Comedian Varun Thakur, who has amassed a global following as a standup artiste and established himself as one of the protagonists of India’s comedy scene, speaks to Priya Singh.
Q. What got you into standup comedy and what made you take it up as a profession?
A. I like to call myself an accidental standup comedian. Growing up, I would frequently watch a lot of American and Indian standup comedy, and was typically the funniest guy among my friends. However, the thought of taking it up as a fulltime profession didn’t come to mind, because honestly, 7-8 years ago it wasn’t considered a viable career. Then the likes of Vir [Das] came and created the comedy scene in India. I won at an open mike night which Vir Das was headlining and that’s how I began my professional standup journey. That was on 22 October 2011 and I haven’t looked back since.
Q. How would you describe your style of comedy?
A. As comedians, we mostly point out the funny thing in the most common situations. I’m more of a no-rules person, so my life is full of weird, fun and crazy stories. I bring these into my sets, along with my acting skills, because I’m good at it. My style is essentially storytelling in a quirky manner with myriads of characters—all performed by me.
Q. The audience has grown oversensitive of late. People get easily offended by jokes. How do you manage to make people laugh without crossing the line in such a climate?
A. I think, over the past few years the climate in the country has reached a state where people take offence at just about anything. By default, most comedians avoid jokes on religion or politics, fearing backlash. I avoid these jokes, too, but more so due to my comfort level. I do jokes that I really like. Having said that, full power to anybody who’s going ahead and speaking against the system, in spite of the repercussions. They’re making it easier for the rest of us.
I think as a country, we should all sort of take a step back, just chill out, let jokes be jokes, and not read too much into them. Let’s not take ourselves so seriously that we forget to laugh.
Q. Tell us about your YouTube series,Very Pretty Amazing Game Show.
A. I am doing theVery Pretty Amazing Game Showwith William Lawson. I’ve always wanted to do a prank show because I love pranks, and am a complete no-rules prankster. It took a while for us to come together as I didn’t want it to be just a regular prank show. I wanted to create something that would be disruptive and engaging at the same time…
With this show, we’re actually trying a social experiment, where we’re evaluating how long we can pull this act. It fits perfectly well with the “No Rules” philosophy of William Lawson, as it challenges the conventions of the status quo… You have to watch the show to see how he comes alive in this new format.
Q. What keeps you going when you hit roadblocks or receive criticism?
A. I think the most important thing for any comedian is failure, because if you’ve not failed as a comedian, if you haven’t bombed on stage, if you haven’t had people laughing in a show, then you’re not really a comedian. What you learn from bad shows is way more than what you can learn from a good one. To most comedians who are starting out, the only advice I would give is: don’t be afraid of this failure. It’s very important to fail, because then you’ll relish and truly enjoy the shows that you actually kill.
As for roadblocks, we don’t go to an office, don’t have a routine/regimen. It’s easy to slip into lethargy and laziness, becoming content with what you’ve already written and to keep doing the same thing. Every comedian goes through these roadblocks. All you’ve got to do is keep ploughing through.
Q. How much has the Indian standup scene grown over the last few years?
A. Comedy in 2009-10 was very niche. Very few people were doing it, like Vir Das, Ash Chandler, Papa CJ. These guys opened up the audience’s mind to the fact that they can spend money, sit in a nice environment, sip their scotch and watch comedians; because nothing makes you feel as happy and relaxed as an hour-and-a-half of good standup comedy.
In 2019, there are about 300-400 comedians across the country. It has been accepted as an legitimate entertainment option, and with digital platforms like YouTube and others, the word has spread and we’ve been able to reach millions of people. I feel we’re on the cusp of something amazing.
Q. Tell us about the challenges you faced while trying to establish yourself in the comedy circuit.
A. Like in any other field, there’s a lot of competition [in comedy]. The biggest challenge as a comedian is to overcome lethargy. We do not have desk jobs, are not bound by routine and are our own bosses. Which means, I could wake up one day and not write a joke, and that tendency is the biggest challenge. There’s a need to constantly reinvent, because every day someone steps in who’s better, younger, funnier. It’s important to continuously keep working at upping the game.
Q. Who are the comedians you look up to?
A. A lot of comedians. I’ll start with international comedians. Growing up, George Carlin, Bill Burr, Bill Hicks and Jerry Seinfeld were my favourites. Each one of them is so unique and different in their own ways. They were definitely my true inspiration growing up.
Back home, Johnny Lever is my biggest inspiration. Mehmood did standup earlier, but Johnny was the only guy who stood up alone on stage with a flashlight on his face, and that sort of comedy for me was always the real hallmark. I am still one of his biggest fans, because his story is incredible, it’s autobiography-material. I have never watched a single Johnny Lever video without laughing or smiling.
From my peers or people who work with me right now, I think Vir [Das] is obviously a great inspiration because he was there right in the beginning.
Q. What’s in the pipeline next?
A. At the risk of sounding like a Bollywood star, I am working on a bunch of stuff right now but can’t really talk about it. I can assure you, though, that there’s a lot of fun and unique stuff that is happening both in terms of treatment and idea. I will keep ideating, writing and performing.