What does it take to be India’s biggest stand-up comic? Nisha Susan finds out
FIRST, THE warm-up. The MC comes on and introduces the opening act. The comedy crowd in Delhi takes the conventions of stand-up seriously. As many as six open mike nights a week, lots of professional shows and a great ton of interest — stand-up is hot right now. Hence the embarrassing Tata Docomo ad with Ranbir Kapoor against a brick wall. It’s a weekday night at the International Diner, a south Delhi restaurant. The postage-stamp stage area has been empty 45 minutes. It’s hot, verging on sweaty, but the 100-odd audience is cheerful. A bit smug, even. They have seats because they came an hour early. Those standing at the back try to catch a waiter’s eye before the show starts.
And here comes the opening act. Young Abish Mathew is small, boyish and strained. Only one out of every three lines work. The crowd is generous and responds kindly to his nervous air. They laugh a little harder.
Abish leaves. Here comes the headliner. Paaaaa-pa CJ! Lots of international gigs. An agent in England where he earned his chops. Does the Edinburgh festival every year for the lark and a bit of money. Has a great story about getting almost knifed after performing in a Birmingham mosque. Beat thousands to the final round of the Last Comic Standing show in Las Vegas. Papa CJ is the biggest we have yet.
Papa CJ, 34, is very slender and has an energy forcefield like a superhero. His long hair is sprinkled with grey and his face is an arresting mix of cunning and sweetness. He announces upfront that since this is just an open mike gig (and not a professional evening, though that doesn’t mean it’s unticketed, just that the finish is rough), he’ll be trying out his worst material, his rawest lines. He’s holding a sheaf of papers and peeks occasionally. Within minutes the unmistakable patina of the headliner shines through. Set-up. Delivery. Boom! Set-up. Delivery. Boom! The crowd brays happily. If you’ve ever told a joke, you know there’s a moment in the telling when the universe hangs in balance. With Papa CJ, that anxious moment never comes. When the occasional joke is fluffed, he is relaxed: “That didn’t really work, did it? Will make a note of it.” And even that makes the nowpliant audience laugh.
But Papa CJ’s true power lies off-script, in his creating instant humour in his audience. His front row usually consists of the brave and the innocent because they are sure to be skewered. A pretty girl and her plain boyfriend come in for a lot of pokes. Papa CJ’s wife Neha is in the back taking photographs. She’s also set up a video camera in front to record audience reactions. (Not her husband, you understand.) Like some comics, Papa CJ makes fun of his audience. But when his 45-minute segment ends, the room is a warm, intimate bath of love. His mysterious gift seems to be in knowing where to stop and leave his poor subjects with silly grins on their faces. In making the back row strain forward half-wishing, half-afraid they’ll be the next victims.
He talks about treading this thin, thin line. “In London there was this female comedian performing with a largely Asian audience and she went after a really old white couple in the front row. Asked the woman, ‘When was the last time he gave you good sex?’ The comedian was booed off stage in 10 minutes. It was pointless, you know.” He is disapproving. She clearly didn’t get how the game is played.
Here is how it is played. Papa CJ was recently invited by some corporates to their CEO’s birthday. Papa CJ roasted him all night long. All manner of lines crossed here. The executives watched in awe as social protocols were busted. The CEO lets loose his power corsets a bit and gets aforementioned silly grin. And young Papa CJ, who in a previous life as a MBA-wielding corporate trainer would have killed for such shoulder-rubbing, went home smug. His pocket full of business cards of the high and pin-striped mighty.
Papa CJ wields power from behind his mike and enjoys it — there is a lip-smacking satisfaction about it. But no malice. And perhaps this is why the audience laughs. When he addresses the audience singly or en masse as ‘f**kers’, it’s an affectionate caress from an old pal. It doesn’t have the shock value of the motherloving, sister-loving expletives of many stand-ups. “It’s too easy to get that laugh,” shrugs Papa CJ. He doesn’t like easy. He once went on stage and wickedly described Indian standup comedians’ crutches: “Bengali comedians make Bong jokes, Punjabi comedians make Sardar jokes. Some cricket. A bit of politics. If you’re in your 20s, Facebook and Google jokes. If you’re in your 30s, marriage jokes.” The aftermath? “The guys supposed to come on after me were like: ‘Bastard, what do we do now?’”
He loves Indian audiences, he says. “Afterwards, 60-yearold men come up and tell me some long, filthy joke and say I can use it in my next show. I love middle-aged Indian women. They laugh openly. They don’t look around to see who else is laughing.” Papa CJ careens away from any truly provocative material. No religion, for instance. It would be interesting to see whether in a few years he’ll rock you back on your heels, but for now it’s more vigorous massage than right hook. He has a big nationalism shtick, both on and off stage. “I come from the land of the Kamasutra and I can screw you more ways that you can count,” he often signs off with a strut and a toss. The only discordant note is his distinctly American faux hip-hop name, given all the ‘I’mproud- to-be-Indian’ routines. He sternly refuses to reveal his real name. Perhaps it’ll give away where in India he comes from. Like Rumpelstiltskin, he knows it’ll give someone somewhere power over him.
HERE WE are in the second segment. Another 45 minutes but nobody is complaining. Papa CJ is even better than before. His audience is super lubricated and adoring, like masochists longing to be whipped. A teen pierces the haze after an off-key joke and says: “That one didn’t work.” Papa CJ replies instantly: “Then you are not helping, f**ker. Hear that silence? That’s you.” The audience laughs. “Hear that laughter? That’s me.” Everyone explodes.
‘After my shows, 60-year-old men come up to me and tell me some long, filthy joke and say I can use it in my next one,’ says Papa CJ
He is pure, distilled confidence, the source of which is a bit misty. He didn’t grow up a wisecracker. Telling jokes to friends is not the same as stand-up, Papa CJ will tell you contemptuously. Perhaps it comes from his affluent tea-plantation background, you might surmise after much teethpulling. What is openly offered: Lawrence School, Sanawar and an Oxford MBA. Earlier in his minimalist but gilded Delhi apartment in a gilded Delhi neighbourhood, he had said, “I live simply.” He is being sincere and perhaps relatively accurate.
Perhaps the confidence comes from individualistic and white-knuckle sportloving parents and grandparents. Perhaps it’s because he loves his job — travelling the world with his wife, making people happy and getting paid for it.
Perhaps it’s come from his early grind in the cut-throat stand-up scene in England that involved single-meal days, long commutes to obscure towns and hanging around drunk and hungry for five minutes on stage. Then driving back and going to bed at 4 am. Every day. For two years.
So when he scoffs at Indian stand-ups who call themselves professional after 10 shows, it makes sense. Being a know-itall is an occupational hazard in stand-up, but Papa CJ’s patriarchal air is unbreachable. He’s done his time, f**kers.
Nisha Susan is Features Editor with Tehelka.