Comedian and YouTuber, Kanan Gill speaks to Bulbul Sharma about India’s emerging standup comedy scene, his ongoing stint as a talent-show judge, and the daily grind of writing jokes.
Q. How does it feel to be performing at various locations across the country for MusiCom’s Season 2? And what are your thoughts on the concept of MusiCom?
A. It feels great to be on the road, because it gives me an opportunity to work on my act and improve it constantly to present it to large audiences. I’m very excited for MusiCom as a concept, both as a failed (and quite terrible) musician myself, and as a fan of music. I want to see how the concept works for the audience. Both music and comedy performances need rhythm, momentum and a big explosive ending—it’ll be fun to present that to the audiences back to back.
Q. Since you have performed across almost the entire country, which particular event has been the most gratifying experience for you? Could you share with us some experiences as well?
A. This answer keeps changing because the best shows for me are the ones where I feel like I pushed myself as a comedian and was also able to give the audience a great show. So the focus is on making every upcoming show the best show so far. Although I do have a plethora of terrible experiences, but most of those happen at corporate events.
Q. What according to you are the challenges standup comedians face when they are performing live? And how can those be tackled?
A. The first is the audience themselves. It’s a privilege to be able to have people come to see just you, but for many years it wasn’t like that. I’ve spent a large part of my career performing at venues where the audience didn’t even know comedy was about to take place. They just wanted to have a drink and unwind after a long day and not have to listen to anything. The challenge there is opening them up to even the idea of a show and then entertaining them after that. Venues also play a big role. Seating, service, ambient noise—everything can bring down the efficacy of a comedy show. Hecklers are rare but present, and experience teaches you how to deal with them.
Q. We all know about the huge success of Pretentious Movie Reviews, your hugely popular series of YouTube videos with Biswa Kalyan Rath. But how and when did you begin your journey as a standup comedian?
A. I’ve been writing funny articles and stories since I was in school. I had a small amount of success with a blog I started in college and a little more making funny songs with a band. Finally when I was disillusioned with my software job, I found myself at an open mic in late 2012. Finally I found a way to express myself “comedically” with instant feedback and minimal reliance on someone else. I won some competitions which spurred me on to try harder and get better. So it was software by day and comedy by night. Eventually I quit my software job, filled up the available time with comedy and started a YouTube channel.
Q. You are currently busy with Comicstaan, Amazon Prime Video’s new talent-hunt show for standup comics. How has your experience been so far of being a judge at this show?
A. It’s been fantastic. Without my personal misgivings of “Who am I to judge, etc. etc.”, the other judges and I found ourselves really invested in the participants. They’re all brilliant and talented and I’m certain they will develop huge fan followings during the run of the show. So it’s amazing just to be a part of the process.
Q. Do you think Comicstaan is a shift from the various reality standup comedy shows we have seen on TV so far? How does it differ from other comedy shows in terms of concept and content?
A. I think having only comics as judges is a good start. We’re in a position to understand more about a joke and what’s behind it. Additionally, an average of the judges’ and audiences’ scores is taken—meaning that a joke has to work for the audience and for the judges, which is honestly a lot of pressure to put on a contestant but has also resulted in them coming up with great material. Also, we did away with eliminations until right at the very end. No one needs that melodrama, or melodrama of any sort, in a show, which gives the contestants time to showcase themselves and shine across different genres of comedy.
Q. A number of standup comedians are getting recognition in the country and many are taking this up as a fulltime profession. So do you think this is a good time for standup comedians in India? And how do you think standup comedians have evolved their style/craft over the years?
A. It is a good time for standup comedians in India currently, and time will tell how long that good time lasts. Standup comedy in its current popular form has only been around in India for a few years, but the evolution has been tremendous. We’ve started our careers seeing videos of comedians who have been performing for 30 years, wanting to be that good right away, which is a ridiculous desire but has created a hunger that has caused a rapid stylistic evolution. While the general trend is very positive, it’s also good to remember that it takes a comic some time to become funny. So if you see someone terrible, give them some time. They either become good or quit. It’s not an easy business.
Q. How is it for standup comedians to perform at a time when political backlash, trolling and even FIRs against performers are becoming common?
A. It’s at the back of every comedian’s mind. Trolling is something that’s part of being popular; but institutionalised trolling is the scary bit. Unfortunately, we’re at a place where legal machinery can be misused for bullying. As comedians, we’re not against criticism in any way. But if that criticism comes in the vehicle of threats and court summons, that we have a problem with. And rightly so.
Q. Some comedians do refrain from speaking on certain topics, for fear of backlash. So as a standup comedian and public figure, have you also set such boundaries for yourself? And are those boundaries required in an ideal scenario?
A. As an art form, comedy should have no limits. But as an individual who is doing comedy, those limits are for you to set, and that’s absolutely fine. Personally, I’ve set limits for myself in the past, but I’m working on dismantling those. In an ideal scenario those boundaries are not required.
Q. How do you like to work on your script and ideas? And do you ensure that a script elicits the expected response?
A. I make a note of the germ of the idea and try to develop it to whatever extent I can. Then I take the idea on stage and see what bits of it work and then try to work out the kinks offstage. That process happens as long as the joke is a part of my act.
Q. Noor was your acting debut. What was the biggest takeaway from your experience in the film industry? And what about your future plans in Bollywood?
A. Noor was a different world for me. It was huge learning experience to see how such a big project gets made and how many wonderful, talented people are part of the process. It also made me understand I should probably enter the film industry as a writer. I’ve just acted in Season 2 of The Better Life Foundation which will be available on Hotstar in August. Currently, I don’t have too many acting plans. I’ve just figured out how to act well within a rather small range.
Q. What apart from Comicstaan and MusiCom are you currently busy with? Tell us about your upcoming projects?
A. I’ve been developing a series for the last few months, which has been quite a straining process. Looks like it’s going to take a lot more time. Additionally, I’m doing a sketch comedy show, Sketchy Behaviour, with Kenneth Sebastian, which will be available on Amazon Prime probably early next year. We first performed Sketchy Behaviour in 2013 and are thrilled to finally get the chance to work on it again. Also, I’m working with my manager, Rishabh Nahar, to put together a world tour for next year. Fingers crossed on that one.