Standup comedian Sorabh Pant speaks to Priya Singh about his new online shows, his creative approach to writing jokes and the future of standup comedy in India.
Sorabh Pant is a standup comedian who gained prominence with his Amazon Prime Video’s show Make India Great Again. In the show, he talks about the not-so-stellar political and social facets of life in this country. Pant also has a popular YouTube show, called Sorabh Reviews Anything: #NoRules, in which he focuses on subjects—like cricket, movies and food—that Indians obsess over. In conversation with Guardian 20, he talks about his ongoing projects.
Q. Tell us about your latest YouTube show,Sorabh Reviews Anything.
A. In this show, I get to review a plethora of topics. With this, we wanted to do something creative and unexplored. I am hoping to review a lot more in the next few months. Let’s see how it goes.
Q. You used to work with the comedian Vir Das before you made professional inroads into standup comedy yourself. How did that association came about?
A. Yes, I started my career with Vir Das in 2008 at India Habitat Centre. Actually, he is my first boss and first mentor. Vir and I worked on a show on CNBC, called News on the Loose, which ran for two years. Duringthis span we worked on a bunch of other things—like we wrote for Filmfare [Awards] and a few other award shows.
Q. What’s your creative process when it comes to writing jokes?
A. My creative processes keep changing, because if there is only one standard creative process you will churn out similar content. So I keep brainstorming in new ways. It could be something as basic as switching from writing on the laptop to paper, or recording audio messages for myself. The one consistent creative process I have is this: writing in all possible formats.
The only successful way to write jokes is through doing shows. Technically, when you think about it, a standup comedian’s boss is the audience because they pay us. But in the case of Sorabh Reviews Anything, I like to consume as much as I can before writing a review, whether it pertains to Thugs of Hindostan or Koffee with Karan. I am watching stuff to keep abreast of what is going on because the more information you have, the more you get to play around with.
Q. You have performed shows in India and overseas. Are you now able to predict the crowd’s response at different venues more easily, in terms of which jokes are more apt to generate a laugh?
A. I don’t think the crowd is predictable. I do a lot of shows and not all the shows are for my fans. I do corporate shows and college shows. In fact, I did my third school show recently and they have all been surprisingly great. The content [for the school shows] is obviously toned down, and is sans any vulgarity. There is a fun challenge that comes with it all.
Recently at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, we did around 11 shows in about 10 days. It’s a different thrill performing for the Australians because they come in with a different set of expectations. I never take any crowd for granted. If I am doing a one-or two-hour set, I will throw in 20 minutes of an absolutely sell-out where I am just pandering to the crowd and I guess it is fine. I don’t think it becomes predictable or easy, though. With YouTube and other emerging platforms, things are expanding so quickly that you can’t really predict the direction in which it [comedy] is headed unless you sit down to study the trends.
Q. How do you prepare yourself mentally and physically before a gig?
A. There is no one process. I think the simplest thing to do is to exercise and get yourself in the mood. Also, getting into a positive frame of mind and surrounding yourself with positive people adds to the energy.
Q. Have you ever been in a situation where you told a joke but the audience failed to respond to it? How do you deal with such scenarios?
A. When the audience doesn’t react to a joke, I have multiple ways to deal with it. I don’t think there is only one way. The worst way you can deal with it is getting emotionally entangled. You have to be in control and you have to have fun with it. For example—recently, I was doing a free show among 400 people. There was a lot of political content in it and about 30 people walked out through my hour-and-a-half long performance. I started playing with it, I was making fun of them while agreeing with them. So the best you can do is to not let your own emotions get the best of you and that’s when you respond the best.
Q. Who are your influences, professionally and personally?
A. I watch a lot of comedy—global and Indian. While growing up, Jaspal Bhatti, Raju Srivastava and Johnny Lever were my inspiration. From the global scenario, I am a big fan of Bill Burr and Michelle Wolf. I really like Brian Regan, James Acaster and Maria Bramford, they are really funny and weird.
Q. How would you describe the standup comedy scene in contemporary India?
A. We are still growing. Actually, Indians are contrary to everything that is said about them. We are very happy and we have a good sense of humour. Fortunately, the audience is very supportive. It is a pre-fertile ground and I have a feeling that it will just keep expanding.
Q. Any advice for amateur comedians who want to make a living doing standup?
A. I would say—keep writing. I don’t think there is a better way. Keep writing and keep grabbing on-stage opportunities. It is like any other job. The more experience you get, the better you become. Also, don’t be too apprehensive about putting yourself out there. The likes of YouTube are great platforms to help you do that. Take your time, enjoy standup, do it because you love it. It just gets better and better.
Q. What’s next in the pipeline for you?
A. We are doing more of Sorabh Reviews Anything, which includes “India vs Australia”, and the women’s T20, and both are going quite well. I hope to expand to other topics. As I said, “No Rules”. Let’s see where we go next.