Internationally acclaimed Indian stand-up comedian Papa CJ is a man on a mission. A mission to not just tickle your funny bone, but leave it damn right fractured. Though his style does include satirical digs at Indian stereotypes and taboos, the underlying tone of his act spells nothing but love for his country and of course, comedy. He’s represented India at international platforms, performed sell-out shows all over the world and has been ranked ‘one of the top ten comedians of the world’. An MBA from Oxford, CJ chucked the corporate life for a career in comedy back in 2004. Today, he has over 800 shows under his belt. But the comic element ends off stage. Behind the scenes, the man helps promote aspiring comedians via his recently launched ‘The Papa CJ Company’ and has a charity for underprivileged children.
We chat with Papa CJ, about his accomplishments, future goals and his journey so far but with the no-jokes-apart clause intact. Read on…
You've been called the ‘global face of Indian stand-up comedy’. How does that feel?
It feels great because it helps me realise that I can spend zero money on PR, make up a tag line on my own, stick it on a couple of pages here and there and some people will actually believe it! Time to come up with another one I think!
Was it difficult to build an international presence?
Yes. I had to travel quite a bit for that! I do love performing in new countries though, particularly when I can pick up stuff about the local culture and do jokes about it. Like the last time I was in Amsterdam, I picked up a…oh never mind.
How did it feel to be ranked ‘one of the top ten comedians in the world’?
‘Not as good as it would feel to be ranked one of the top five’ says my ‘glass is half full’ mind.
What were the struggles you faced when you started out?
I started out in London and one of the challenges I faced then was the fact that since I had grown up in India, I didn’t have the same cultural references as my audience. Therefore, I had to stick to telling ‘jokes’. Now when I perform in India, a chunk of my shows is just made up on the spot while I chat with the audience. Also, as I have matured as a performer, I’ve learned to connect much better with international audiences from many different countries and cultures.
How has the Indian comedy culture evolved over the years?
I kicked-off the open mic circuit in Delhi over three years ago and I’m pleased to say that we have a comedy circuit that is maturing well. People are becoming cynical and disillusioned, jealous of other comics who are doing better than them while feeling they themselves have more talent, forming cliques, accusing people of stealing jokes, losing their lives to social media, getting attention hungry while not focusing on becoming better comedians and wondering whether they will ever be able to make a living
doing it while leading sad miserable and mundane lives. We’re almost there and it’s looking beautiful!
From an MBA degree from Oxford to being one of the most celebrated stand-up comedians was it a bumpy ride?
Let’s just say if I wasn’t a comedian today, I’d be drowning the misery of my failure to attain happiness in alcohol and internet porn, before crying myself to sleep while molesting a stuffed toy. Which ironically is pretty much the same thing I do as a comedian today.
When did you know stand-up comedy was your calling?
After my 1000th show a member of the audience came up to me and said, ‘You weren’t bad. You should stick to it. Maybe one day you can get paid for doing it.’ That moment coupled with the ‘joke’ the gentleman told me, which lasted 15 minutes, had no punch line and came with the generous offer of allowing me to use it on stage while giving him credit, gave me the hope that may be one day I could make it.
You love comedy because?
For two main reasons I think. Firstly it is because comedy allows you to be yourself. You don’t have to conform to anybody else’s rules, norms, beliefs, thinking or even sense of humour. As long as you can make the audience in front of you on the day laugh, that is all that matters. And secondly because I love interacting with people and comedy allows me to touch people’s lives in a very positive way – by making them laugh. I had an 86-year old woman come to me after a show in Calcutta and say, ‘God bless you beta, I haven’t laughed so much in 30 years’. It is statements like that which make it all worth doing.
Occupational hazards of being in the comedy business?
Having to come up with fun answers for boring interview questions without knowing whether the interviewer will have the courage to publish what you print.
You’d never joke about?
The air-hostesses who work at Air India. After all, our culture teaches us to respect the dead.
The first stand-up comedy show you attended and your reaction to it?
I saw my first comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2004. Three months later I was on stage and did 250 gigs in ten months. A pretty strong reaction I’d say. Thank God I went to see a comedian and not a stripper!
Best joke you ever heard?
…is one I’m pretty sure you can’t publish here!
A comedian you admire and why?
Russell Peters. For being a really nice guy in spite of making it so big. And from the guys I don’t know personally, Chris Rock for his attitude and stage presence and George Carlin for his material and way of thinking.
Your worst joke?
Let’s get someone with an ounce of talent and showcase his worst work to our readers. Love your approach guys. Cheque please!
Tell us about your off-stage work...
I love kids and I’ve always believed that education is the key to helping our country move forward. I set up the charity One Child about eight years ago because I knew that if other people bought into the same belief then the charity would be a great front for my money laundering operations. I was wrong, however, so have not been able to launder any money. However, we have in the process managed to adopt an entire village, run three child education centres and do a lot of good work around women and child health, micro-finance and disaster-preparedness.
And your new venture The Papa CJ Comedy Company.
There are comedians with talent who need places to perform and could do with some exposure. There are venues with some budget that could do with getting more customers in on quieter days. And there are audiences across the country who would happily pay a small entrance fee to be entertained for an evening. The Papa CJ Comedy Company is just going to unite these three groups and give them what they want.
Your best show till date?
While there have been shows on glamorous stages like the 2000-seater theatre at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, for me the shows that I enjoy most are either those where there is tons of crowd interaction and I’m creating humour in the moment, or where it is a challenging, difficult or rowdy show and I’ve managed to get the audience on my side and give them a great show.
What’s next for the man who's tried his hand at so many things?
World domination obviously! That’s all that’s left right? Jokes apart, I do comedy because I absolutely love doing it. All the bits and bobs I get involved in are because it feels fun and right at the time. So the plan is to carry on following my heart and having fun while spreading a few smiles along the way.
Your advice to aspiring stand-up comedians?
Don’t do it. Stick to the day job. You’ll probably suck at it anyway.