Originality And Personality Are What Matter In Stand-Up Comedy: Karthik Kumar and Praveen Kumar

The two ace comedians, who are mentors on Comicstaan Semma Comedy Pa on Amazon Prime Video speak about creating humour during the pandemic, and working with new talent.
Originality And Personality Are What Matter In Stand-Up Comedy: Karthik Kumar and Praveen Kumar

Excerpts from a conversation between Vishal Menon, Karthik Kumar and Praveen Kumar on Amazon Prime Video's new Tamil show,  Comicstaan Semma Comedy Pa

A lot of people are looking towards comedy in these crazy times. How does the mind of a comedian work at a time like this? Has it taken a toll on the ways you guys come up with ideas? Or are you generally upbeat and funny in real life?

Karthik Kumar: I think it's in the shorter term that we'll feel anxious about our careers and sustainability. In the long term, whenever you put a medium through a difficult time, we will eventually come out with very good material based on the genuine struggles we've been through. Doesn't mean we'll be making jokes about the lockdown and pandemic, but we'll be making jokes about things that we've genuinely been put through in this period. We will all, I believe, have a one-hour special at the end of all this.

Praveen Kumar: You don't have to necessarily be 'funny funny' to do stand-up comedy. If you have the flair, if you're keen to learn, then definitely you can. But you should be ready to go through a long process and a lot of failures to get where you're supposed to go.

How has your joke writing pattern changed during this time? Do you have to really worry about being peace-y because of the environment or has it gone back to whatever you guys are comfortable with?

Praveen: One good  thing about stand-up comedy is that we can still do it on Zoom unlike many art forms where they aren't able to do anything online. So, that way, we are happy and fortunate to continue what we are doing, especially writing and performing to the windows rather than to human beings. We are hoping that someday very soon things might get back to normal. My thought process and writing sense remains the same. So I can easily adapt. As a comedian, I don't use body language that much; mine is mostly dead-pan. That way, it helps me perform on these small online boxes and also on stage.

Karthik: If you're asking if we've become more sensitive and being very careful, no. I think we've become less sensitive and careful, because we don't give a damn anymore. (laughs) 

So you guys are looking for new talent and new kinds of comedians coming from Tamil Nadu, who primarily joke in Tamil. They have to be different, of course. But what are the things you are looking for in a new voice?

Praveen: Especially for a programme like this, we need people with different styles. One of them is good in body language, one in wordplay, one in topical subjects, one in speaking about subjects that others usually feel awkward talking about. So, we get to see people from different backgrounds, and at least one or two, at the minimum, will be liked by somebody. There will be something for everybody, because there are comedians who cater to different kinds of audience with different genres and styles of humour.

Karthik: I look for originality of personality and originality of thought, because everybody has got a peculiar thought process and they tend to invalidate that and go into a regular thought process of 'What will the world think?' But if the original thought is extremely peculiar, the ability to translate it into something funny is easy. But if you have a very generic thought process, if you are borrowing somebody else's opinion, and then you translate that into a joke, it's going to be a generic joke. That originality and personality is what we are trying to get ourselves to look at within ourselves, and also in the contestants as well.

You guys are like the pioneers, right? Did you have an advantage because of that? Because you are not trying to imitate or copy, it had to be original. So the kids coming now, do you feel they're trying to imitate somebody, they're trying to put on an accent or deliver a derivative kind of performance compared to you guys who had to be original?

Praveen: I don't know if most of them are doing it, but even if they're doing, it won't sustain them for long. The audience who have seen others, they'll put them down saying you're copying this guy or that lady. Eventually they have to adapt themselves and should realise that they'll have to come up with a unique style for themselves One cannot move forward in life when you're a copy of somebody else.

Karthik: When we started, the fact that we didn't have a reference point doesn't mean we didn't look out for reference points. We did look at Seinfeld or Russell Peters' work, and said "Okay, will this work?" And, early on, we found out that it doesn't work. So we had to invent our own style. We looked at references and failed at it. So, I think everybody will go through a similar phase before realising it's difficult to be under someone else's skin in a sustainable manner. You can imitate and sound like others, but you can't think like somebody else. 

When it comes to the both of you, what is the process that took the longest? Was it arriving at a personal style or was it the perfection of the performance? What eventually took so long to create?

Karthik: For me, what's taken the longest time and is still taking time and I think I've finally settled down is "What is the version of me that is most true to myself?" Because there was  a version of me that was very popular with people, I wasn't feeling very connected to it and there was a version of me that was unpopular with people, but I felt more connected to it. I don't know what that version of me is. Because all of me are versions of me. And what feels truest to myself is something that one constantly looks to find. Because, as we get older, you get less ready to do that 'dance' so to speak. You just want to walk out in your own skin and be relevant or be funny. Relevance cannot come at the cost of compromising. So it's finding a version of you that meets commercial viability and being true to yourself. 

