Whether you enjoy standup comedy or not, chances are you’ve heard the name Papa CJ more than once. Winner of Asia’s best standup comedian award in 2014 and a self-baptised ambassador of happiness, he has been making waves both in India and internationally. Known for his faster-than-light comebacks, headstrong narrations, brilliant comic timing and those shiny long locks, Papa CJ talks to us about his new show Naked, what it takes to be free and what’s he doing with that Oxford MBA of his.
TC: You are one of the few comedians who have witnessed and been a part of the progress of standup comedy as an art form in India. Do you feel like a veteran in the scene?
Papa CJ: In the context of India some people might call me a veteran, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of this beautiful, honest, complicated and yet, incredibly raw and simple art form. The longer I do it the more I realise how little I know. For me, progression is not about external yardsticks. It is about the internal journey of self-discovery that the art form takes me through; about opening doors in my mind that I was never able to open before and some doors that I didn’t even know existed.
TC: You’ve stated that Naked reflects your personal experiences and observations. What was the main idea behind the concept?
Papa CJ: As human beings we build protective walls around ourselves. In Naked, one brick at a time I remove these walls, exposing myself with all my vulnerabilities and pain. This is both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. At the end of it, while I am completely naked, I have nothing to hide or hide behind and therefore I am also completely free.
I could not have performed this show five years ago because at that time, Naked was three doors behind the door I was standing in front of (in my head)! Also, I doubt I would have had the skills or emotional ability to do justice to a show like Naked then. It is a show that at times involves talking about deeply intense and personal topics and yet as a performer requires you to be entertaining, interesting and funny without trivialising the issues or misrepresenting the depth of emotions – that is a very, very fine line.
TC: In recent years, you’ve moved from doing just standup shows to a lot of public interaction and on the spot improv – why did you make this change? Is Naked an evolution of this change?
Papa CJ: There have been times where in a one-hour show, fifty minutes of it has been created on the spot. I do this for a few reasons.
Firstly, I do it as a challenge to myself. I thrive on the challenge of constantly having a logical and witty response to an unexpected answer from the audience. Secondly, I do it because the audience loves it. They see a show that is more personal because it is based on what they have said, and the people in the room. There is a misconception that nobody wants to be picked on by a standup comedian. At my shows, the first row always gets sold out first. And thirdly, I do it because I have the ability to do it well.
Naked though, is not an extension of this at all. It straddles the genres of theatre, storytelling and standup comedy and has a very strong narrative.
TC: How was the show received at the recent Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2015? How different was it to perform it for an international audience?
Papa CJ: The show was received very well in Melbourne. I love what Beat Magazine said about the show: “It dawned upon us that CJ might not be the innocuous Indian comedian we’d naively envisioned…”! It gives me great joy to represent Indian standup on the global stage and to smash some of the preconceived notions that people might have about us.
I can’t quite describe how heartwarming it felt to perform Naked for an international audience. It was great to see that audiences from different countries could relate to the entire story and felt like I was talking about their lives.
TC: Apart from spreading smiles through your charity and your shows, what other things keep you busy when you’re not performing?
Papa CJ: Not a lot. I’m a bum. I didn’t get out of the corporate world and into standup comedy so I could be busy all the time! That being said, I am in the process of designing something that puts my Oxford MBA, executive coaching and motivational speaking background to good use. I’m designing workshops for corporate leaders around what management and leadership can learn from standup comedy. As a part of that, I’ll be getting corporate executives to learn how to do some standup as well!
TC: After instances like the AIB Roast controversy and the police crackdown at Vir Das’ show – do you think writers and comedians now have to think twice about expressing their views? Do you think standup comedy still isn’t taken seriously or understood by a vast majority of Indian audiences?
Papa CJ: The problem in India is not that standup comedy isn’t taken seriously, but that it is! Audiences often don’t realise that offence has to do with intent. And a comedian’s intention is almost always to entertain and not to offend.
It cannot be denied though that sometimes newer comedians don’t understand the nuances of crowd interaction and end up being hurtful instead of cheeky. Once again, that is almost never their intention.
As comedians I don’t think we should have to think twice about expressing our views but what we have been forced to think about is where to express our views. My thumb rule is that if you’ve come to my show, you’ve come to my environment to see what I do, and I’ll do what I feel like. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to leave and never come to watch me again. However, if I’m presenting at a corporate or personal event, it is my duty as a professional to respect the boundaries of your environment. And I will do so every single time.
Delhi NCR folks can check out an upcoming edition of Naked at the Epicentre in Gurgaon this Sunday.