Inside Abish Mathew's mind: Comedian reflects on early days of Indian standup, discovering his voice
Comedian Abish Mathew is a funny guy even when he does not try to be one. When I meet him at The Cuckoo Club in Bandra, Mumbai, he seems to be an extension of the version seen at stand-up gigs and his YouTube show, Son of Abish. Except that here, as we try to intellectualise the comedy scene in India, his spurts of humour feel rather refreshing.
Abish maintains he was always a stand-up comedian, even when he did not know that it could be turned into a profession. "Having started comedy a long time ago — I was doing radio before that for three years — I was very convinced I'd do radio for a living. Comedy was never supposed to be the income-earner. How people go for karaoke, comedy was like that for me. But there came a time when income from comedy started becoming more than income from my job as a radio show host. Then I thought there seems to be an opportunity. So I took the leap and moved to Bombay (from Delhi)," he recalls.
He claims there was no path to becoming a stand-up comedian 10 years ago. "It wasn't like if I do comedy writing, then I work with a comedian, then I work in the writers' room, then I get a 20-minute session at a gig. That's the same challenge I face today. I have nobody to look up to and say this is the path I also want to take."
However, Abish does admit that he enjoys an undue advantage only by the virtue of being an early bird in the world of comedy. "As a comedian who has been doing it for 10 years, the advantage is if I want a room to perform in, I'll get the room. But the problem with that is I'd tend to do stand-up that I'm not fully prepared in. The audience will laugh because they know me, and I'd improvise to make them laugh. But the fact is, I wasted an opportunity to write a joke, going and seeing if it works or not. So the advantage is the access but the disadvantage is the high chance of taking your career for granted."
Having said that, it is clear from Abish's trajectory as a comedian that he has carved a path for several aspiring comics in India today. Kenny Sebastian explains, "He is one of the comedians who has contributed to every comedian out there, be it my career in the beginning, to even Zakir's (Khan). He makes everything look so easy. People undermine how many things he can do. He's a writer, actor, comedian, and show-runner. It's very difficult to be in a business with so much rejection, and be so optimistic and supportive. I think he derives joy from bringing people together and creating things constantly. I don't think there's any comedy collective he hasn't worked with. I'm envious of that because it's very difficult to adapt your comedic style to other comedic styles. It's also an ego thing, which Abish doesn't have. He's the guy who puts comedy and art before everything. I think after 10-15 years people won't recall what a great host he is but how supportive he has been. I don't think that's spoken about enough. My career won't be possible without his undying support."
Abish Mathew admits that it is an exciting ecosystem for stand-up comedians in India today, owing to the countless opportunities to display one's talent, and the sheer awareness every budding comedian possesses about their surroundings these days. "We have lots of opportunities today. It's a great problem to have. But now, we need to do better because there're people coming in now who're so good with thoughts, jokes, and personalities. Now, comedy has gone from a job to a full race. It's a problem of plenty. But now, the real mettle is coming out. When I look at them perform, I feel like, 'What's happening to me! Time is supposed to make me better.' Haha! There are people who I've seen on Comicstaan (Amazon Prime Video India Original, which he co-hosts), who I'm a fan of. And there's no hierarchy. If tomorrow they're doing something that excites me, I'll work with them."
Abish feels at home at The Cuckoo Club, where he's often found unwinding since it is close to his home. More than that, he modestly conceals the fact that he has excelled at stand-up gigs and open mics at the venue, which is a hub for comedy in the city. He adds that honing one's craft in front of a live audience at such gigs is the primary prerequisite for a stand-up comedian in the age of digital content creators.
"A stand-up comedian is defined by a live act. It's very different from being a comedian. You can be a comedian in class, but for you to be a stand-up comedian, you need to be on stage in front of a live audience, making them laugh at material you've honed overtime. It can't happen because you're a comedian on Twitter, you're a YouTube troll, you're fantastic at writing comedy, or if you're a great comedy filmmaker," says Abish.
He does point out that all the alternate modes of comedy, like YouTube or social media, do eat into the business of stand-up comedy, but the law of conversion (of interest into tickets) persists. "It does affect ticket sales. People would be like, 'Oh I can watch Abish online then why do I need to go to his stand-up and watch him perform there,' which is alright. You want to relax after a long day of work. But sometimes, you want to go for a music gig or a movie or dinner just to break out of the rut. Earlier, it was only between these three options. But now, comedy is also making its head pop out in the other forms of recreation, which is great!"
In times when cinema halls are also reserved for big-screen spectacles and huge stars, while everything else has moved to OTT platforms, comedy also gains from known faces. Abish claims there is no stardom in comedy as such, but comedians have been driving the business more than comedy these days. "You may watch a video of a comedian and then watch a live gig because you want a flesh-and-blood experience. You may discover three more comedians at the gig, and you may bring a friend along with you the next time. That's how the audience grows.
