Puns about cheese, having a certain amount of self-confidence and a doll’s head are part of our conversation with Sahil Shah.
The logic in the formula is sound. Find a word, use the word as a pun in a sentence and wait for the laughs. Like most things in life, executing this is far from easy. Using puns effectively requires some mental agility as well as crafty manipulation of people’s attention, and from what I’ve seen so far, a lot of young Indian comedians actively use puns in their routines. As anyone who has seen a weak pun delivered as a punchline will tell you, when it fails to make the audience laugh, the comedian is left very exposed on stage. A lot of this went through my head as I watched Comedy News Network at the Canvas Laugh Factory this week. The show was a presentation of East India Comedy and featured many of its brightest stars. Kunal Rao played the host of the show and the other comedians included Atul Khatri, Sapan Verma, Azeem Banatwalla (you might remember him from this interview) and Sahil Shah, who was the comedian I came to see. As far as stand up comedy shows go, I really enjoyed this one because of its theme (news parody is one of my favourites) and the pace of the show.
Each comedian was given a “beat” in the journalistic sense and presented various news reports pertaining to their beat. To break up the monotony of the reporting structure, certain skits and debates were introduced through the night. I had come to the show to watch Shah and he was easily one of the best performers on the night. Whether it was acting in a skit or debating about Kaun Banega Crorepati, Shah was comfortable in his multiple roles. Too often a comedian will want to stick his/her strengths such as acting, improvisation or just plain stand-up comedy but Shah seemed keen to do them all. As the youngest member of the East India Comedy team, it’s easy to dismiss Shah or patronizingly say, “He’s just a kid”. In fact, while I was talking to him, he was introduced by a friend to a young woman, who asked him how old he was. Shah replied that he was 22 years old and the bemused girl smiled and walked off without saying too much else. I asked him if his age made him feel like he was at a disadvantage, but he wasn’t perturbed by it at all. “No this age thing doesn’t effect me at all. I’m the youngest professional comedian in this country and I’m totally fine with it. I started East India Comedy with these guys and I’ve never looked back. People joke about it all the time but I have fun doing this,” says Shah.
Here’s a video of Shah talking about the Mayan Apocalypse at the Canvas Laugh Factory.
It becomes apparent immediately that Shah, who is a Bachelor of Mass Media (BMM) graduate from Jai Hind College, naturally takes to entertaining people. A regular on the college festival circuit, Shah was called by a friend one night and told that an open mic night was taking place. “I had 10 minutes to go out there and do what I wanted, so I went out there with a few jokes I had and told them. People loved it! When I look back at it, the whole thing seems so amazing because I took a doll’s head with me onto stage and used it while I was talking and later on, I passed the head around and asked people to put change in it! The jokes were really bad too, but people actually thought that I was funny and this is what made me really happy.” The open mic nights kept coming and he frequented the ones at Cafe Goa. Each experience was a confidence-booster and Shah was taking off in his new role as a stand-up comedian.
2011 was a pretty important time for the growing stand-up comedy community as large numbers of new comedians such as Shah were gaining experience through open mic nights. The momentum was with Shah at this point but a few months after his debut, it was an open mic night at Bonobo where he had his first bad experience. “I went up on stage and started out with my first joke, but then nobody laughed. I was hurt by this and after that, I just didn’t commit to my jokes. The crowd didn’t really respond to any of the material after that and I felt even worse. After I finished my set, I just said, ‘You’ve been a terrible audience. Good night,’ and I walked off stage. I felt terrible because it was meant to be a joke but there was complete silence. I look back at that now and I realize I made a huge mistake by insulting the crowd, but the entire experience was very humbling for me. Now I have lots of material to help me get out of such situations,” explains Shah.
East India Comedy, the crew that Shah founded alongside Sorabh Pant, Kunal Rao and Sapan Verma, is one of the most successful names in the Indian stand-up business right now and it’s no surprise that Shah thought it best to immediately jump into stand-up comedy immediately after finishing college. Each comedian in the group has his own strengths and styles which is what persuaded them to join forces. “What was most important is that we have a great time together when we perform. Everybody is free to do what they want to do and we can freely perform with other comedians if we want to,” says Shah. I was curious as to why he didn’t attempt his own solo stand-up comedy show but he felt that he wanted to do a lot of things in order to make show amazing. “I’d love to do magic tricks during my set,” he quips before waving his hands around playfully. When it came to his style of comedy, I knew exactly what I wanted to ask him.
Check out Shah at the 3rd Annual Ghanta Awards presenting the ‘Worst Song Award’ category below.
Towards the end of the Comedy News Network program, all the comedians gathered on stage and started talking about the suggested news stories which they received from the audience. This improvisational addition was extremely popular with the crowd who were in splits. While everybody on stage responded to the situation in the best way they could, Shah went ahead and created pun after pun. Some of them were good and got the laughs but some of them were truly terrible. It was here where Shah was at his element. Even though there was an audible groan from some members of the audience, some of Shah’s colleagues laughed at his failure while Shah himself doubled over with laughter at how bad the pun was. People were laughing at him AND with him which is pretty much the best case scenario for a comedian who just delivered a terrible punchline. As I spoke to him after the show, Shah asked me to give him a word to pun with, “Come on,” he said to me,”Give me a word. Any word.” I gave him the word “cheese”. After about five seconds, he distracted me with the “obvious answers”, in his own words, such as “tu cheese badi hai mast” but went on a pun rampage with the word cheese. It was somewhere around, “God created the Earth and the animals but then he created Edam and Brie,” that I stopped him.
Shah seemed pretty confident in his ability and he told me why he felt that way. “I am not scared anymore. If I’m on stage then I’m on stage. At first, I was afraid and then slowly I got more confident. Now I just go ahead and feel confident as soon as I get on stage. You need to feel a little arrogant when you go out to perform, you need to feel that you are funny. I just go on stage and try to tell the audience, ‘I’m funny, so laugh at me,’” says Shah. From what I gathered at the Canvas Laugh Factory, this approach is working out for him pretty well.