It’s a typical day at work, with deadlines to meet, stories to finish and an important event to attend. But there’s nothing typical about this man, who’s the global face of Indian stand-up comedy. Papa CJ has won awards for being both India’s and Asia’s best stand-up comedian. In 2018, Harvard Business Review called him one of the most influential comedians in the world.
Tall and lithe, with his long hair tied neatly in a ponytail, he is sitting casually, waiting for me before the scheduled time at Blue Tokai Coffee in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar. Dressed in a black T-shirt, jeans, cap and chappals, he politely asks me what I would like to have, giving me a few options on hearing that I’m lactose intolerant. “You can try coffee with soya milk if that’s not a problem, or maybe hot chocolate.”
I settle down and we start our not-so-formal interview around his recently launched autobiography, Naked. When I got in touch with Papa CJ, he was interested in doing an email interview rather than a face-to-face interaction and it left me with questions. “With humour I have to be particular in what I say because every single word has a meaning and nuance within a joke. If you’re not recording the interview and happen to put one word in the wrong place, it can kill the joke. The reader will not laugh and then think I’m not funny.”
If you have watched the show Naked, you would know that Papa CJ takes off his clothes on stage. “The book is based on a show that I’ve been performing,” he explains. “While I do take physical layers off, it’s more about the emotional layers. Each time I reveal something, where I feel I’m being vulnerable, as I expose myself in front of the audience, I symbolically take off a physical layer. The book is about being comfortable in your own skin.”
When you hear this name, it’s difficult to visualise the person. Let’s admit, Papa CJ is a unique name. “I didn’t put much thought behind the name. It was spontaneous. However, I was the only Indian comedian on the scene back then in the UK and always tried to project India in a positive light. So, perhaps, subconsciously I wanted the British to think unka bhi koi baap hai.”
His personality, if you were to summarise it, is witty, positive, and of course, charming. He feels he’s the same boy he used to be. “I still put my plate in the kitchen after every meal. I’m sitting in front of you in my regular chappals.” He stands up to show me his slippers.
“I have never been drawn to this word ‘celebrity’.”
He dons many different hats — motivational speaker and executive coach, anchor and host, brand and content strategist, and of course, one of the best stand-up comics in English whose latest book and show are a hit.
There are some incidents from his life that he didn’t put in the book, like this one: “When I was in high school, there was this teen party happening that I wanted to attend, but didn’t have any friends as I was just back from boarding school. So, my mom dressed up as a teenager, and she was my first date.”
Papa CJ reveals that initially he wasn’t very motivated to write a book since he was already telling his story on stage. “This contract was lying on my table for two years. I didn’t sign it, otherwise, I would have to write. I signed the contract in April last year. I finished the first draft in ten days and the editor thought there wasn’t enough pain. So, I took a year-and-a-half to finish the final draft of the book. It is written in a style where the reader will feel like I’m talking to them. It’s the only form of storytelling I know. However, unlike on the show, this medium has given me the freedom to add a lot more richness and anecdotes that I wouldn’t have the luxury to do at a comedy club where I need to get to the punchline ASAP.”
“At a club, people are drinking and have short attention spans so you have to give them a punch line every 20 seconds to keep them engaged.” At a regular comedy show he picks on his audience and interacts with them, often in an unstructured and freestyle manner. “In Naked, however, since I’m there to tell a specific story, I hold back from interacting because I don’t have the luxury of getting carried away with 25 minutes of audience interaction. Naked is a roller coaster of emotions. Everybody has gone through things mentioned in the show and the book, like heartbreak, financial struggles, etc. Therefore audiences relate to the content at a very personal level.”
For the man who left a lucrative job at IBM to follow his passion, his first memory of deciding to join the world of comedy and getting up on stage is still fresh. “The beginning wasn’t easy. I walked in as a 23-year-old graduate and desperately wanted to succeed in a corporate environment. However, the dotcom crash had just happened and I wasn’t getting placed on projects. I took a sabbatical and went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was blown away watching stand-up comedy. This man had a whisky glass in one hand and a microphone in another, and was just having fun. And that was his job! I told myself I had to do it. I took a chance and enrolled myself in a comedy course in London. It was difficult to even get a five-minute slot at the clubs, but eventually, I managed to do that.”
Papa CJ hopes to continue to be able to make audiences laugh. “I would like to be remembered with a smile.” For someone who writes his own jokes, he would have loved to share the stage with the younger Chris Rock.
An adventurer at heart, he has trekked to Everest Base Camp, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and learned to fly. “After three years of a professional career, I convinced my company to give me a year off. In that year, I set up some schools on the Indo-Bangladesh border, went backpacking in Kerala, learned to fly paragliders, played poker in Vegas, trekked to the Everest Base Camp, and to the Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon in Arizona.”
Papa CJ’s take on men
Why do Indian men have such a problem with being laughed at…Why can’t they take jokes or sarcasm? What do you think is the problem with Indian men?
I don’t think it is correct to paint an entire gender of a nation with one brush. Different people have different problems. I, for example, have a problem being chirpy first thing in the morning. Come close to me before I’ve had my first cup of tea and I’ll bite your head off. Unless of course you’re the person bringing me the cup.