With more than a million subscribers to his YouTube channel, Kenny Sebastian may well be the funniest Internet star to have emerged from India’s standup scene, writes Rishita Roy Chowdhury.
Comedian Kenneth Sebastian is one of the foremost and immensely successful comedians to emerge out of the YouTube scene in India. Known by his stage name Kenny, Sebastian has in the past donned the hats of musician and filmmaker as well. In his comedy career, he has made several special appearances on big-banner shows on Amazon Prime Video, such as Star Boyz, Sketchy Behaviour and Die Trying (this last was created and directed by him).
Sebastian was always musically inclined and also performed in a band when he was growing up. Theatre and videography were his other interests back then. He said, “Music and theatre are completely different fields, which I was associated with earlier because I wanted to go into films. I thought I’d get better at directing. But everyone around me kept telling me that I was funny, so I tried standup. It was such an amazing experience. The response to standup acts, when people just immediately get up and clap, is such a great feeling… So I went to Bangalore and participated in open-mic events. After doing that for a few years, I moved to Mumbai and things started to fall into place.”
When the Internet opened up as a medium for videography, Sebastian started off by making short home videos, skits and covers, and uploaded them online. The content generated a positive response. But it was Sebastian’s penchant for live standup shows that finally got him YouTube stardom.
Now an Internet sensation, Sebastian was 19 when he performed standup for the first time. He said, “It was a competition in Bangalore. I participated in it and won it. And in that moment, I was the happiest I have ever been in my life.”
According to Sebastian, his experience of having performed music live helped his career in comedy. His background served as a big advantage as he did not have to worry about stage fright. So after graduation, he decided to pursue standup professionally.
Something that he internalised from that moment on was the importance of rehearsals. He said, “There are no retakes or cuts in comedy acts. Your content, preparation and your ability to engage the audience is put to test from the first to the last minute. Rehearsal after rehearsal is required.”
The biggest challenge a comedian faces has to do with producing content that is original and funny, and doing so over and over again. He said, “If my audience is getting bored of what I am doing, then what am I doing? It’s human nature that you follow an artist, you really like him or her and after a while, you’re like, ‘What else? What’s next?’ I feel as a comedian, you have a very limited legroom. The key is to not get too comfortable. Coming up with fresh content is a constant struggle. It’s always work-in-progress.”
The 28-year-old credits YouTube for his success. He said, “It is the single most important, the biggest boost to my career. As it did for millions of other people, it gave me a platform to explore my talents. YouTube changed everything for me.” The digital space’s role is not just limited to providing access to a worldwide audience; it has broken the “hygiene system” barrier of television and cinema. This leaves comedians with more wiggle room to talk about varied subjects.
Sebastian explained, “When young people see us talk, they can’t believe we are allowed to talk about all sorts of things and that we sound like everyone. It’s a surprise because no one in television talks like normal people. There are restrictions and artistes are asked not to talk about anything remotely controversial. But we say what we want to say. The audience is relieved that finally there is some honest form of entertainment. Online platforms really give us that freedom.”
While the popular comedian admires many people from his field, his favourite remains the first comedian he has religiously watched since childhood, Jerry Seinfeld. Sebastian said he learned talking about things that had a universal appeal from Seinfeld and his clean, observational and relatable comedy.
Today, Sebastian has 1.8 million followers on YouTube and frequently performs at houseful venues. He has toured around the globe and has performed at venues across the US, Dubai, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Australia. About to complete a decade in the standup scene, Sebastian is well-placed to comment on how the comedians and the audience for comedy have evolved in India over time.
He said, “Back in the day when you were doing standup, you almost had to train the audience about what it was. There have been many times when I would perform and the audience would only clap and not laugh or be quiet, laugh and again be quiet. I used to be like, ‘What is going on?’ Then I realised the audience thought that it was rude to interrupt a performer with applause or any other noise, or they didn’t know when to clap. So the jokes were very introductory in nature. We gave manual cues, like, ‘Oh I’m going to tell you the punch line and boom! And now you can laugh.’ But now the audience is damn smart. They have a better exposure to standup because of the Internet. They get the layers, the nuances and the sarcasm. So I see new comedians attempting heavier content and concepts than I used to, because I am a couple of years older. Since I had to explain what I was doing when I started, I often underestimate the audience. But comedy is accessible now. It’s not niche anymore.”
Now that Kenny is a judge on Comicstaan, Amazon Prime Video’s comedy hunt reality shows, he has a piece of advice for aspiring comedians: “If you don’t enjoy doing standup now, it won’t get better later.”