From advertising to stand-up comedy, Mumbai-based Kunal Kamra has been making waves in the last couple of years on the Indian comedy circuit.
With his own YouTube channel and now a podcast called Shut Up Ya Kunal as well, Kunal is set to embark on a comedy tour across cities and countries, including a sold out show this weekend in Singapore. But Singaporeans, don’t despair because Kamra will be back in the island nation come this December.
In the meanwhile, here’s our exclusive chat with the comedian about his brand of comedy, his take on Indian humour and how he deals with his critics.
Let’s begin with the usual question - What prompted you to leave advertising and enter the world of stand-up comedy? Who is your inspiration?
I think I had a predictable trajectory in my job. If I stuck around there for the next 10 years I could clearly see where I was headed and there was no element of surprise for me. And I had already been doing stand-up on the side. Also I remember this comedian from America called Raj Sharma, who had come down to India, and he told me if you're not going to take up comedy full time but you are good at it and your livelihood doesn’t depend on comedy, you are eating from people whose livelihood depends on comedy, who do not have a job and are doing this full time. So I think doing this half and half - I didn’t see it working in the long run. And especially when I decided I had to go on the Internet, it was only a matter of time till I had to do it full time. Last year January was when I finally quit, so it’s not very long ago. Till then I was managing half and half.
You’ve had meteoric success in the comedy circuit - what kind of reaction do you get from people - say, when you’re walking down the streets or in a restaurant?
They are very kind; most of them are very kind. They just come up to me and say good things. But to be very honest you can get overwhelmed with the attention. So all my (phone) notifications are majorly off. I think the moment you get overwhelmed with the attention and with the praise, your mind automatically shuts off and starts slacking. I look at every gig that I am doing as my first gig with that audience. I am shut off from all the criticism as well as the praise. Nor do I let the validation, nor the criticism get to me. I am kind of shut off that way. I am an introvert. I don’t go out much. I have an immediate circle of friends who keep me aware if I am drastically off in my work. My pursuit is just to be better at the art form and everything else is just a by-product of that – whether it’s the money or the popularity or the opportunity.
But I am sure the criticism can get to you?
It used to a year and a half ago. I used to go through this up and down roller coaster of emotions on a weekly basis. But I have a few friends who have been very helpful. I remember Tanmay (Bhatt) once told me that this is a one-way street – you are there to say things and there are people who follow you, who want to hear what’s on your mind. It’s not the other way around. So don’t pay attention to what people are saying to you. 99 percent of the time it is not even constructive. And if there is something constructive, it will get to you through the people you trust and people you like. That’s when I decided to shut off from the Internet. So right now also my phone has zero notifications. Except for phone calls, there’s nothing else that I see. I just post whatever I feel is funny and then I just get off the app.
You’ve said in past interviews that Indians don’t know how to laugh at themselves - in that kind of an environment, how do you structure your routine to bring in the humour for the humourless? How do you find humour in the grim reality of life?
When I say Indians predominantly cannot laugh at themselves, I mean majority of us cannot laugh at themselves. So there’s a line for everybody – somebody might be okay with a joke on the BJP but might not be okay with a joke on marketing MBAs, might not be okay if the joke is too close to his house. Comedy as an art form is also not very old here. So people think – oh, this guy has a mic and an audience in front of him, there’s some sort of responsibility they expect from the comedian. What they do not get is that he is just trying to get a laugh out of the room with his belief system and his worldview. But it’s very easy to find 400-500 like-minded people who just want to have a good laugh. That’s not because of anything else, that’s just because we are a vastly populated country, so everybody, no matter who you are, what art form you pursue, if you are doing it with full honesty, you will have an audience. It may vary from 20 audience members to 20,000 audience members but everybody has an audience. So the number may vary but there is an audience for it.
In India people have been arrested for social media posts against politicians, how does a comedian like yourself fit in with your jokes about them? Are there still some boundaries you don’t cross? Has the comedy scene evolved in India or is it still work in progress?
I think if it sounds right to me and if I know a bunch of people in my life setting who would find this funny and have a laugh at it, the joke is worth putting out. You just have to find multiples of those people who find this funny. That is the only metric. I think we are a work in progress country and so are our laws. So only when a comedian is arrested for a joke is when people will find out there’s a law about this and this needs to go. So it’s trial and error. Till the time you are honest to yourself and you are not putting out things to manufacture outrage and if you are true to yourself, that you feel that this is a joke I should make and I am not just doing it for the outrage, I think that is a fair metric to judge. That’s why I never think about these things. Every joke comes at a cost of somebody getting offended. Who you choose to offend defines what sort of an artist or a comedian you are. I can’t think of a single joke that wouldn’t offend someone.
You have a successful podcast where you interview politicians and other personalities - how do they react to your brand of questions, which are different from the typical interviews they do?
I chase them. It’s very difficult to get guests on the podcast. It took me 6 months to get Raveesh Kumar. It took me another 6 months to get (Asaduddin) Owaisi. So I just aim for people who have not been heard in an unconventional way. I try my best to present them in a light that you haven’t seen them in before. That’s the major objective of the podcast. They are pleasantly surprised actually because that’s an audience they haven’t personally engaged with. It’s a new audience for them also. It was news to me to figure out that some people who follow my work have no idea who Raveesh is. Raveesh has been on TV for 25-27 years now! It’s so funny that people did not know that Javed Akhtar is an atheist. There’s a bunch of people on the Internet who know Javed Akhtar just as Zoya Akhtar and Farhan Akhtar’s father. They don’t actually know his politics, they don’t actually know his views and there was no medium for it to reach them. So it’s just a whole different audience. The guests are also pleasantly surprised at engaging with people who are new. And most of the comments are fairly positive on most of the podcasts. It’s just a unique way to inform people about what is going on, what is this guest, what is their pursuit, why are they doing what they are doing, why is this time so unique in our country.
What is the biggest mistake an Indian stand-up comedian can make?
We all make mistakes. I will talk about myself. The biggest mistake that I made for the first year of being on the Internet was taking it seriously. I think the moment you are taking it seriously you are gone. This has no purpose. Just taking it seriously is criminal.
I’ve heard the words ‘left-leaning liberal’ being used to describe you? Is that something you feel about yourself or is that a label people have given you?
I think every person is an individual who is unique. It’s just that most minds need a certain sort of segregation. They want to know you and attach an identity to you. So that identity may be a good identity, it may be a bad identity. Like somebody would call me a propagandist, somebody would call me a Congressi, somebody would call me a leftist, somebody would call me an AAP-tard, somebody would call me a pseudo-liberal. The thing is that none of these tags actually define me. I don’t even tell people my origins. They don’t know if I am Punjabi, Sindhi, Maharashtrian. I don’t think that there is any sort of label that can describe any person. So I mostly just stay off it. I think the more you follow my work, you will I think be confused about what I am actually. I think that’s the journey of discovery we are all on.
Can comedians bring social change through their routines or do you feel that people laugh and appreciate your jokes but are not necessarily listening to the message in your routine?
I think there should be no ulterior motive of social change through the art form. My aspiration is just to be better with the art form. That’s all. Whether it drives any social change or conversation is a by-product of me just pursuing to ace this art. Whether it drives social change, whether it doesn’t – that’s not in my hands. I don’t want that responsibility, that’s just too much responsibility. I just want to be funny and fresh, which I think is responsibility enough. I don’t apply myself in these matters. Then it’s an endless thing – what is the change you are bringing about, how can you bring about more change. No. Just be funny, just be fresh, be true to the art form, be honest and all the rest of the things that happen are just by-products of doing that.