This may not be the best week for the human race, but it’s not a bad one for Naveen Richard. The comedian and creator has two back to back Amazon Prime Video releases. The first being season 2 of his acclaimed show Pushpavalli in which he serves as both an actor and writer alongside frequent collaborator Sumukhi Suresh. More recently this week saw the release of his second Prime Video standup special Relatively Relatable.
Richard first shot to fame as part of the sketch comedy collective Them Boxer Shorts. On the group’s YouTube channel, he recently released a comedy music video titled My Name Is Corona which aims to bring humour to the current crisis.
Richard is a man who wears many hats – he’s an actor, writer, creator and standup comic. He’s arguably most known for creating a number of experimental web shows in the early days of India’s digital boom such as Star Boys and Better Life Foundation which have each found their own dedicated following. While his most recent focus has been standup, he next has his sights set on making movies.
Over the phone, the comic spoke to me about his lovably aggressive character in Pushpavalli, his new comedy special and challenges of working on many projects at the same time.
Your comedy music video My Name Is Corona was really fun. Do you think humour can help people cope with what’s happening right now?
Yeah, and it is also funny because it’s not as crazy as it could be and even when it does get crazy, it will be funny. Right now, we have time to think of jokes when it’s far away but when shit hits the fan, we’ll be cleaning the fan. We wrote the song, shot the video, edited it and put it out all in 4 days which is one of our fastest turnarounds. And right now we feel guilty because it’s like ‘hey man, is this what we’re doing with the talent? Making songs about this Corona shit?’ But then we said, ‘no it’s just this one’.
Is this also a weirdly good time for creators considering people are at home watching a lot more content?
It is a lighter way to look at the dark side and it is the dark way to look at the light. But it is true, yes.
How long did it take to put your new special Relatively Relatable together?
I started writing some of these jokes right after my first special 2 years ago and the rest of it I wrote in the last year. Basically, after shooting all of Pushpavalli, I sat down to just do standup for the next 7-8 months and after I put it all together, I went on tour for about a month. I knew about a year-and-a-half ago that I had to deliver something. I asked Amazon for as late a delivery as possible so I could finish writing the fiction series. For someone like me who is constantly writing shows, writing a comedy special deserves its own space and time because when you write standup, all your ideas and general vibes started going into those kinds of jokes.
Your character in Pushpavalli, Pankaj, is so funny but also so real. How did you discover him?
Years ago Sumukhi told me she wanted me to play the librarian, but back then he wasn’t as angry as he is now. Somewhere along the way, we thought he should be this angry character… probably because Sumukhi wanted me to play the opposite of who I am.
And then the actor in me takes over and finds a reason to be pissed. And you can’t always fake it, you can always see it in someone’s eyes if they’re really pissed off or not. But it got really intense. At the end of both seasons, there’s a scene where I yell at her and that’s really hard to get into because it takes me about 15-20 minutes of building up to it and about 20 minutes just to calm down after.
I imagine it must be fun to write Pankaj’s constant string of insults?
To be honest, it is a lot funnier to us when we write it. Somehow when we do it, we’re always worried we screwed up the joke. But when the audience laughs, we realise we’re just being hard on ourselves. In moments like that on set, when everyone is expecting that line to be funny, you have to throw them off by doing something new.
The show’s director Debbie Rao said ‘because it’s a Sumukhi and Naveen show, the expectation was that it would still be a comedy. But this season is a drama’. Was that the toughest part in writing the second season?
Yes, but it’s also hard because you have to interweave the storylines. Even in Better Life Foundation, we had 4-5 characters and to interweave a storyline is a pain in the ass. I had told myself I wouldn’t do an ensemble show for a while. And Pushpavalli isn’t an ensemble cast as such, but we still have to do that and also make it dramatic. But Sumukhi and Debbie know how to find real moments. We are not afraid of getting real and writing tearjerker scenes.
Even when Sumukhi and I wrote our sketch show, we inevitably tend to go into slightly darker, weirder paths. When I work with her, that’s the side that comes out. She’s a lot more in the grey than I am with her characters and she enjoys it and pulls it off well. Like Pushpavalli is Sumukhi’s tone, it’s much darker. I bring in the comedy and the silliness and lightness and she brings the darkness.
But with the comedy, that’s the best of collaborating with someone who’s a friend. That’s the case with Star Boys, Better Life Foundation and Pushpavalli. When you write with a friend, you stop overthinking. When your friend laughs at a joke, you know that’s a real moment because both of you laughed and no one can deny that it is not funny. So, you kind of make it for each other rather than for everybody.
Any chance of new seasons of Better Life Foundation and Star Boys?
No man, with BLF, we are done. Even season 2 only happened because there were people at Star who were fans of the show who wanted us to make it. We weren’t sure because it had been a while since the first season. You know how Arrested Development came back after that long? That’s what’s going to happen if we take this long between seasons, you kind of lose the plot after a while. But it’s good to know that it’s still talked about and it missed. It means we did something right. But with Star Boys, we think about it constantly. We are waiting for the right time and just hoping one day someone comes up to us and says, ‘Hey we want to make a Star Boys movie. Here’s a bunch of money’.
Your someone who wears many hats, as an actor, standup comic, writer, creator. Where do you feel most comfortable?
I’d say that I am maybe more comfortable acting but when I was on tour doing standup, I was like ‘this is just as natural’. I think I am equally interested and skilled at all of these things. The audience sometimes has their own perspectives. People say things like ‘oh man you’re a better comedian than an actor’ or ‘you’re a better actor than comedian and you should stick to that’ but sometimes when I’m on stage doing standup and I get that kind of primal laughter from the audience, no one can deny that that’s real.
You get the sense that in India, across the various forms of comedy like sketch and improv, standup is seen as the ‘main one’. Do you feel a lot of comics who are more comfortable in other areas of comedy have to force-fit themselves into standup?
Possibly. I think that happens. But I think standup is harder than any of the other forms. Not every standup comedian can do a sketch and not every sketch artist can do standup because it’s harder and you’re by yourself and it takes more discipline than any of the other forms. In standup, you can still have inhibitions and get a laugh from the audience, but with sketch and improv, you have to throw inhibitions out the window and a lot of comedians can’t do that.
You’ve talked a lot about how when you started doing standup, language was an issue because Hindi standup was given a lot more focus. Do you feel that’s still the case?
I wouldn’t say I am worried about it anymore. It is what it is. It’s not only Hindi, we’ve seen how much regional language standup connects and how hard it hits home. But that said if you really want to go all over the country and the world, I think English is the language. I think it’s also just about those of us from Bangalore that face this a lot. We think Bangalore and speak Bangalore. There’s just this Bangalore style of comedy. That place is just full of people who don’t belong anywhere but Bangalore like those pseudo-Tamils, pseudo-Mallus and everyone else.o
You’ve said you also want to make movies. Is that’s what next for you?
Yes, I want to make movies because it’s an even bigger challenge. To write a movie takes so much discipline and is such a monumental task. I definitely want to make one big movie that plays across the theatres everywhere. But I also want to make an indie type film, something like what Judd Apatow would make, that doesn’t need to be watched in theatres, but people can watch it at home on a TV. But if they’re good, movies can last forever sometimes.