“Hey, I think I was watching you on YouTube yesterday”, says model-turned-actor Sarah-Jane Dias to a young 20-something being photographed in a corner of a quiet suburban cafe. The young man in question is Naveen Richard, stand-up comedian and star of Better Life Foundation and Star Boyz, two new comedy web series which feature practically a quarter of the roster forming India’s first wave of stand-up comedy success. Naveen appears to have a pleasant, open countenance about him. Off the stage, on a slow afternoon, in a sparsely populated space, he doesn’t seem to draw too much attention to himself. He chats with a quiet, unassuming air that can instantly give way to sure footed jocularity, when armed with a quip or a wisecrack — which is most of the time. Like most pros in the business, the comedian in Richard doesn’t take a day off — funny isn’t who he is on stage, it’s just who he is.
Bits of his off-stage persona can be found in his character Neil Menon from Better Life Foundation — a comedy web series which appears to be on the viewing list of a multitude of urban Indian millennials, who up till now looked westward to satiate their appetite for sharp-edged, nuanced and well written humour. Although his body of work is no less prolific than the rest of the fraternity, which includes the likes of AIB (whose channel now broadcasts BLF) and East India Comedy, it’s BLF and Star Boyz (another popular YouTube show) which have seen him rise in the ranks of India’s young comedic heavyweights.
The runaway success of shows like The Viral Fever’s Permanent Roommates appears to have earmarked YouTube as the go-to place for serialised storytelling for writer/performers like Richard, whose instinctual approach to physical comedy makes him extremely entertaining to watch. “We had a stint with Comedy Central, where we did a show with Kenny (Sebastian). But the whole process of getting a show approved was not something I enjoyed.” Their woes aren’t only restricted to negotiations. For some time now, the more evolved scriptwriters have found it hard to free themselves of the primetime TV shackles that ensnare them with content for an audience that’s accustomed to laughter on cue, where content is punctuated by over-the-top whistles and chimes that conveniently mark out the laughter-worthy moments.
Presumably then, shows like BLF and Star Boyz aren’t designed to coddle their audience. BLF is shot in mockumentary form and documents the workings of a dysfunctional NGO, headed by Neil Menon (played by Richard) who attempts to get an otherwise incohesive, but passionate group of individuals to work on a common goal. The writing is sharp, subtle and layered with irony and wit. Each episode has attempted to throw light upon prevalent issues and has the right mix of tropes and characters to make situations uniquely funny. “There’s a mindset that always makes people say ‘Oh it’s quite good, for an Indian show’ and that’s something I want to change”, says Richard, who’s looking at an international audience to increase the subscriber base for a show that seems quite novel and avant garde. While the format isn’t avant garde, with shows like The Office (UK), Parks and Recreation and Modern Family paving the way, it’s remarkable that Richard and his troupe, Them Boxer Shorts, have written a show that feels balanced and avoids the pitfalls of contrivance. And they’ve done so without the backing of a huge television network, or a large pool of comedy writers.
Richard also appears to belong to the minority of comedians who have a genuine flair for acting, so much so that it’s hard to tell whether the actor existed before the comedian. While stand-up comedy certainly cultivates the art of acting, it doesn’t necessarily exploit it fully. “I always wanted to be an actor and a filmmaker, so I want to contribute a lot to comedy series and sketch series, but I’ll always come back and do stand-up as well.” In a lot of ways, Richard and his colleagues at Them Boxer Shorts are, much like the members of BLF, involved in the uphill task of selling novel and niche ideas to a large audience. From the looks of it though, they seem to be doing it rather successfully.