Beginning his journey in November 2004 from London, Papa CJ, who refuses to divulge his real name, has been making people laugh ever since. “My happiness knew no bounds when it was finally announced that the award is mine. I immediately took a picture of it and sent it back home to my mum and dad, so that they could savour the feeling of ‘Mera beta pass ho gaya’! ”
Here he speaks to us about his decade full of comedy (where he once had to perform in a police station, to get his friend off the hook) his opinions about stand up comedy and the plans he has for the future.
How are you going to celebrate?
When you love what you do, the journey IS the celebration. Also I’m not stupid or arrogant enough to believe that receiving this award actually makes me Asia’s best stand-up comedian. I have far too much respect for the many talented comedians I have worked with on the continent to believe that. Comedy is extremely subjective, and what one person likes may be completely different to what another person likes. Therefore I don’t inherently believe there is any such thing as ‘the best stand-up comedian’.
That being said, it feels nice to know that the 10 years I’ve spent as a comedian traversing the globe and trying to make people laugh has touched the lives of enough people for them, in the subjective world of comedy, to choose me as one of the comedians they most enjoy watching. I am eternally grateful for the love I have received from audiences across the world, and particularly in Asia. It is a great place to be for comedy right now, and there is a real buzz and excitement about it. In addition to the many shows in India, in the last 10 months alone I have done four tours in Singapore, four tours in Malaysia and one tour each in Thailand and Indonesia.
You make standup comedy seem so effortless. Is it really that easy?
You try it and tell me! The two things that are the hardest to do are to make it look effortless and to make it look unscripted – so that the audience can’t tell which bits are scripted and which aren’t. The percentage of the show that is scripted as opposed to made up on the spot is different for different comedians. Ready wit and the ability to improvise on stage beyond stock lines is something that you get better with over time. While I do have loads of material in my head, I personally prefer to do as much crowd interaction as possible. There is nothing a crowd enjoys more than good audience interaction… to see humour being created from thin air. Because they know that it is magic that has been created spontaneously in the moment and that part of the show is something that nobody else in the world will ever see, because it was based on the conversation you had with the people in that room on that specific night. Also it raises the challenge for you as a comedian, because you will get unexpected answers from different people and have to instantly turn it into comedy gold!
What has your journey been like?
My comedy journey began in London in 2004. Since then, my 2000+ shows have taken me to multiple countries across 5 continents. I have performed in stadiums, on a plane, in a bus, on a boat, on a train, at comedy clubs, theatres, universities, hospitals, royal palaces and even at a police station in London, to get a friend of the hook for driving above the legal limit! I’ve performed at comedy shows, corporate shows, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and even baby showers – basically every kind of event you can think of besides a suhaag raat – but you never know, even that night might come!
The journey has been interesting as well. I’ve had knives pointed at me after a show in the UK and I’ve had a gun pointed at me before a show in Johannesburg. I’ve even performed in a hospital emergency ward while holding the head of a girl on whose head a doctor was putting 32 stitches – and I was entertaining her to distract her from the pain!
There have been a few milestones along the way too. In 2008, out of 3000 contestants worldwide, I made it to the Top 10 of the American TV show Last Comic Standing. In 2011, I was the only comedian from Asia invited to tape a Showtime USA TV Special with Russell Peters in Amsterdam.
‘Red Light Comedy’ brought together 24 of the most provocative voices in comedy from across the world. I’ve been featured on TV in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Netherlands, Malaysia and of course India. In 2011 Forbes Magazine called me ‘The global face of Indian stand-up’ and Toastmaster International called me one of the most influential comedians around the world. In Oct 2014, I performed with Harith Iskander (a famous actor and comedian in Malaysia) in possibly the largest ever comedy show in Asia, in a fully packed stadium of 9000 people. And now this incredible award.
Forbes Magazine has called you ‘the global face of Indian stand up’. What do you think about the upcoming stand up scene in India?
In India, comedy is on steroids right now! Little did I expect that when I launched open mic nights in Delhi in early 2009 to encourage new talent and kick off the English language comedy scene that it would contribute to this kind of an explosion. There is much talent across the country and comedians are coming up in both numbers and quality very quickly. They are also trying a lot of different things – stand-up, sketch, online videos, improv, funny songs and movie reviews. Comedy is going to get more and more visible and the future of comedy in our country is a bright one.
Who is your favourite stand up comedian? Indian and International?
