Being the best standup comedian in Kerala is no joke and being the only one entrusted to introduce and boost the comedy scene is challenging. A professor by profession and comedian by passion, Vinay Menon talks about his journey so far, about opening to Vir Das, about making thousands of people laugh and about not being serious.
Quotes and Takeaways
- “Do not let comedy be a loveless arranged marriage.”
- “The first rule of comedy is to not take yourself so seriously.”
You are Kerala’s 1st English standup comedian. Tell us about your journey as a standup comedian. How has the journey been so far?
I came down to Kochi in 2014 and I did not start immediately with comedy. I started doing shows around 2014 and during that time I realized that Kochi or in Kerala, in general, gets fascinated with anything new for a while and then goes back to their regular monotonous life. For e.g. If a new restaurant opens, it will be the talk of the town for about half a year and after that, they will go back to the chorus and meenu curry (rice and fish curry). So everyone wants to try out the new thing once or twice but they want to go back to their comfort zone. And this is the analogy for comedy in 2014. That is when I realized the difference between a town and a city. Kochi is only a town.
The introduction to comedy was good. People, mostly youngsters, turned up and they asked when the next show would be, etc.. Back then we had a show once in 3 months or so because I had very little idea on how to run the scene in a new city where there is nothing going on and had only done 6 months of comedy in Bangalore and very few paid shows. But this venue called ChaiCofi contacted me and I have done a lot of shows there. Since then the comedy has improved. Though I am given credit, it is mostly because the general awareness of comedy has increased, and comedy right now is more popular than before and we have shows like Last week tonight with John Oliver. I see schools, colleges inviting me to judge comedy competitions, fests, or for open mics so the overall conception of comedy has increased. But as a comedian what concerns me is that little has changed since 2014 where people would come and ask when the next show is and seldom come again. Kochi is a little sluggish but it’s picking its pace and people are getting tired of mimicry so are turning to new styles of comedy and within a few years, we will be seeing a lot of Malayalam standup comedy. So the standup comedy is taking its own time.
What and when was your first motivation to become a standup comedian? As a child, did you ever think of becoming a standup comedian? What about being a standup comedian attracts you the most?
So, it is not the usual artist’s story. I broke up from a long term relationship and I realized had a lot of free time. During then I happened to go to a workshop and a random show happening in Counter Culture, Bengaluru where there were few slots open. And that’s when I started doing spots. Also, Urban Solace, Bengaluru which is the only open mic place during that time in Bangalore that they held an open mic every Wednesday and regular crowd used to come. Only like 5 or 6 comedians were doing this professionally such as Praveen Kumar and Sanjay Manaktala who started the entire thing in Bangalore. At that time whenever I was jobless I would try open mic and different styles of comedy when later, the hosts realized I have some material and they started giving me more time to perform. That is how I slowly grew in the first 6 months and this was my schedule.
My introduction to stand up comedy was in college in the early 2000s through Russell Peters’s performances. Later on, I watched the first live standup comedy show in Bangalore by a group called Evam. That day there was a comedian who was not very good and I thought to myself it must not be hard because he performed for 20 minutes and I hardly laughed. So, if he can be a standup comedian I can be a better one, later I found out that I cannot. What I did not know then was that standup comedy is just like cricket – sometimes you are in good form and sometimes you are not. I never thought of becoming a standup comedian when I was a child. I was the only child and therefore got all of the attention which when I grew up I realized nobody actually cares. However, comedy people give you a lot of attention and that is quite attractive. I don’t think I was a performer or that I loved the stage or that I was a funny guy but I always have the habit of connecting random things and write/ blog which helped because on stage you can’t just randomly shout but also have a proper thought.
What are the genres of comedy you like to talk about? How do you come up with content and how do you zero-in on your shows, venues, etc? What really happens behind the scene while coming up with soul-tickling content?
I want to say that I wake up at 6 a.m. and drink comedy juice and I just write for an hour but then that is not at all how it happens. Usually when I hang around people and we would just be having a conversation or just fooling around and saying random stuff we realize there is a joke there. Sometimes I don’t even write it down and the joke is lost forever but occasionally I do write a few things down. So as of now, there is no particular method but if I say something funny or hear something funny then I try to phrase that better. So I write it down, sleep on it and the next day check if it is still funny.
As of now, I don’t think I should pick a genre but I am more towards jokes which are mellow and subtle and can be performed. But I do avoid a few genres. Vir Das once told me never to open with a lewd joke or adult humour. For example, though George Carlin does adult humour, it is very subtle and not crass and dirty. I also avoid jokes which are stereotypical. So, my criteria for a joke is that it should be both funny in writing and that it should be capable of being performed. So many people inside comedy go onto the stage and tell jokes but I feel like you should perform the jokes and put energy into delivering the joke, for example knowing what to act which word to emphasize, etc.
When it comes to organizing a show outside Kerala I usually speak to comedians who started out along with me around the same time and ask for a slot for half an hour at their venue. But in Kochi it is different. I can be the headliner because I am the guy in Kochi. So when I have to perform in Kochi I know that I have venues such as ChaiCofi. If it’s a new venue then I go talk to them but when deciding on a venue I check the seating, lights, the people, etc. and the general setup of the place. What I look out for is check how interested the owner is in hosting the show. If the owner is being neutral about it then I mostly do not do a show there. I usually take venues which are run by youngsters. You could also pick a venue which is Win-Win business collaboration, for example, doing a show to drive their sales will help you get a slot. The easiest way to organize a show is to pick a venue which already has followers
Focus on marketing as well. Old people get their news from newspapers whereas young people are on Instagram and really young people are on Snapchat. Market well by advertising, putting up posters in physical places where people hang out and make them want to come to you show. It is all through experimentation.