At the risk of alienating people?

Karthik: At the risk of alienating people. No, let me put it this way. At the risk of not finding the right people. You should alienate the wrong people. Because if you attract the wrong people because of a certain reason, it's not sustainable. You can't keep them for long. You gotta do the dance that they want. I don't think that's sustainable at all.

Praveen: Just to add to his point, we have to find our right and true voice that the audience also likes. That balance has to be struck. The second part of your question is trying to perfect the performance… I think it's a lifelong process. There's no end to it. So we just have to keep performing better. I personally challenge myself. For every special, there has to be something new and different. There's something or the other you can use to improve from your previous performance. 

So, how do you practice or rehearse your material? Especially at a time like this? You've mentioned that you're trying to do it on Zoom. But apart from that, do you really need to have a very trustworthy set of friends or audience that kind of get what you're trying to do?

Praveen: Like I said, I don't have much body movement. So whatever joke I write, I test it with the audience on Zoom. It's a standard process that we usually do for a live audience; we now follow a similar process for online audiences. 

Karthik: I don't know the answer to that. I'm writing a new special. I'm 60 per cent done and I've not started testing it at all. I've refused to test it on an online platform because I feel that the meter of an online medium will be different from a live medium. Hopelessly or cowardly, we are waiting for 'live's to restart. I don't want to get used to the new normal and think that this is the way this is going to be. I still like to believe that the 'live' is the fountainhead of this art form. 

Are you talking about the response? The ability to listen to it?

Karthik: You got to be slower on the joke, you got to be more deliberate and wait for everybody to have reacted to it, to move to the next. It's not a free-flowing thought. It is like 'punch move, punch move". And, in a real performance, you're trying to not feel like you're waiting for a punch. It should feel like there was a punch six times but you didn't know  it was six times. Whereas in an online medium, you're still going like "punch punch". Because audiences are tuning to understand this medium and we're tuning to understand this medium. If this becomes normal for the next six years, then maybe it will have its own life. Today, I feel like it's a cheap substitute for the other thing. This is like virtual sex. You do hope for the real thing to come back. Because, if this is what we are going to resign to for the rest of our lives, I'll feel very sorry for myself.

Praveen: So basically there are people who react in different ways. Some people, we keep asking them to unmute so we can hear their laughter. Sometimes, that might work against us also. Some people will be talking in the background, some people will be running their mixie and talking, you know? So that will disturb the performance, but, at the same time, we need the laughter. For example, if 30 people come and 10 people unmute, among the 10 people, there will be five listening to it without any background noise. With the other five, there'll be some background noise, dogs will bark; we don't know whether they listen to the joke and start barking. Basically, that's a challenge you have to accept.

Ever wondered what it would have been like had you got a platform like this?

Karthik:  JEALOUS AS HECK! They get a house for eight weeks, they get fed, they get hospitality, they get trained and they get an impetus to push and write new material every week. They get fed like fat chickens just to be giving out material. It's like a comedy farm. I felt so jealous because I was like "Damn hell!". We had to motivate ourselves, we had to go find spaces, we had to earn audiences, beg, crave. These guys had paid audiences every weekend. Damn assholes! Six assholes competing to see who's the best amongst them. That's Comicstaan Season 1. But yeah, I'm envious and happy that stand-up comedy has reached this stage.

Yeah.. and to get to be a big part of making this, right?

Karthik: Yeah. It's nice to see that it's getting validation today. Amazon Prime Video is creating a safe space for comedy. I mean it's a little like a little dream come true that we couldn't have dreamt of.

Vir Das
Vir Das

What is the closest you guys had to something like this?

Karthik: Praveen was a part of Vir Das's comedy hunt. He is one of the winners. Right, PK?

Praveen: Yeah right. What Vir Das used to do is, he used to come to every sitting. When I was in Bengaluru, he used to come there  regularly, at least four times a year. And he used to have an open mic competition. He used to give two minutes time, and there'll be some evaluation pattern. The winner that night would get a five-minute spot the next time he visits. That was a huge thing for us. I asked him, "Why two minutes? It's too less". He said "Two minutes is too less if you kill, but it's a huge time if you bomb". So, we started with the two-minute thing. 

Karthik: So winning the prize was more stage time, right? Here, the winner's going to get a special on Amazon Prime and payment and I'm like "Get lost all of you… Entitled assholes!"

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