I genuinely feel streaming is not a disadvantage. Watch us enough on streaming so that you come for our show. It's not streaming vs live but streaming is merely a marketing tool for live gigs. Streaming will aid live. You go with the expectation of an experience. And you're really lucky if you get a selfie at the end of the day."
Two comedians of his ilk who have benefited immensely from online content to help fetch them live shows with good footfall are Biswa Kalyan Rath and Kanan Gill, well known for their YouTube series Pretentious Movie Reviews. But both comedians maintain what Abish gains the most from his diligence and tendency to work extremely hard. Gill tells Firstpost, "Abish is incredibly dedicated and relentlessly hardworking. He sees a bigger picture than a lot of people. Along with working on sketches, his talk show and stand-up, he also invests time in how to better the process of these things."
"Abish is the hardest working comedian I've ever known. It isn't easy doing a talk show season after season, despite how easy Abish makes it look. In fact, I've never seen Abish while he isn't working. Even at 1 am, he is working. One day, he will die," Biswa tells Firstpost in his trademark brand of humour.
Abish says he could not be happier about the way his brainchild shaped up. "Son of Abish has grown a lot! I know it sounds like a pun but it's insane! The objective of the first season was to be a marketing device for my stand-up. It started as a video and became a show. When season one ended, we thought we should treat season two like a show. We decided on the set, and knew we had to release a new episode every week. We became a talk show! Now, six seasons in, it has found its own style and space. The season we'll do after this one will be very different from this one. We'll recreate a lot of stuff. We've strangely garnered an audience over these years, who know Son of Abish really well but don't know Abish Mathew the comedian very well. It started as Abish's fans following the show and now, it has a separate following. It's its own beast. For me, witnessing that is like a child is now more popular than the father, which is great," says Abish. "I write my stand-ups myself. I'm still discovering my voice. It's a lot more personal whereas Son of Abish is written by a team. It's like an entire village raising a child. So I like to keep the two separate. Those who like my show can come watch me live only to discover my stand-up is nothing like Son of Abish."
The road to a successful season six has not come without its fair share of bumps. Recently, actress Swara Bhaskar, who appeared on the show as a guest, was served a notice, along with the makers of the show, for seemingly 'cursing' a child. Thus, hosting a show with a bunch of outspoken celebrities as guests and asking them tricky questions is nothing less than an invitation for trouble, especially in times when people get offended rather easily. "I think everyone should be given a right to grow. As a comedian, our job is to make people laugh. Money, social media followers, getting a movie or show are byproducts. If I say something today, and there's offence generated in disproportion, maybe in two years, I would've rectified myself after evolving. But to hold someone accountable for what they said in the past isn't fair, because that person may have evolved by now. But that's just the world we live in. We can't crib. Going forward, with freedom of speech comes the right to repercussion. Let people criticise it, write about it. But when the repercussion is legal, then there's threat to life. Then it's curbing of freedom of speech," says Abish.
Unlike fellow comedians like Varun Grover or Biswa (as demonstrated in his latest Amazon Prime Video India Stand-up Special Sushi), Abish Mathew's brand of humour is devoid of a sociopolitically charged subtext. He claims he has discovered his comedic identity to be separate from his political beliefs or philosophical musings. "My brand of humour is simple and fun. As a human being, I have many complex thoughts. But I discuss those existential issues with my friends. Maybe, if you give me a few years, I'd become jaded and come back to being sociopolitical. Different comedians have different processes. I consider my humour weird and absurd. Those experiences are so live! Anything that generates friction is great for comedy. There's enough in politics. But for me, that friction could be between a perfect body and my body."
One more trait Abish has picked up over the years and incorporated in his style of comedy is the need to make his jokes more universal, rather than culture or geography-specific. "I always write jokes which are global, and (for people) who can speak English. For example, if I crack a joke on Maruti 800, people not from the South Asian diaspora won't get it. So the idea is to write jokes so specific to you and human behaviour that they transcend nations. For example, if I say, 'Dude, it was as crowded as Dadar station' then Mumbai people will laugh. But if I need a Delhi reference, I'll say, 'It was as crowded as Rajiv Chowk metro station.' But if I'm performing in the Netherlands, then those local references won't work. So I'll just say, 'As crowded as the heart of a 14-year-old' because at that age, you love everyone in school. Love is a common language so everyone will get it."
As a couple of his fellow comedians have testified, Abish is one of the most hard working comedians today. Thus, it may seem like there must be days when he does not feel like being funny, and would rather remain low-key. "You do have really bad days of mental health. We hesitate to go on the stage but when we do, we realise there's something beautiful about performing live. Call it the dopamine rush, the adrenaline rush or just the idea of tuning in a with a live audience, the experience becomes more meditative than you can imagine."
But Abish contests the assumption by claiming that the pressure is mostly quite the opposite. "The pressure isn't to be funny all the time. It's to be serious when you have to be. The trouble is to switch off," he says, smiling.
All images by Rahul Sharda.
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Updated Date: Dec 12, 2019 18:59:29 IST