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January 12, 2018

Abish Mathew On His Need To Make People Laugh

Text by Shubham Ladha

The comedian tells us about his life goals and how he uses the magic of humour

One of my biggest fears in life has always been my lack of interesting humour, but it’s also been one of the many reasons I admire comedians. They have a knack for being their natural selves to drive any point across the table with the most essential emotion known to mankind, apart from love, of course. Then again, they’re also not scared to laugh at themselves. One of many such people, happens to be Abish Mathew. From his recent and successful attempt at reinventing the late-night talk show genre with Son of Abish, to making humour more understandable with Journey Of A Joke, Abish has been a strong face of the stand-up movement for a while, with no signs of slowing down. We spoke to the funny man ahead of his performance at L’affaire Vikhroli, an event that brings together the best of fashion, travel, photography and books.

When did you first realise you wanted to make people laugh?

I think it comes from my dad, mostly; the fact that when there are people around, he usually makes everybody laugh. It was an infectious need that I didn’t know was something one could do professionally.

Any references from pop culture that inspired you while you were growing up?

While growing up in the 2000s, as far as stand-up comedy is concerned, I remember that I wanted to go on stage and make people laugh and be applauded (which I’ve always been addicted to). When I watched Robin Williams on YouTube, I was amazed by what he was doing. That’s when I discovered more about stand-up comedy.

I also remember watching Jey Leno and was surprised to find a live audience on TV and thought what better way would there be to do a show? My dream has never been to do a variation of a late-night talk show but to do The Tonight Show, which was on NBC. But as a brown guy from India, one’s chances are slim. I still strive towards it because it just keeps me going. Everything I do is to reach the goal of working on The Tonight Show.

What’s the most definitive quality about the kind of comedy you perform? How do you gauge what your audience wants from you?

To be honest, I don’t think I have cracked it or anybody has cracked it so far. If I’m doing a show, I’ll do a couple of jokes and understand what kind of a flavour the audience likes, and then I’ll accordingly craft the rest of my set. While I’m writing a joke, I ask myself if I find it funny. If it isn’t morally correct and doesn’t make me laugh, I won’t be able to deliver it in a funny manner and that would make it really unfunny.

How did you christen your show, Son of Abish?

It’s not the first time that my name’s got people’s attention. Because of its oddity, people don’t understand what it means and ask why my parents stopped halfway through ‘Abhishek’. My father recognised its weirdness while I was growing up, so, from there he came up with, “Oh, you son of Abish!”. Listening to him over the years, I caught on to it and liked it.

When I started creating the format of this show, people were asking what I would want to call it and suggested ‘The Late Night Show with Abish’ or ‘The Tonight Show with Abish’, but I refused believing it was too similar to its variants. I realised that it would be nice to technically take the name ‘Son of Abish’ because it’s unique and slightly misleading. I remember from back in 2014, when I had done first show by that name, one of my friends had recorded a video of an elderly couple who had come to the Canvas Laugh Club thinking that it was a coming-of-age play about a father-son relationship, but instead, they watched this comedian cracking jokes. They said that they didn’t expect it and found it interesting.

Your first show aired in 2014 and then you took a good two and a half years to create and reinvent the second and right after seven months you produced the third. What has the evolution been like?

It was in the second season when we were trying to figure out a form, when we started to look a little too much like the late-night talk show because that’s what everyone thought the show needs to be. I just got done with the third season, which is where it looks slightly different, where the art and tone are different and closer to the vision I want. It took me three seasons and 26 episodes to understand the direction and make space for the show’s evolution.

Because I’ve been waiting patiently for two years to do the same thing, I’ve learnt that it has to be done urgently. If it’s urgent, it might be delayed but if you are easy about it, it will never happen.

Is there a fourth season on line? What are we to expect from it?

My ambition is to do two seasons a year, digitally. As soon as the second season finished, I knew I had to do a third season immediately within the year, otherwise I would have lost out on the momentum that I had built up. It’s a very similar scheme for the fourth season and everyone from my team as well as Only Much Louder (OML) is helping me figure out how we can get the fourth season going. Because I haven’t been involved in any show more than this, I feel the need to keep up the moral and keep pressuring them.

And you’ve also produced Journey of a Joke? What was that all about?

Journey of a Joke is another show that I would like to develop. It’s more educational. As of now, I have only sat with comedians, specifically talking and understanding about the processes of creating and dissecting jokes according their names and formats and decoding them. What I want to try to do is a similar format for decoding sketches, web series, movies.

I truly believe that humor should be taught. I want to academically break down what offends somebody but still get them to laugh, which is the most intriguing aspect. It has an interesting depth to it, that you’re offended but you laugh out loud because every laugh is a sense of agreement, not necessarily complete, but with familiarity or relatability to the topic or the punchline. But that also scares me. An honest truth is that the more you know what makes something funny, the less funny it become. Because, then you fall prey to the fact there’s no magic in that. There are points when while I’m writing jokes and I realise that it’s a funny thought, but if I start applying a process to, it’ll lose its emotion.

How effective have you found comedy as a tool for impacting social change?

I actually feel that happens quite a bit. I have said that before and I will say that again that comedy is a wagon on which you can carry anything; social, political and activism opinions. People want to laugh, and comedy can be a great vehicle to carry the message you want to convey. During my early years as a comedian, I didn’t have a lot of jokes about social change, and mostly wanted to just make people laugh. But, with Son of Abish, I realised that I had to live up to the audience’s expectations by talking about topics such as sexual health or the LGBT community with a very conscious decision. Depending on how you use it, comedy can either be just a toothpick or a magic wand. What’s the point of having a magic wand when you are using it as a toothpick?

What are your plans for L’affaire Vikhroli?

Oh, I am very much looking forward to it. The interesting bit is that as a comedian, you want to make sure that you come with your strongest bit for the audience and not let them be prey to your tepid material. In general, during a set, I always do something new because it keeps me fresh and the jokes are more topical. So, usually, by the seventh time, after seven different audiences, I’m sure if a joke works or not.

Apart from your own performance what are you looking forward to in the L’affaire Vikhroli?

I am coming on the 13th itself so, I don’t know whether I will be able to see that much, but I hope I can experience everything and that someone will take care to not let me get delayed for my own show.

Abish Mathew’s stand-up performance will take place on January 13, 2017, at Godrej One, Vikhroli.

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