I Taylor ‘Swifted’ It: Karthik Kumar on Releasing Standup Special ‘Aansplaining’ In Theatres

When Taylor Swift released her concert film in the theatres last year, Tamil standup comic Karthik Kumar had a lightbulb moment. Why not try the same with his special?
Karthik Kumar
Karthik Kumar

Karthik Kumar wrote Aansplaining during a difficult time in his life. The standup comedian’s special came from a place of feeling a sharp inadequacy as a man during the pandemic. “When I felt I was losing my career, I felt I was losing my manhood,” he recalls over a phone call. “And when this started unravelling for me, I realised how fragile the concept of manhood was.” The comedian turned this particular realisation into a 90-minute special that prods people to think about feminism, self-love and changing perspectives on manhood. And now, Aansplaining is running in the theatres in an experimental model, something of a first when it comes to comedy. 

The move came to Karthik when he witnessed the magnanimous success of American music darling Taylor Swift’s concert film The Eras Tour. “Taylor Swift took all her songs from the label, re-recorded them, and now she owns the IP of all her music. She must've thought "why should people pay 100 dollars and why can't they watch my tour for 10 dollars in the theatre?” Karthik applied the same logic to stand-up. “So many people complain about the cost of paying Rs 500 for a show when they can pay Rs 200 for a film. Cinema is especially accessible in Tamil Nadu. And to be able to provide this at a price point like that is important. So, I ‘Swifted’ it.” 

Karthik Kumar
When Taylor Swift and ‘The Eras Tour’ Came to Navi Mumbai

While the streaming intervention in standup comedy is prevalent today, Karthik isn’t agreeable to that model anymore. “An OTT consumption of the show makes me give up my intellectual rights of the show to the platform. But my art is not for sale. I gave my last show to a big OTT platform and I was excited about it, but now I don't have access to the show and most importantly, the data. Since I'm not a big enough comedian, they acquired it from me and did not licence it.” He prefers audiences watch his content on his YouTube channel or behind a reasonably priced payment gateway. “That way, I at least get some consumption information, like for instance some data stating that 6000 people in Frankfurt are watching my show. Which means I can tour Frankfurt tomorrow, where maybe 60 people may come to watch me.”

A standup bit is meant for public consumption, making the theatre model an exciting new avenue for comedians, he adds. “The ultimate validation is for it to reach everyone. I don't care if you like my show or don't. But did you feel anything in my show? Did my art make you feel anything? That's all I want.” 

Karthik Kumar
Karthik Kumar

Karthik spent quite some time finding the right note for Aansplaining through 28 tester shows. “When we did tester shows, we used to keep changing the ratio of men and women in the room. I always started seeing that the show was a cracker when there were 8 women and 2 men in the house. The show was a quiet piece of theatre when there were 2 women and 8 men. So, I kept changing stuff around to make sure everyone enjoyed the show.”

One of the biggest purposes of the show for Karthik was to get the men in the room to acknowledge the disparity that the women are subjected to today. “I was in a very difficult romantic relationship post my divorce and that really started with low self-esteem. This made me reflect on my journey as a man. I felt sad that the world doesn't allow five different definitions of a man. So, I wanted to create a show where I could speak about wanting to be a different kind of man. And to also admit to the fact that we have an unfair advantage over women. A lot of the systems that we've created make women run slower than us. So much that a mediocre man could do so much better than a woman.”

And comedy was the right medium for this, he adds. “I've had some great women in my life, including my mother, my current partner and ex partner. They are so skilled but still haven't done as well as many other men. If I shame them (the men) into it or righteously correct them, they might reject it. How do I give them feminism like it's bhelpuri?” While Karthik speaks about several aspects of women’s rights in the show, he is also quick to point out the irony of a man sitting in front of a mic, explaining issues. “I called the show Aansplaining to point out the irony,” he smiles. “But the brief to myself was it should not sound like mansplaining at any point.” 

It also helped to a great extent that his editorial team was built of two women sub-editors: Radhika Ganesh, a socio-political activist and Mathangi Krishnamurthy, an anthropologist who is the head of humanities in IIT Madras. “They made me truly see and cut through the clutter that was coming through my laptop. They did not add or subtract jokes, but made me question the things I was stating.”

The comedian, who is in the stages of directing a supernatural thriller about fatherhood, thinks the theatre release model could soon become the future. “This week, they have given me so many shows because there is no other film releasing right now. I'm sure I'll fill the equivalent of a niche film with this release right now, but the experiment will succeed even more when more popular artists do this tomorrow and make it work. For now, the experiment is a success just because it was conducted.”

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