He may be ‘the global face of Indian stand-up’, but it has taken Papa CJ a lot of hard work to reach where he is today. In an interaction, he shares his roller-coaster ride both as an individual and a comedian.
Born in Delhi and now residing in Kolkata, he left a lucrative corporate job at IBM in London to pursue his passion in stand-up comedy. A decade and a half later, Forbes calls him “the global face of Indian stand-up”, while Harvard Business Review regards him as “one of the most influential comedians around the world”. Papa CJ, after all, has many firsts to his name — from being the first Indian to perform at several international comedy festivals to shooting his own solo special with ‘Comedy Central Asia’.
So, who is Papa CJ? What’s his real name? Ask him these questions at your own risk. For, he may simply refuse to indulge you with any reply. And if he is in a playful mood, you may end up getting a made-up response. “One story I gave out was that when I was a teenager, I saw a brutal mafia murder and since then I have been under a witness protection programme run by the International Court of Justice.” But his favourite fabricated answer has a Vatican connection: “I was raised in Vatican City where it was customary to name a child after his or her physical characteristics. ‘Papa’ is the literal translation of the Latin word ‘massivus’ and ‘CJ’ is the literal translation of the Latin word ‘genitalius’.” Amusingly, this story even got printed in a newspaper!
CJ still doesn’t want people to know his real name. “Please don’t mention it in your article,” the ace comedian requests, as he expects people to find out on their own after reading his memoirs, Naked (Westland, Rs 499), named after his eponymous show where he takes off his clothes on stage. The book recounts the comedian’s roller-coaster life and career, without bypassing any of his vulnerabilities, heartbreaks, disappointments and disasters. “At the end of it, while I am completely naked, I am also completely free,” he confesses.
What, however, shines through the book is CJ’s brutal honesty laced with his trademark, tongue-in-cheek humour. In conversation with Guardian 20, the comedian talks about important aspects of his life and journey. Excerpts:
Q. Your book is named after your show where you take off your clothes on stage. What’s the idea behind adopting the same title for this book?
A. The book, like the show, uses the vehicle of my life to talk about the human experience. The ethos behind the name is that as human beings we build walls around ourselves that hide our deepest hopes, fears and desires. As the story progresses, I remove these walls and expose all my vulnerabilities and pain. At the end of it, while I am completely naked, I am also completely free. The book is a light and easy read that also takes the reader through an emotional roller coaster. My hope is that by the end, the reader has a new lens with which to look at his/her own life. A lens that allows the reader, just like me, to see the positive. And of course, the funny.
Q. Please tell us about your experiences while writing the book Naked.
A. To my surprise I found that I quite enjoy the writing process. I also discovered that I write books like I write comedy. Each anecdote or piece of the puzzle is thrown at a wall and then logically grouped together into chapters. Thereafter within each chapter, a flow is created. Then the chapters are put in a logical order and smooth segues are created. Soon layers of depth and emotion are added. Finally, it is punched up with jokes if required, but more importantly I ensure that each chapter ends with an attempt to make the reader feel a set of emotions rather than think a set of thoughts. That is the connect I would like to have with them.
Q. What attracted you to stand-up comedy?
A. I stumbled upon stand-up comedy for the first time at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh during a sabbatical that I took from my job as a management consultant (at IBM). Here was a guy on stage with a microphone in one hand and a drink in the other… and he was just having fun. And that was his job! I thought it was the coolest thing in the world and I just had to try it. Three months later I took to the stage in London, did 700 gigs over the next three years and never looked back.
