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Standing out with stand-up comedy

On a Monday evening, you'd be surprised at the number of people that are swarming in this restaurant that I'm sitting in. And the reason for that is none other than one of India's top comedians and my interviewee for today – Sorabh Pant.

Sorabh who is currently touring the world with his show "The Rant of the Pant" maintains his calm and is very polite throughout the interview as I fumble through the. After the interview, Sorabh goes on to perform a killer show with content that can make one laugh their guts out and a voice whose decibel levels can make a dead man rise up from his grave. He will also be starting his new YouTube channel, "Pant on fire comedy" soon where he will be uploading one stand-up clip each week for the next whole year; I for one am certainly looking forward to it. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

You started doing comedy about eight and a half years ago, how much do you think the scenario of comedy has changed in India over the years?
It's changed completely. I think the level of comedy has definitely gone up, which means people like me who have been doing it for eight and a half years have had to up my game.

How did you get into comedy?
I got in purely by chance; I was a writer for TV for a long time. I used to write for Vir on a show for CNBC and then one day, he said, "would you open for me?", and I was like sure. So, it was pure coincidence, I never thought this was something I could be doing.

So, you didn't see any stand-up prior to that?
I saw a lot of stand-up and consumed a ton of comedy. I'm not saying more than others, but I've been watching stand-up since I was 12, which is 23 years of watching stand-up. First guy I ever saw on stage was Johnny Lever, who was damn funny, he was hilarious. So, I was watching comedy and writing comedy for other people till that point of time but didn't do any of my own.

Who are your biggest comedic influences?
A lot of people actually, everyone in the circuit right now are a bit of an inspiration for different reasons. There are some who have set up their own market and then there are guys who are really funny. I tend to watch a lot of comedians from abroad not for any snobbishness but just because I want my voice to be different from everyone else in India. But genuinely, whether it's all the boys from EIC or people like Zakir, Kanan, Kenny, Abish, Aditi, Vir, in the Indian scene there are more than enough people to look up to.

Any idol from abroad?
I've realized that I actually miss Jon Stewart more than anyone else; I thought he was my comedy idol because he talks about all the news and everything that's happening around the world. And also, Bill Burr, I've always been a fan of him. There's a guy called Greg Geraldo who I really like and Brian Reagan who just makes me laugh.

Anyone from the forefathers of comedy, like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, basically people who set up the scene?
To be honest, I actually think, what you watch first dictates who you really like. I really admire the rest of these guys but I've never been a hardcore fan of any of them. Steve Martin, for example, was so different from everyone back then, he was really admirable. Carlin is a guy I really admire but as a comedian he is impossible to watch. So, I literally have had to force myself to stop watching him because his content is so precise, it's almost impossible for someone like me to be that precise and confident.

Not many people know that you're also a novelist, are there any books in the making you'd want to tell us about?
The third novel is coming out in September and everyone who has read it so far has unequivocally told me it's the best thing I've written which, I don't know is an insult or a compliment.

What do you enjoy more, stand-up or writing literary pieces?
I don't write literary pieces; even the novels I write are light-hearted. They might also be dark and in the new novel there are a lot of people dying for no reason but, I enjoy both. I think I like oscillating between the two of them. This last week I spent three days writing my novel and four days writing and doing standup.

You have now left East India Comedy (EIC) and chosen to venture out solo. Were you not finding the creative liberties to grow as an artist in the group?
I just wanted to establish myself more. To be honest, I wanted to take a little risk. I wanted to invest time in myself and do things that I always wanted to do. I am always very proud of everything we do at EIC and everything we've done so far. But yeah, I just wanted to express myself, like Yuvraj Singh in the India-Pakistan match.
You've performed across the globe, how different are the foreign audiences as compared to the ones we have back home?
People are the same inherently in most of the places and because of YouTube, the world has become smaller. You just have to think a little bit more with regards to your content because in India your references tend to be more India centric, and appealing to Indians and the advantage you have as an Indian is that Indians are everywhere, so no matter where you go, 75% of the crowd will be Indian, but there will still be 25% other people who are not Indians and I don't like to make anyone who has paid the ticket price feel excluded.

Any advice to young comics who are entering the scene?
The idea is, you keep watching stand-up as much as you can, keep writing as much as you can but nothing defeats getting on stage. When I was in Hong Kong, I did about four shows in total and beyond that I did a couple of open mics. To be honest they were not the greatest open mics, there were approx. eight people watching but I still wanted to do it. The idea is to get on stage as much as you can. There has never been a situation where I've gotten on stage and felt like this was a waste of my time. It's always totally worth the time.

Comedians sometimes tend to have the same thought for a joke, in spite not having known each other. Has this ever happened to you and if yes then how do you handle the situation?
It's happened a couple of time but to be honest that's one of the reasons I don't watch much Indian comedy because I don't want anyone to ever say ki tune mera joke churaya hai (you stole my joke) because I don't need to steal jokes and I think I write more than most people do.

Delhi sees a lot less number of open mics as compared to Mumbai and Bengaluru. What do you think is the reason for such disparity and how can this situation be improved?
I'll be perfectly honest. I don't know why the Delhi comedy scene has not exploded as much as Mumbai or Bengaluru, and it makes no sense. Mumbai, in a month will have about 75 shows and I find it shocking that Delhi, which is a place that is so politically opinioned just doesn't have enough going on in it. The comedians are hilarious, there are enough people consuming comedy, I just think the problem is that in Delhi, people tend to keep obstructing each other. To make the comedy scene grow, you need to support everyone and comedians need to help each other out.

Recently the judge of Rajasthan's high court said that peacocks don't have sex. What do you have to say when people with that level of education talk bizarre?
Well, it was his last day at work. He should have retired the first day he became a judge because of statement like this.

The fun part for me was that there were about 15 people behind him who were clapping and looking at the Judge like, Sahab aapne kya soch vichaar karke ye opinion nikal ke rakha hai (Sir, what were you thinking while making giving such opinions). By the way, my dad told me that his logic behind peacock tears impregnating a peahen originated from a whatsapp message. So, I was like dude, if judges in India believe in whatsapp forward, what hope we do have.

But again, the thing is, I have nothing against people in the legal business. Some of them are tremendous and some Supreme Court judges are doing a stellar job in holding up the country. I am happy that at least enough people called him out on how stupid it was. More often than not what happens is that people get away with statements that are even more stupid than this.
Such people are the reason why comedy industry is running. They are the fuel; they are the unleaded petrol to my punch lines.
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