Fancy dress competitions. Music bands. Theatre. Dance. Emceeing. It’s as if Abish Mathew was born to have all eyes on him. It’s no surprise then, that his onstage talent coupled with an innate drive to make people laugh, led Abish to become one of India’s top stand-up comics. As he inches closer to concluding the third season of his talk show, Son of Abish, we get chatting with Mathew on his journey as a stand-up within the country’s young comedy canvas.
The teenager Abish knew he wanted to pursue stand-up comedy, however the lack of professional avenues had him engage in his other love – radio jockeying. “Back in 2008 there weren’t enough opportunities for stand-up, but I knew I liked radio as you get to perform on air.” As the Delhi boy interned with Radio One for a year and then moved on to Hit 95 FM for the next three, he simultaneously helped build the live comedy scene in the capital. “I wanted to do stand-up, but alongside a radio career. So even on air I tried to make it as fun as possible, and off it I got involved in organising open mics,” he says. As it gained momentum, Mathew made the complete switch over to comedy in 2012 and went on to do one man sketches, improv, stand-up, and original songs. With his stint spanning across the globe, he performed at New York Comedy Club, Lafflines (Canada), and the Utrecht International Comedy Festival (Holland), and back home worked with the likes of The Papa CJ Comedy Company and East India Comedy.
Speaking of going international, we ask how the exposure helped him evolve as an artist, “There was this innate fear that though the Indian audience laughs at my jokes, what if the international audiences don’t?” Mathew goes on to share that, “It came from a place of insecurity, as comedy has existed in those countries (Canada, US, Europe) for a long time, and to match wits with the greatest and waiting to find out how good am I on their radar was not easy.” Yet, as the laughs grew louder with each show (the ever-humble Abish pitches in ‘some days they’d keep laughing, some days they didn’t laugh at all’), he returned with a better understanding of the audience and a greater sense of confidence. Having established tongue in cheek yet ‘clean’ comedy as his forte, we talk about the deliberate moving around among genres, “If you’re in one place for too long you lose perspective, evolution, and growth. Hence, if I’ve done political comedy for a while, I’d like to switch to silent jokes or silly sh*t. And it is not just me, it helps the audience grow as well.”
The audience has surely grown, with open mics becoming a daily feature in Mumbai and Bengaluru (and Delhi on its way to catch up), “The audience perspective is like a gradient, those who started watching it in 2010 have seen both live and recorded performances, and have become smart towards references. While there’s an audience for meta jokes now, there will always be a younger audience which welcomes the common denominator, stereotypical jokes.” As we discuss audience culture, Mathew shares that his perfect gathering would be a mix of Mumbai and Bengaluru, “Bombay audiences are very comedy savvy, and Bangalore audience is not just comedy savvy but also on the same level of references.” As for Delhi, he says that the nature of patrons has changed with times, “Earlier the audience used to be fun. Ever since comedy reached out to a bigger market you get audiences who are not ready to take jokes or get drunk faster. It happens in every city, but is a little more frequent in Delhi.”
The connect with the audience is no longer restricted to shows and live performances, the age of social media has ensured that there’s constant direct communication between the artist and his patrons. Reviewing the impact of social media, Mathew shares, “It has made us more of business people than just artists. We put up thoughts, jokes, opinions – something people can share and agree or disagree with. It’s great because it helps us evolve too, otherwise we’ll be sitting alone writing a special for three months, and by the time we come out with it, it’ll be outdated.”
A strong advocate of solo work Mathew consistently collaborates with his peers. On being asked about maintaining a balance between the two he quips, “It’s slightly tough but also very doable. The reason is that only if you work solo will you learn skills that others will want to collaborate with you.” You will also see his fellow comedians, along with the likes of Irrfan Khan and Jwala Gutta on Son of Abish, “The aim is to do two seasons a year and take the show to a platform like Netflix and make it a household name, and make people look forward to the next season.”
As he and his actor wife Archana Kavi play the role of bouncing boards for ideas for each other, Abish shares what’s next on his planner, “I will do a couple of music videos, web series, and movies. I really enjoy creating stories and giving my rhythm to it. So, I’ve been writing and want to start directing and executing a certain vision. By 2019 I certainly want to do some fiction work.”
Our tub of popcorn ready for that dose of Mathew magic, we take a bow with our signature rapid fire in tow.
One pro tip for those looking to start out in the standup comedy segment?
Go again. Whether you do a terrible show or the best show of your life, doesn’t matter, go again. What you did doesn’t matter, what you are doing matters.
One passion besides stand-up?
Carving. Whenever I get the time I like to carve on small wood pieces, usually pencils!
Up & coming stand-up comedians in the Indian scene?
Urooj Ashfaq, Sumaira Shaikh, Prashasti Singh, Sejal Bhat.
Your most memorable act till date?
I performed at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University a couple of years ago. At the end of the show the principal kissed my cheek and told me I did really well.
One little secret about you only a few people know?
I only drink hot water.
In a utopian world where you can do a show on any subject of your choice, what would you pick?
I would like to make a set on my death – how would I die and what exactly should happen after I die.