You have won thousands of hearts through your performances. Can you tell us about your best experiences so far?
If you have a bad show you can figure out what mistakes you made and you can improve upon in the next show. But if you have a good show then now you have a benchmark that you have to maintain. The first benchmark for me was in 2012 when there was an open mic competition and Vir Das was doing the show. The competition was that whoever won gets to open for Vir Das for 5 minutes. And somehow I won the competition! This is my first best experience as this was happening in Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Bengaluru which is the oldest mall there and has a capacity of above 1000 people. That day there were about 800 – 1000 people and when I did my first joke, the sound of a thousand people laughing at it and applauding it is out of this world.
When you started out, standup comedy was not recognized as a profession in India. Did you have any mentors in your journey? According to you, whose work influenced has you the most?
Of course. The first thing that people notice is that jokes often resemble or sometimes are ripped off from somebody they look up to. Right now there are a lot of comedians but back then there was hardly anyone except for like Vir Das who was already an international level star. We didn’t have 3G connections either. My idol is George Carlin who started the cafe kind standup comedy scene and his comedy was edgy and satirical. Initially, I felt I was doing a lot of jokes which has a resemblance to his jokes and over time, I saw comedians such as Praveen Kumar, Sanjay Manaktala, etc. perform where I could see how they improved and their different styles as well. I could pick and choose amongst these guys as well. Sanjay was someone who gave straightforward advice to me saying comedy is not a glamorous field. I look up to a couple of international comedians as well such as Louis C.K. and of course George Carlin.
What people do is that they worship one comedian, but what I have realized is that when you have been through a lot as a comedian, you appreciate different styles and be a mixture of all these people, starting with Sanjay, Biswa and a couple more.
Can you elaborate a bit on what you consider was the biggest obstacle you face?
I will answer this in 3 parts:
One, the biggest challenge in Kochi is that there is no established comedy infrastructure for shows or to reach out to the crowd. There is no regular comedy scene and so I cannot put up an Instagram post and expect people to show up. Kochi is still a town and is only on its way to being a city.
Two, comedy in general, in India, faces the problem of not being taken seriously. For example, in get-togethers, people might encourage someone to sing but that does not happen for comedy as you have to pitch an act which might not work with a small crowd of family and friends because they would want to talk to you. Recently, I had done a show where I was interrupted a lot. This is because they do not recognize the performance and usually people dismiss it saying that it is just telling jokes on stage. Another incident was when an academician, at a seminar, said anyone can tell a joke. So, a normal person does not respect stand-up comedy because it’s the Arts and still don’t expect it to pay bills.
The biggest challenge to comedy is the comedians themselves. Unlike in a movie, comedians get a reaction to their material instantly which often affects their confidence. And the comedian is left with self-doubt if a joke fails. Jokes are sometimes an extension of the comedian and eventually, when the crowd does not like one joke, the train of thought leads to how perhaps the crowd does not like him. This, of course, should be avoided.
“You can take lessons to become almost anything: flying lessons, piano lessons, skydiving lessons, acting lessons, race car driving lessons, singing lessons. But there’s no class for comedy. You have to be born with it. God has to give you this gift” by Steve Harvey – what is your opinion about that?
I don’t think there ever will be an academic comedian who follows ‘rules’ of comedy and learns all the rules of how to write a joke. In comedy, you need to have feelings too and it has to come from within. Sometimes, on stage, comedians laugh and chuckle at their own jokes. So you can write a good joke and then put it on Twitter where people will find it funny and the same time you may have an interesting way of delivering a joke but things like timing and how to properly do a joke are hard because there has to be some form of truth and yourself in it. You can’t teach someone to be funny but what you can do is teach rules to someone who is already funny and if they are hard-working they can be good. You can teach someone to be better but you cannot create a comedian.
What are you working on currently? What should your beloved fans watch out for?
Other than the shows what I regularly do is posting memes or other content on my page because I am more of a visual kind of a comedian and I feel that I can do a lot with images. Also, around 2 years ago I used to put up a lot of videos that were trending for a bit and I have been asked when I will do some again. So, now I am planning on continuing it.
Many youngsters are inspired by you to take up standup comedy as a full-time job. What would you like to say to them?
The first rule of comedy is to not take yourself so seriously. Why? Because if you feel like you are not being very funny then you might take it personally. Also, get ready to know what your personal comedy or comfort zone is and explore outside of that. There should be some level of discipline and structure involved. However, I would not recommend anyone to do full-time comedy.
A lot of people want to get into comedy because it is glamorous but this happens only way down the line. The first part is to put in hard work, to keep coming back to open mics and keep trying while working on your mistakes. So wherever you are and whatever job you doing, keep writing jokes. Definitely do not get into comedy for the money. The money will come to you if you are good and eventually you will get to a place where you are paid well and then you can decide if you want to quit your job and do comedy. Most importantly if you want to do comedy do not forget to have fun. Do not let comedy be a loveless arranged marriage. So, have fun and do not take yourself seriously.