You were in sales for many decades and then suddenly you switched to comedy. How did this happen?
Broadly, there were two things. One, I was pretty much done with corporate life. And when I say that I want to put a rider here. It was not like they show it in the movies, where you’re disgruntled with corporate life. I was very happy with corporate life and enjoyed my work. I would joke and laugh even there. And being with Microsoft was great fun. But personally I felt I was done. I felt I needed to do something in life that would be bigger than just this. The other thing that has been a constant all through my life was the love for the stage. The idea of holding a mic and talking to people and making them laugh was something I liked doing. I never aimed to do comedy but every time I would hold the mic and say something, I tried to be funny, even in the corporate environment. And then finally, there was a tipping point where I felt I don’t want to be 70 years old and look back at life and wonder what I did. In this era and the times we are living in, things are very different. You can follow your passions if you want to. So I said let’s not have any regrets and I quit. And then I said, let’s do comedy.
How did COVID transform you?
A lot of the things that we used to learn, care about or even practice in corporate life came into play. One would think that all the trainings and thinking out of the box, and all the jargons that we use in corporate life will never help. But it did. For us the whole format is live shows. We have an audience right in front of us when we are telling jokes on stage. They laugh and we get immediate feedback. But then COVID happened and for the first few weeks, it almost felt like the end of a career. It was pretty drastic. It did not look like live shows would happen for a long time. When I was talking to other comedians, they felt the same way and we all felt that this was the end of the line. It felt like they had taken away my instrument when I wanted to play music. But then the whole corporate life thing kicked in and I felt that there had to be some way we can do this. So I jumped into doing online shows. I bought mics and equipment and decided to give it a shot. If the world had changed, then comedy can change too. And it worked! It was a different format, and it took some time getting used to the whole idea of performing to a laptop. But it worked and in the last 18 months, I would have done close to 200 shows. So the whole thing is about not giving up. There is always a way. Try. Fail. Get back up. See what works and build on it.
When you do shows like this, you sometimes tend to be alone. What kind of support mechanisms did you build?
Stand Up comedy is a very lonely job. And I say that because there is the whole razzmatazz of being on stage with spotlights and fans and selfies and everything else that goes along with it. But that happens for one or two hours in a day and only when you’re doing a show. The rest of the time you’re sitting alone because you’re writing, observing the world, thinking of jokes and all that is a lonely job. The support system that works for comedians like us, is somebody giving us a reality check. And that happens in my family very often. Because when people come and take selfies, it gets into your head, and you think you’ve become a big star. And that always affects art because you need to be true to yourself. So family gives you a reality check. Also, when COVID came in, things were falling apart so dramatically. For all my new attempts there was encouragement from my family, and they said Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s see what happens. Let’s do online shows. Let’s try this. Let’s build. Let’s record from your phone and put-up videos. So on and so forth. So the family always kept pushing.
In the corporate world, despite all the right intentions, creativity is directed towards a specific outcome like profit and sales. Anytime an outcome is attached to the idea of creativity, it stifles creativity, because there is pressure to deliver. If somebody had told me that by the third quarter my podcast should be in the top 10 podcasts in India, I probably would not have started.
In sales, there is something called situational fluency, where you are in front of the customer and you’re listening to the unspoken. This must be the same when you are performing, and you are reading the room and observing everybody. How does this work for you?
This is the essence of what we do. And it’s one of those things that you learn over time as a comedian. Jokes take a lot of time for us to write. For example, a one-hour show takes about three or four months of writing daily for four to five hours. Only then do you get jokes, which are worth telling on stage, which would make people laugh. At the beginning, you don’t have the skill set to understand the room and you don’t have too many jokes. Also, you lack confidence to change the environment around you if something goes wrong. So you go on stage, and start telling your jokes, and you can see people are not laughing, but you keep telling your jokes anyway. Over time, you learn how to read the room and how to read the laughter. There are different kinds of laughter, there’s body movement, there is shifting of the eyes, and it all becomes automatic after some time. I’ve done close to 700 shows till now and reading the room is something that just happens and I’m not even thinking about it. I know exactly, at what line somebody in the front row moved in their chair or shifted.