I have too many friends on the Indian circuit to give you a couple of names! So I’m going to be like a political party spokesperson and answer a totally different question. No, I don’t use steroids – those are natural muscles.
Internationally, it’s Chris Rock, George Carlin and Russell Peters. Chris Rock for his stage presence and attitude, Carlin for his sheer brilliance and Russell for being one of the nicest and most large-hearted guys I know, who also paved a path for brown comedians all over the world. Also Adam Hills from Australia for being the only comedian I know who makes you feel warm and fuzzy after a show! That said, my biggest inspiration is the laughter and joy on the faces of my audience. An audience member once told me that I’m like a ‘blessings collector’ – that I travel the world giving people happiness in exchange for blessings. It’s that kind of thing that inspires me to do what I do. That’s why I say that my focus is the happiness business and not just the comedy business. That’s why I go into hospitals and do free shows. That’s why I do free shows for the Armed Forces. That is why I do motivational speaking in universities and mentor young comedians. And that is also why I trained as a Laughter Yoga instructor – so I could use it to take laughter and happiness to corners where comedy is unable to reach.
What is one thing that disappoints you about the Indian stand up comedy scene?
The untapped potential for cooperation. I believe the pie is large enough for everyone and growing by the day. Comedians would benefit both individually and collectively by helping each other out more proactively. So would our industry.
There are many small comedy clubs, today, that thrive on personal ridicule. What is your view on that?
Each audience is different and each comedian draws their own line based on their own personal values and respect for the audience. I have a lot of respect for all my audiences and while I have no problem teasing and embarrassing them in jest, I’m very careful not to ever be hurtful. In my opinion though, most audiences are ready for anything and once they understand that your intentions are simply to entertain, they will allow you to play with them. You just have to know how to get them to give you permission to take them down the path you want to. The one thing I will say is that when people come to my show, I do what I want. But if I come to a corporate or private event, then I’m respectful of the boundaries of the environment I’m in. However when you’re a new comedian, unfortunately you may not have the breadth of material, stagecraft or understanding of human psychology to leave certain audiences unoffended!
Do you think it’s fair to have censorship rules when it comes to comedy? Do you think we have creative freedom?
I’m not in favour of censorship being imposed by an external body. If you don’t want to see a film, you don’t go. Or if you go and don’t like it, you walk out. It’s the same with a comedy show that is advertised as having adult content. But demanding censorship or expecting the state to be the moral compass of a people goes against individual freedoms.
So I don’t support that. When I perform, I’m always aware of the sensitivities of my audience. That being said, I don’t change my point of view because my audience doesn’t agree with it. I need my audience to relate to where I’m coming from and not necessarily agree with it.
So for me no topic is off limits, and the only way to know where the line is, is to cross it. And the beauty is that each time that line is crossed, it goes just a little bit further. So as a comedian, I consider it my responsibility to dance on the line – two steps forward, one step back. Then, repeat.
What was your reaction to the Delhi High Court’s order to black out Comedy Central for airing inappropriate content?
We are the largest democracy in the world and also possibly the largest hypocrisy in the world. Fortunately, better sense prevailed in the Supreme Court. I’m not a supporter of censorship, but if they want to start banning what they call ‘inappropriate’ content, they should probably start with Bollywood. It has a far wider reach and the last I checked, in almost every film, the way a man ‘woos’ a woman is considered sexual harassment in the real world.
What is your message to upcoming stand up comedians?
Work hard and don’t let your ego get ahead of your talent. Learn the trade before you try and learn the tricks of the trade. Try and get good before you get famous. And most importantly, enjoy it. If you’re doing comedy and not enjoying it, you might as well take up a day job that sucks. At least that will pay your bills! However, if you love it and work hard, you will get good. And eventually, the money will come.
Is there anything you are currently working on or plan to work on?
My future plan is to focus on spreading happiness and not just laughter. That means that I will do a bunch of different things. My foremost passion is of course stand-up comedy and I plan to keep travelling to different countries and doing bigger shows. I also do motivational speaking and executive coaching and have worked with over 50 blue chip companies all over the world. It gives me great satisfaction to be able to inspire or equip people with either the right tools or the right thinking to realise their dreams. I’m also about to set up a foundation, of which one key objective will be to support talented artists financially until they are in a position to support themselves while living their passion. And if I can find the time, I’d like to carry on mentoring and helping upcoming talented stand-up comedians more actively than my current schedule permits.