The Indian standup comedy circuit produces new talent every day. But the one comedian who towers above all the others and personifies the art of comedy is Zakir Khan. A native of Indore in Madhya Pradesh, Khan has managed to create a unique brand of comedy, which is personal as well as socially engaged.
Now at the top of his game, Khan shot to fame in 2012 when he won the title of “India’s Best Stand Up”, organised by Comedy Central. He now features as a judge on the second season of Amazon Prime Video’s comedy competition, Comicstaan.
It was only around a decade ago that Khan discovered standup. He says, “I started watching the videos of Russell Peters somewhere in 2009, and that was my introduction to standup. The next year, I was unemployed and in Delhi. One day, a potential employer came and offered a standup gig to my roommate. He didn’t take me because I was too smart to take to a ‘happening place’. So my roommate came back and told me that the comedy scene is growing and that I could totally kill it. I had the material and jokes… All from my life experiences.”
Even though in his younger days Khan was an avid writer—of jokes and poetry—he was training himself to become a serious musician. He comes from a family of musicians and has a diploma in sitar-playing. Before finding his footing as a comedian, he also did ghostwriting and produced radio shows. But he says he always knew he would be a performer.
When Khan decided to become a comedian almost a decade back, he embarked on a challenging phase in his life, when he was out of work and hard up. He tells us that back in the day, he could not even afford the cover charge at open-mic events. He says, “I remember Rs 500 was required at that time. I did not have that. Moreover, we had to give a personal interview where they would ask about the language I’d use on stage. That was a little odd as well. It was only after December 2011, when I was some 8-9 months into a job, that I thought I could spare that extra 500 rupees on this. So I went for my first gig.”
Did his first performance indicate that he would some day be deemed a comic genius in the future? Khan says candidly, “I had three minutes and I performed only for one-and-a-half minute. It really went that badly. The organiser was sitting in the audience and he signalled that I was dead. I had to get off the stage. That’s how I started.”
Khan thinks hard work has been the key to his success and it helped him overcome all obstacles. “The best thing about comedy is that you can be conscious of what people are saying, and you can take revenge. I am someone who gives it all to my work. But the thing is, the funnier you are, the friendlier people will get. So I focused on that and things started getting sorted by themselves,” he explains.
The snowballing of online streaming platforms has no doubt proved to be a boon for comedians and entertainers the world over. Khan is no exception. His popular appeal is the reason he has 4.1 million subscribers on YouTube. According to him, the boom in the digital space is the biggest enabling factor in India’s growing standup scene.
Aside from doing live shows, Khan has also dabbled in other related streams of comedy. He has written the comedy show, On Air with AIB. And he played the role of the protagonist in the web series Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare. About this extracurricular aspect of his career, Khan says, “Standup comedy is self-centric. You don’t need a crew or a director for that. It’s a one-man army. In fiction-based shows, other people would constantly offer advice to you. The trick is also to direct yourself.”
Now a household name, Khan points out that the biggest challenge comedians face is to remain relevant. He says, “Many people love you, they appreciate your work and want to consume more of you. But when it comes to art, there comes a day when people reject you. They are done with you. You don’t even get to know that on time. When you do, it’s too difficult to get back. I think taking the time, understanding whether you are being complacent is important. As an artist, it’s a constant journey of becoming a butterfly from a caterpillar.”
Today, Khan connects with his audience within seconds of stepping onto the stage. He credits his past struggles for this skill he has developed, of creating comedy that is not just funny but also relatable.
He says, “A lot of people have faced the kinds of hardships I have faced in my life. I have been very open about it also. So I have a relation with those people which is beyond comedy. It’s about life.”
Comedy is also about artistic responsibility. He feels the Indian audiences have evolved over the past couple of years and can take all categories of humour. But that doesn’t mean comedians can’t learn more through their interactions with the audience. He says, “I have a vision, a story that I want to tell… Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. We learn along the way.
From his days of open mic events to playing sold-out shows, Khan has come a long way. And so today, he is surely in a position to offer some words of advice to those who wish to follow in his footsteps. Or is he?
“My advice is that please don’t wait for my advice, just do it.”