He’s put India’s stand-up comic chops on the world map. His mantle shines with Asia’s Best Stand-up Comedian & India’s Best Stand-up Comedian awards. From Broadway to Melbourne International Comedy Festival, he’s taken the world stage by storm. Say hello to Papa CJ, the man who can crack you up with his jokes and build you up with his insights. #DSSCSecretConversations decodes the ace stand-up comedian beyond the comedy and into the candid.
With a resume that boasts an MBA degree from Oxford University (England) followed by a corporate career, stand-up comedy was not a chapter in CJ’s life plot. However, four years in the corporate world and paid-off student loans called for a sabbatical; and as luck would have it, he found his way to the Edinburgh Festival. His first tryst with standup comedy resulted in a famously documented love affair, the curtains of which have remained raised since. “I saw a guy on stage, drink in hand and talking sh*t – that was his job! Thought it was amazing, and three months later I was performing my first gig on the Wibbly Wobbly Boat on river Thames,” says CJ on his initiation into the world of comedy. Thirteen years later with stellar productions like Naked in tow, the amateur comic has evolved into a global humourist, but the recognition didn’t come without its own hustle-quotient, “I had a day job at a recruitment firm and performed in the evenings. People would leave their business cards at restaurants – I used to whack those, call them the next day and place them in jobs. At airports, when no one was looking, I’d swiftly change the homepage of the airport computers to www.papacj.com,” he chuckles. But smart thinking is not all that maketh Papa CJ, the gent was doubly focussed on learning the art, “I learnt from co-comedians who had 20 years of experience – watching them construct & deconstruct sets, seeking feedback for my work, etc. A lot of my learning came from seeing people’s reactions to different gigs in different situations. You learn little from a good show, but a bad show provides feedback every 15 seconds; if someone is not laughing you have to adapt, and that’s how you learn,” CJ quips. His tactics may not be by the rule book but his views are realistic, as he adds, “Success will not walk up to you. Forget about conventional tactics, you gotta go out there and get it.”
Speaking of the three comics who’ve influenced him the most, “If I could be any other comedian I’d be Chris Rock. Then there’s the genius George Carlin. Finally, Russell Peters, who’s one of the kindest guys I know, and that’s really important because if you’re famous and you’re an ar$*h*le, you’re just a famous ar$*h*le.” Back to present day, we talk about CJ’s journey as a comic, “They say it takes you 10 years to find your voice in comedy. Initially you begin with trying to please the audience, then you say what works for you. But there’s a third stage, and I’m somewhat there – I’m not even performing for others anymore, I’m doing it for me – this is what gives me joy.” This incredible journey of self-discovery and seeking from within rather than the outer world is apparent in his show, Naked, where CJ sheds the metaphorical walls built by us humans, exposing his pain and allowing himself to be vulnerable, “It’s terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, but at the end of it while you’re completely naked, you’re completely free,” as he says.
Having performed over 2,000 shows across five continents, Papa CJ has had an eclectic audience in splits over the years. Bringing audience diversity on the stage of our conversation, he talks about tailoring content for different parts of the world, “USA is majorly ‘fast food’ comedy, I call it the McDonald’s; in LA standup is a means to an end – getting on to TV. In the UK, stand-up is a live art form where I can tell a three-minute story and the audience is patient enough to wait till the end for that pay off.” Closer home though, “Southeast Asian audiences are a lot more polite, you have to literally spank the laughter out of them. In India, the English stand-up has truly evolved where people are increasingly more comfortable with humour at their expense,” he shares.
Making it large in stand-up comedy, specially in India, is no mean feat. As CJ has cracked the code of cracking people up, we ask how financially viable is the profession for budding comedians, “Stand-up comedy can be very financially viable, but not necessarily when you start. Comedian Adam Bloom gave me this gem of an advice: it’s very important to grow in the dark, because once you hit the limelight you don’t have the freedom to screw up,” he says. As for becoming a winner, “Currently, India doesn’t have a lot of comedians, hence it’s far easier to be successful here as the competition isn’t high.” Expressing his views on the recent ease of connect with the audience through social media CJ speaks, “Nowadays people want to get famous before they get good. It can go on for a certain amount of time but there’s no substitute for handwork and talent.
It’s not all monetary math, a major chunk of CJ’s wealth is formed by the smiles he collects. With the belief that he’s in the happiness business and not the comedy business, he’s the first comic who has kickstarted a charity project with the aim to laugh for a cause called the Happiness Project. “My genuine motivation is seeing the joy on people’s faces. And recently it struck me that why am I not doing shows which raise finance and impact people in need – the Happiness Project was the solution to this question,” he says about the genesis of this charity project. With eight shows in two weeks across India, we’re chuffed puffs as our sister CSR company, Picture Wala, is kicking off the 2017 series. “The creative expression they bring to children – making them embark on a journey of self-discovery, discarding the external layers of society & pretence, grow as humans and find inner peace. And no one can ever take this foundation from these kids, as it comes from within and not the outer world,” he sums up.
With Naked becoming a phenomenal success and the Happiness Project lighting up May, we want to know the POA of Mr. Funnybones, but he keeps us guessing, “Theatre, stand up, book or anything that comes from the heart.”
On that note we draw the drapes with the DSSC Rapid Fire being its signature final act self again.
One pro tip for those looking to start out in the standup comedy segment?
CJ: Do as many gigs as you possibly can. You’ll learn far more from the audience than from anywhere else.
One up & coming CJ-verified standup comedian in the Indian scene?
CJ: Pooja Vijay.
Favourite bar in Delhi?
CJ: The Piano Man Jazz Club.
One little secret only a few people know?
CJ: My name.
One food you feel should not exist?
Where would you rather live – the ugliest house in the world with the perfect view or the most beautiful house with the ugliest view?
CJ: I would rather live in a home with wonderful people!
This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace industry disruptors who map its course one masterstroke at a time.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of DSSC & its affiliates.
Featured Image Courtesy: urbandesis.com