And then to adapt to that is something that Stand-Up comedy taught me. I did not learn this in corporate life. We’ve seen this numerous times where we get into the conference room to deliver a presentation, and it is filled with colleagues, customers or partners. We start giving the presentation and notice people are not listening. Some are waiting for coffee; somebody is checking their phone and you know you have lost your audience. But you still continue giving the one-hour presentation because that is how it is done. But as a comedian things change very dramatically. For example, if I get up on stage and I tell a husband-and-wife joke, and I don’t get a response, my brain immediately tells me that that is not the kind of material that this audience is into. So in the back of my head, I’m changing my entire set and the next bits that I have to do. So, I change my material. But in the corporate world, we never change presentations. I do these ‘Art of Storytelling’ workshops. And I ask the participants if they have ever stopped the presentation and said, “Okay, let me stop. I seem to have lost you guys. Let’s just talk about things. Let’s not look at the slides. Tell me where did I lose you? Let’s try to get back the room”. This never happens in the corporate world, but in Stand-Up comedy, this is life for us.
You’ve touched upon something important, which is storytelling, and this is an activity performed by the right side of your brain. How did you cultivate the right side when all you were using was the left side during your corporate career?
This is one of the things that I wish more people understood. And I say that because storytelling as a phrase is used nonstop in corporate life in every board meeting and in every sales meeting. But I don’t think we understand what storytelling means in corporate life. It takes time, effort and a lot of self-awareness to be a good storyteller. Stories have a very different impact on business, and it comes down to three things – the mindset, skill set, and the toolset. Mindset is the most important in my view because you need to first understand what stories are. Stories have a beginning, an end and a middle. The middle is where the complexity is. If you’re not articulate about that, if you don’t make it strong enough, the beginning and the end won’t matter. You need to understand how to tell stories, its structure, language, words and be succinct when saying it.
Skill sets is an aspect that requires a lot of practice. I still have a video of my first performance and when I look at that, I can spot many things that I did wrong. But the whole point is I went back and reviewed my performance. We do that with every single show. Every comedian records every single show, and we would come back and review the video the same night while the faces and the reactions are still fresh in our minds. We note on which joke the laughter was less or if it was more and then we make changes to the material. I’ve done over 700 shows and they are all recorded. We never do that in corporate life. We may not be able to record many meetings, but even if we could, we don’t. It is always good to check the impact that your words have. This is where the skillset and the practice gets developed.
Toolsets are easier. Everybody has a phone, laptop and software. So this is easier. It is the mindset and the skill set that people need to focus on. It is not something you can dabble on the side. You need to believe in the fact that it is core to your existence. Because stories connect. Whether you’re sitting in a boardroom or you’re sitting with your friends having tea, stories is what we have been brought up with. And that’s the only way of connecting with people, especially with strangers. And you need to strongly believe in it.
As a stand-up comedian, you need to stay fresh and that means you need to keep learning. How do you keep learning?
That is the most difficult part. I thought life would be much easier after becoming a stand-up comedian. I thought I would be sitting in a coffee shop the whole day drinking coffee and suddenly I would think of a joke. But then I realized it does not work that way. So there are two things which help me. First is reading a lot. Not just reading about comedy, art, comedians, biographies, etc. But reading different things, which add perspective. These could be things that you’re not even interested in sometimes. But you decide to pick it up and read a few pages and see where it goes. That keeps your mind fresh. I read somewhere very early in my career that – When you are inspired, Write. When you’re not inspired, Read. Keeping the brain moving helps for this format.
The second point is being more observant. This is both a skill set and a curse, because now we seem to be observing too many things. But keeping your mind open to everything is very important. These days, when I go to parties, I’m quieter than I used to be. I’m observing people – what are they saying, what are they thinking, etc. So the brain is always functioning.
In the corporate world, we often use something called Mind Maps. You’d be surprised to know that this technique is used by comedians a lot. When I start thinking about jokes, I create the first layer of connections. Those are the most obvious ones and that is what a bad comedian would joke about. But when you start peeling the layers and going deep, the jokes really start to come out from the inside and those are the good ones. That’s when you know you have figured the simplest aspect of what you wanted to say. And it is something that others wouldn’t think about. When you crack those jokes, the audience will think, ‘Hey that is relatable, I could have done that’. But the fact is, they did not create a mind map and figure it out. So the more you peel the layers, the more simple, relatable and funnier the jokes become.
The mantra now is skill, scale and speed. How do you scale?
