing. A lot of people ask me that question and the thing is there are rules and principles that you follow that really help you develop scenes and help you do make up things that are on the spot. So it is not just going on stage and doing whatever. There are some rules and principles that we follow to make it a bit more understandable.
What’s the main difference between the last special you did and this one?
So the last special we did was Something From Nothing with The Improvisers. We tried a format that is a little bit more advanced and it wasn’t very structured. Right now, in India, people don’t even know what improv is like. We’re all learning. We’ve seen Whose Line Is It Anyway? But apart from that there’s a lot more to improv. There are a lot of different formats and ways that you can do improv. And so we tried to do a more advanced format, and for this one that we’ve done now, we went back to the basics because I realized that we need to grow with our audience. It was a lot more structured. There were five rounds and two teams and each team played a different game in each round. So it was easy to understand what was going to happen next without thinking ‘What are they doing?’ and ‘How did they get there?’
One of the things that I noticed is for the first time, when I’m seeing all these guys, they have such different personalities when they’re doing stand-up. But when they’re doing improv, it seems like one homogeneous unit working together. How do you get these guys to drop their stage persona and just be like a collective unit on-stage?
Which is what improv is. I do workshops and one of the main things I teach is: This art form is not about you shining. Your job is to make everyone else look good. And if everybody is making everybody else looks good, everybody looks good. And then it comes across as one unit that you’re watching.
Did you expect these guys to have such different personalities? I saw Biswa (Kalyan Rath) doing improv for the first time and he seemed so different from how he is when he does stand-up.
So different, right? I think improv does bring out that playful side in you and a lot of people might disagree with me but I think it makes you a nicer person compared to stand-up because you have to look after other people. It does bring out a more positive side in you. Now I feel like I am preaching. But it does kind of bring that side in you automatically. I was genuinely impressed with what Biswa managed to do – the kind of personality that came out on the show. It was beautiful to watch that.
Over all these years of doing improv, what have been some of your funniest stories?
I remember we did this one scene..and this is what happens in improv, I came in as ‘the maid’ and the other guy in the scene said, “Oh my beti (daughter)” and I didn’t hear that. He said it softly. So then I started hitting on him and it just became so awkward! It became like this incestuous scene. And then halfway through I realized, “Oh he had called me beti,” and I thought, “Ah, now I am hitting on my father!” It was just so awkward – I don’t even remember how we got out of it.