Q. Tell us about your early days in comedy, especially the one incident that stands out.
A. When I started doing comedy in the UK, I was based in London. Every single day I would wake-up at 10.30 in the morning and cook one meal for myself at 2 o’ clock. I would get into some comedian’s car at around 4 pm. We would drive to some city in the UK for a gig. We’d reach there around 8 pm. I was nervous so I wouldn’t eat. Frankly if the venue didn’t offer to feed me, which they often didn’t for an open spot (new comic), I couldn’t afford outside food either. After the show we’d drive back and I’d get dropped off in the outskirts of London at about 2 o’ clock in the morning. I would pay the driver my share of petrol. Keep in mind I wasn’t getting paid for any of these shows. I couldn’t afford a taxi so I would change three different night buses to get home, sometimes waiting on the street for 45 minutes in cold London winter. Finally, I would get home between 4 am and 5 am in the morning. I did this every, single, day, for an entire year. At the end of the year I had no money, no friends, no relationships and no life. But, every single comedy promoter in the country, knew my name.
One incident that stands out was when I had driven all the way up to Durham University, which was a 430-km journey. The comedian travelling with me was deaf, so as you can imagine the conversation was wonderful! We reached there to discover that the students had exams and only three had showed up for the gig. In case you’re wondering, we had been on the road for over six hours to be there so yes, we still did perform. We drove back and I was dropped off on the outskirts of London. It was freezing cold and after waiting for a bus for an hour in the rain, I called a taxi which quoted me 22 pounds for the ride home. It was too rich for me at the time so I carried on waiting and reached home 90 minutes later. Those 90 minutes were the only time I ever thought of giving up. But then I woke up later that day and went straight to my next gig.
Q. We are told Indians have no sense of humour and they get easily offended. Do you agree?
A. I believe that Indians do have a sense of humour. If they didn’t I would not have been able to make a living as a professional stand-up comedian in our country for the last 12 years. However, stand-up in India is a little different. All over the world stand-up comedy is a grassroots art form that is anti-elite, anti-establishment and almost a form of protest. In India, by and large English language stand-up is performed for the elite. The upside of that is that often your audience may be well read and travelled and therefore it does give you the option to talk about a range of different subjects. That being said while we are the largest democracy in the world, we can often be the largest hypocrisy on the planet. Audiences more often than not love risqué jokes but don’t want to be seen to be laughing at them. So, there is occasionally some psychological gamesmanship involved in getting the audience to give you permission to give them what they want!
Q. Did you ever find yourself at the receiving end for being misconstrued or for hurting public sentiments?
A. As regards being on the receiving end after a show, of course I’ve been there. Comedy is like a rubber sword. You can make a point without drawing any blood. So, I occasionally try and use my comedy to show a mirror to the powers-that-be to try and inspire change. As a result, I get banned from 80% of the colleges I perform at because I hate it when educational institutions train students’ minds to not question. And forget questioning established knowledge, they don’t let them question things that are blatantly ridiculous, such as the rules imposed on them. Particularly at engineering colleges. One college, for example, has a rule that if a boy shakes a girl’s hand for more than three seconds, then it is considered a public display of affection and there is a monetary fine for that! How on earth will their minds develop? How will they invent new things if they are programmed to not question? So, I go in and use humour to question the authorities and often instead of understanding that they need to change, their fragile egos get hurt and I get banned from the college!
However, this phenomenon is not unique to India. In Leicester in the UK, I cracked some jokes at a show that people had come to attend after a religious gathering. A few people did not like some of the jokes I cracked, so after the show they drew knives and threatened to stab me. The police were called. When they found out about the jokes I cracked, I got invited to perform at the police Christmas party that weekend!
Q. We are witnessing the emergence of new stand-up comedians in the country. What explains the trend and has it really come of age?
A. In an age of instant gratification, stand-up comedy gives you exactly that. Snappy bite-sized content that you can consume while casually dressed in a chilled-out environment, more often than not while enjoying an alcoholic beverage. Or often just on your mobile phone. No surprise then that the industry has been growing at a rapid pace in India. However, I believe that stand-up is still at an early stage of its evolution in the country. Over time not only will comedians evolve as they traverse their inner journeys, but audiences will also evolve and demand more and better from their comedians. That being said we already have a vast pool of talent, some very good, who are working hard and making a name for themselves both domestically and internationally. The beauty of our country also is that the size and diversity allow comedians to succeed in any language and any genre. They can be true to themselves and comfortable in their skin and no matter what form that may be, there is a large enough audience for that. So, I see a huge growth in ‘regional’ stand-up comedy as it is called.