For comedians, scaling means two things. One is scaling the market, which is the number of people who know you, the number of people who come to your shows, the number of people who follow you on social media, etc. But among these, the most important is how many people actually buy a ticket and watch the show. And that is dependent on the quality of material that you do and how discoverable you are. The quality of material is in my control because I can keep getting better at the craft. I can write better jokes, deeper jokes and relatable jokes and it is completely in my control. And I know that the social media world that we live in, will amplify it if they like it.
The other scaling is about what all you can do. In the corporate world, there are systems and processes, and these are necessary otherwise the organisation could collapse. But as a comedian, in the last 5 and a half years, I’ve realised that if I decide on doing something other than stand-up, there is nobody to tell me that I can’t do it. There is nobody telling me that I’m not ready, that I need training or that my position does not allow it, etc. The only filter is me and how badly I want to do it and am I serious and committed about it. For example, I started with stand-up but a few years back, I thought of podcasting, and nobody told me I can’t do it. I bought the equipment, I learnt how to use it, I joined some workshops and did my own recording and editing. I made a lot of mistakes. My first podcast was bad, but I learnt from my mistakes and from the feedback that I received, and I used all that for my second podcast.
Right before the pandemic, I decided that I had a lot of stories inside me that I would like to share. So I attended some workshops, did a lot of reading and thinking and I’m now writing a screenplay for a web series. So the canvas is blank. If I decide tomorrow to do something else, there is nobody to say no. If you really want to do something and you are serious about it and consistent, then it is ok to jump, make mistakes, fail, keep trying and invest time and effort into your craft.
One more thing that I wish would change in corporate life is the notion of thinking outside the box and doing something different. Despite all the right intentions, all the creativity that you think of is directed towards a specific outcome like profit and sales. Anytime an outcome is attached to the idea of creativity, it stifles creativity, because there is pressure to deliver. If somebody had told me that by the third quarter my podcast should be in the top 10 podcasts in India, I probably would not have started.
Would it be appropriate to say you have learned more in the last 10 years?
Definitely. 100%. I’ve learned more in the last five and a half years of doing comedy than I did in 18 years of corporate life. I’m also working harder. Which is ironic because that’s not what I planned for. But I’m more invested in what I’m doing. The work is 24/7 and there is no day off. I hate holidays because I want to get back to doing what I do. And the learnings are immense. The stakes are much higher. You’re the only one and there’s nobody to support you. You don’t get a salary in the end. Your worst situation is not a bad annual review. Your worst situation could happen every night when nobody is laughing. And that hurts. So yes, there has been a lot of learning.
Everything that you do needs to serve a larger purpose, which is possibly the compass of your life. Has that compass changed?
It’s not changed as much as there’s been a realization of that compass. It’s not something that happened as soon as I quit corporate life. It didn’t happen when I first went on stage. Everybody around me were saying it was a crazy thing to do. But it didn’t feel like that to me. Much later when I was introspecting, I kept asking myself, why comedy? I have a lot of interest in tech, sports and music and any of these could have been a career choice, so why did I choose comedy? I then realized that throughout my life, the idea of making somebody laugh, was cool to me. And this was irrespective of who it was or where I was. I remember sitting in an annual review meeting with Bhaskar Pramanik, who at that time was the Chairman of Microsoft and I would crack a joke and Bhaskar would look at me and say, this is not the time, you just missed a quarter.
So the whole idea was that making people laugh was very important to me. And the day I realized it, which is not very long ago, there was another thing which flipped in my head, which was that being a celebrity was not important to me anymore. Being good at the craft became more important. You realize that this is why you jumped ship. And you want to be consistent and become better at it. And that becomes the purpose. As you get into the entertainment field, you want to be a star, you want to walk into coffee shops, and you want everybody to recognize you. It’s natural to like that attention but it becomes a secondary motive. The main thing that mattered was ‘Am I helping people laugh?’
Stand-up comedy around the world is changing. You don’t realize it, but people are most vulnerable when they’re laughing. And you’re the guy holding the mic on stage. So apart from jokes, you could say something which can change mindsets, change people’s lives or which could shift the needle on certain issues. That is a huge responsibility, but it has given more meaning to what I do. But I need to be good enough to do that in the first place, which means I need to read more, introspect more, and understand issues better. You cannot go out there and share a political joke. You need to be more involved and understand all the viewpoints. And then you present your viewpoint which might be different from others and that’s alright. This way, people laugh at the joke enjoy themselves and also think about it after they leave the show. This is something that is scary, but also exciting.