Kenny Sebastian: Even if censorship on digital platforms happen, a new subset will come into place
In this candid chat, stand-up comedian Kenny Sebastian talks about his journey, his latest Netflix special, and the evolution of the Indian comedy scene
What new things can one ask a stand-up comedian who hosts a podcast, and takes questions from his fans regularly? Kenny Sebastian laughs in response. One of the most successful Indian stand-up comics, Kenny has had quite the journey since he decided to dabble with it when he was 19. “Back then, everyone told me that comedy is a bubble and would die in three years,” he says, going on to explain how the Indian comedy scene has evolved. “It has all been good. The opportunities to become big are so many right now: Comicstaan, YouTube sketches, podcasts, Tik Tok. People now look out for standup comedy. Regional comedy has become so big. The only drawback is people are overestimating how stable stand-up is,” he points out as we discuss censorship, his latest Netflix special, The Most Interesting Person in the Room, and all things comedy.
Excerpts from a chat:
I am going to play hooky here, and ask you if there's a question you wish people asked you.
(laughs) I miss when people would ask me something very specific about a joke. Seldom do people ask questions about the craft, but I understand why that is cos it gets too specific. But I do enjoy answering questions like that as there is a lot of thought behind every line and every word.
Taking off on this lead you gave me, I’ll point out that I enjoyed how you created a natural moment out of a water break in your latest special. It’s when you pause to take a swig and the audience cheers. You comment, "I'll go home, I'll drink water, and no one will react. I will be so bummed."
That's the only improvised part of the show. I did plan my water break because I needed one there. And my next joke is about the concept of stand-up and how weird it is. So, I decided I would pause, and when the audience reacted, I went along with it. I enjoy playing with my audience and that's a moment where my personality comes through. But that's also the summary of the entire set, that none of this is real; that how they reacted to the water break, is also how they react to my jokes. It might be improvised, but it's how I feel. There's a genuine surprise as to how people react to me.
This special sees you explore more of that vulnerable side...
I wanted this special to have an honest side as well. Stand-up is very tight, it's 2-2.5 years of writing, re-writing, over-analysing... it's my best work. I enjoy stand-up as it has my best writing. Usually, there's so much focus on jokes, that you don't want to waste one second. You don't want the audience to feel it’s boring, or wonder why a comedian is only talking about himself, and begin to demand jokes. But this was a conscious decision. I felt at this point I deserved to express myself. I am proud of this special.
How did this interesting premise of The Most Interesting Person in the Room begin?
The hard thing about stand-up is, you don't write an hour's worth of jokes and hit a show. You write about three minutes of jokes, test it, analyse what works and then repeat. So imagine doing this to get enough content for about 70 minutes. It took me two and a half years. I got to know about the special, six months before we taped it. My main focus was to have a theme for it, and anything that didn't fit had to be out.
When I first heard about my special, more than celebrating, my first thought was, 'Is my special good enough to be on Netflix, amid so many great names?' You could be the most confident person in your circle, but walk into a TED conference, and you will be surrounded by people who are more accomplished. I found this constant shift in power to be interesting, universal, and relatable.
While your brand of comedy doesn't dabble extensively in politics, there have been passing references to social themes. With a growing demand for censorship, how do you see the form evolving?
I believe the internet is the biggest gift India has got; that's the only reason why stand-up blew up. Before YouTube, the content that young people had to watch was television which was heavily regimented with laws, and so many writers, that the final product was often watered down; it felt generic and non-personal. So when YouTube came, and young comedians started making content with no restrictions, people found it relatable. From seeing women talk about marriages in soaps, we now see a young girl talk candidly about casual sex. That would have never happened on television.
With my special, I could shoot what I wanted, given that Netflix uploads with a disclaimer saying it is all my responsibility. This is the future because what we see on television isn't real. This is why when young people saw YouTube or platforms like Netflix, they went, “This is how we are!” Even if censorship happens with government intervention, a new subset will come into place. Just like how YouTube or these streaming platforms happened.