Q. In your book you came across as a proud Indian stand-up comedian during your stay in the UK. Why?
A. When I started doing stand-up comedy in late 2004, I was the only Indian stand-up comedian in the UK. More often than not after a gig people would not remember my name but just remember me as “that Indian comedian”. Given that, I wanted to make sure that I represented India in a positive light. It’s like when you’ve only slept with one person from a particular racial group, their performance forms the basis of your judgement on the bedroom talents of the entire race! So in addition of trying to perform to the best of my ability and portray positive images of India, whenever I was heckled at a gig, I’d catch the biggest guy in the group and take him down. My hope was that it would make them think twice about picking on the next Indian they happened to see on the street.
Q. In India stand-up comedian meant joker till you made it a cool word. How difficult was it for you initially to tell others about your profession?
A. While I did launch the English language comedy circuit in Delhi in early 2009, it would be arrogant of me to take credit for making stand-up comedy cool. In fact, I would argue that comedy is often quite uncool. If I have a good show someone might call me a rockstar after the gig. Try calling a rockstar comedian after a gig and rest assured you’ll be on the receiving end of swift kick in the rear! When I started doing stand-up comedy in India an aunt asked me, “Son, what do you do?” I said, “Aunty, I’m a stand-up comedian. I tell jokes.” She said, “Son, even I tell jokes but what do you do for a living?” This was more than 10 years ago however, and stand-up has received greater recognition as a credible profession since.
Q. You write at the end of the book that making people laugh is the only way you know how to process your pain. Is pain a necessary prerequisite for being a successful comedian?
A. I don’t think pain is a necessary prerequisite for being a successful comedian, but happy stuff isn’t as good fodder for comedy as misery is. Also, I believe that stand-up comedy is an outward expression of an inward journey. The longer you do it, the more comfortable you get with your truth, whatever it might be. Over time you learn to express that truth authentically. The big upside of this is that even while we are going through painful life experiences, we are able to look at those very experiences through the lens of a comedian and find the funny. So, in some ways, comedy becomes our therapy and the hope is that when we get on stage and laugh at our own pain, audiences are able to find it in themselves to do the same.
Q. Does it ever happen that your audience doesn’t get your jokes? What do you do when a joke falls flat?
A. On the rare occasion this happens I do one of two things. Either I first address the fact that the joke fell flat. That releases tension and the audience laughs. Then I remind them that I’m a pro and I’ve got this. After that I deliver a ‘banker’ (joke guaranteed to kill) which raises the roof and say, ‘See, I told you I’ve got this’! The other cocky approach is to tell the audience that I have performed over 2,000 shows in more than 25 countries, so if they haven’t got a joke, they have failed! I get paid to be there, while they pay to be present and so the absence of laughter at a joke is their loss!
Q. Please share an interesting anecdote from the book.
A. Performing at a police station to get a comedian off the hook for driving under the influence, getting my ass spanked by an elderly lady while doing a show, getting drunk and waking up on a different continent, being caught naked by my father in a compromising position on his bed, the ridiculously mischievous tales from school and college, having a woman at a corporate show stick a hundred dollar bill down my underwear… you best pick up my book and read them all.
Q. What you do when you don’t do stand-up comedy? Your future plans…
A. I’m a motivational speaker and executive coach. I run unique customised corporate training modules including ‘A Comedian’s Guide to Marketing and Content Strategy’ and ‘Naked Leadership’. I also undertake various charitable initiatives under my Happiness Project. I currently have ideas for a few more books and I’m also going to sell the international rights for this book, record the audio book and explore screen adaptation possibilities. I’m currently also trying to improve my Latin dancing skills and I will of course continue to do live stand-up comedy at corporate and public shows. My new show ‘Unbroken’ is ready to go on tour.
Q. Any advice for aspiring stand-up comedians.
A. Each of us is unique and has to carve our own path. If we can be authentic and true to ourselves, then that is our best hope of finding joy in our endeavours.