‘They booed me off the stage many a time, but I stood my ground’: Praveen Kumar
We live in a country where more than 80% of the people still relate stand up comedy to mimicry. But thanks to Youtube and regular stand up events across the country, that perception is slowly changing. A huge credit for this should go to Vir Das and Papa CJ. They were the pioneers who created a stand up comedy scene here in India and most of us started our careers from the open mics organized by them.
I started getting on stage during my BITS Pilani days where I used to do comedy mimes in front of crowds of as many as 2000 people. From that time onwards I used to get this immense satisfaction from making people laugh, but after we graduated from college the opportunities became few and far in between. All of us went in different directions.
To stage a mime, you would need people with a similar wavelength and thinking. So there was a void till 2008, which was when I got married. I didn’t do any shows but now I was getting a lot of marriage material. In December 2008, I read an article about Papa CJ in a newspaper and that’s when I first thought about doing stand up comedy that doesn’t require any other people to work with. It’s only you! That was when a friend referred me to the organizer of my college alumni night and I was given a 10-minute slot to perform. I was in my comfort zone, as I knew most of the audience. I started performing and within minutes I was getting laughs.But soon I realized they were laughing at me. Needless to say, I bombed. I bombed like a terrorist. My friends lost hope in me but, luckily, I myself didn’t.
I did a couple of shows in my office and fortunately these worked. That was the major reason I didn’t quit stand up. I registered for my first open mic in July 2009 and thought I did ok. However, when I called up the organizer the next day to get his feedback, he told me that comedy was 'serious business' and my heavy South Indian accent wouldn’t take me anywhere. I was thoroughly disappointed. But in September 2009, Vir Das came down to Bangalore to conduct an open mic competition. That was a turning point in my career.That was when I met Sundeep Rao, and Vir Das came down four times in the next six months. I won once, and Sundeep won once.
I got my first corporate gig in Nov 2009 and that was one hell of an experience. I was supposed to do a 20-minute routine. In the first five minutes there was utter silence, but then they started clapping. I was thrilled till I realized that they were clapping to stop me from proceeding more. I didn’t budge though and the protests got worse. The audience started bursting balloons and creating havoc. Not only did I have to stop but I also ran out of the place without even taking my payment. I cried that whole day but didn’t give up. My family and friends were a huge support. They were the ones who encouraged me to continue.
My next break happened when Sanjay Manaktala came down to India in June 2010 and the three of us -- Sanjay, Sundeep and I -- started doing shows in a variety of venues. Soon Sal Yusuf also joined us. That was when we had this SNAP night at Bacchus going on regularly on the second and fourth Sundays of every month. We became better comics and employed the talents of Kenny Sebastian and Ahmed Sharif too.
Mid 2011, Comedy Store opened up in Mumbai and that’s when the scene started picking up at a rapid pace throughout the country. All the comics, including us, wanted to perform there. It was a dream venue. We started performing in open spots -- five minutes and slowly graduated to doing paid shows there. But one day after my show, the owner of the place, who was British, came up to me and said that he didn't understand a word of what I said thanks to my South Indian accent. He said he would not be able to promote me if I continued like this and asked me to work on it. I was devastated. Having come so far, I didn’t want to start from scratch.
That’s when I met Ashvin who advised me to be the person I am on stage. I still remember his words, "You are a Tamilian. Be a Tamilian on stage." That was the third and the most important turning point of my life. So whenever I do a show I establish the fact that I am a Tamilian, this is my accent and you have to live with it. That worked big time and I became really comfortable on stage.
Back in Bangalore we realized the dearth of comics and decided to start open mic nights in Urban Solace, Ulsoor, which are still going on every Wednesday for more than three years now. That venue became a starting point for many awesome comics, including Kanan Gill, Vamsidhar Bhogaraju, Kritharth, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Sid and Satish. In 2012-13, the comic scene started improving in Bangalore and I started getting a lot of corporate shows besides the public shows I was doing. While corporate shows make you a richer comic, public shows make you a better comic. I travelled to more than 16 cities in India to perform for various people but I was still working in an office. Because of my work I used to miss the open mics and had to take permission citing my daughter's vaccination or my grandfather's death anniversary or make some equally ridiculous excuses to go and do weekday shows. It was getting hectic and stressful.
At the end of 2013, I decided to do two major things to begin my 2014. One was to launch my one-hour show -- The Tickle Minded; and the other was to quit my regular job to become a full-time comedian. I needed to convince my parents. Fortunately, my wife was a pillar of support and she promised me that she would be fine with anything I decided to do. I decided to launch Tickle Minded on January 4, 2014, in my favorite venue in Bangalore -- Jagriti theatre. I had my parents attending the show. The show was a roaring success and that night I told my parents that I was planning to quit work. They agreed readily.
On January 6, I put my papers and requested for early relieving order. I was so excited to be out of the corporate world and be on my own. I could concentrate on more than just stand up comedy. I started doing theme based shows like TITS (The IT Show), STFU (Small Town Frustrations Unleashed) and Daddy's Day Out. I am attending almost all the open mics. I am pushing myself to write more before every open mic. I have written more in the past 10 months than in the last two years. I am also able to spend more time with family. I am dropping my daughter to school and picking her up every afternoon and enjoying it. Now I willingly take up weekday shows and even those that come at the last minute. I feel I am improving as a comedian by attending the open mics regularly.
I feel you cannot become a better comic if you don’t attend open mics. In Bangalore, we have three open mics a week and very soon we are going to have the fourth. Bangalore is the only city in India with these credentials. The quality of comics here is becoming better and better with each passing day. It’s always nice to see youngsters taking a plunge and even nicer to see them improve with every open mic. We are a small circle of comics who are more friends than colleagues. The senior comics are always ready to guide the young comics whenever they need help.
I don’t know what the future holds for me but I always feel that instead of focusing on too many things it is better to do one thing that you are good at. I read somewhere, “you cannot expect awesomeness to meet you in your comfort zone". I urge people to follow their heart but I also advise them not to quit their jobs before settling in. I see a lot of people who are quitting their day jobs to follow their passion but at the end of the day, they are leading a tough life. All I can say is try balancing both, get well settled in your dream job and then quit your day job. Life will be beautiful.