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There’s barely an inch of empty space on the bedroom walls of Naveen Richard. As we have a chat in the company of his heroes, Richard’s natural propensity to make people laugh is pretty evident.
Through the course of the interview, the Christ Law graduate-turned standup comic talks about taking the decision not to be a lawyer, the future of the comedy scene in India, and more.
Bar & Bench: How were your law school days?
Naveen Richard: In my first year at Christ, we had some pretty interesting professors. What is that subject that starts with a J?
Naveen Richard: Yes, that. That was pretty interesting. But I found that once they hook you in with the interesting stuff, the boring subjects start. Then I found that the course had too many books for my liking. I simply couldn’t retain any of it. I couldn’t listen in class; I think I have ADD or something.
The professors we had initially we were very open to debates and would let us do the talking. Later, the college started abiding by the old-fashioned way of teaching. The good teachers were replaced by the boring ones and it all went downhill from there.
I never related to any of the students in terms of wanting to be a lawyer – they would talk about big firms like Amarchand Mangaldas, and I hadn’t even heard of those names. I guess I wasn’t interested enough to find out.
I had to fight to stay awake, because if I was caught sleeping, I’d get thrown out and miss attendance, as a consequence of which I’d have to pay a fine. To stay awake, I’d draw comic sketches in class. I was also into theatre at Christ, but I never liked it; it didn’t appeal to me. So I looked to do theatre outside.
B&B: Was that the first time you realised you could make a living out of this?
Naveen Richard: There isn’t really enough money in theatre. Stand-up had hardly grown in India at the time. This company called EVAM in Chennai were doing something like comedy, so I thought I could be a part of it too. So, I auditioned with them and I got through. I slowly realised that there were ways to make money through comedy– corporate shows, comedy writing, etc. So it was after five years of law and a year of figuring things out that I realised that I could do this for a living.
B&B: What difficulties did you face as a result of choosing not to be a lawyer?
Naveen Richard: Convincing my parents was one thing – there were afraid that this comedy thing was a whim. But in the last couple months of college, I was supporting myself by doing gigs here and there. It wasn’t much though – something like 15,000 bucks a month, in a good month. So they were worried about the long run. After law, I applied for a couple of jobs so that I could support my comedy. I applied for editing and radio jobs, but didn’t find them interesting.
After about a year or so, things picked and I started a video production company with my friends.
B&B: Who are your influences?
Naveen Richard: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been monkeying around; I think my first influence was Mr. Bean. I’d try to make people laugh wherever I went, unnecessarily tripping on nothing and falling down. Then I realised that people wouldn’t take me seriously if I kept doing that, so I decided to save it for the stage.
As I grew up, I started watching stand-up. Eddie Murphy’s Delirious was the first show I watched and got influenced by. Other influences are Eddie Izzard, Louis CK, Jim Carrey and others.
B&B: What is a day in the life of a comedy writer like?
Naveen Richard: Your work hours are essentially half an hour a day! And that is if you have a show that evening. There are comedians who charge one lakh for a corporate show, and that would be enough to survive for the next couple of months. So, it’s easy to get complacent, if you don’t keep improving yourself, you’ll be out of the business in no time.
It’s not necessary to have a routine – there are people who can wake up whenever and write jokes half an hour before the show. I try not to wake too late. So during the day I’m either writing a sketch or editing it or shooting it, and in the evening I’m preparing for a show. Even if you don’t have a show, it’s important to go for open mics if you really want to make it as a stand-up comedian. If you don’t go up on stage for a week, it shows.
B&B: Tell us about how YouTube has helped budding comedians put their stuff out there.
Naveen Richard: It obviously helps, because when you first get into comedy, you have no money. I am part of a channel called Them Boxer Shorts. It was started by me and a bunch of friends from school. We started shooting sketches three years ago, before AIB or anyone else was going viral. We thought it was really funny, but technically, it was terrible! The video quality was really bad. But we didn’t put them out with an intention to make them go viral. We were happy with around 4000 views, but slowly the viral culture came into being. People only started taking notice when one video of ours got around 75,000 views.
In terms of reach, we may not have a very big fan base, but everyone in the industry knows about us. We stopped aiming to reach as many people as possible, because the moment we do that, it stops being funny to us.
B&B: Would you consider getting into mainstream cinema in the future?
Naveen Richard: No, I don’t think so. I think Bollywood’s terrible, and everybody knows it. A lot of the viral humour nowadays is leeching on to Bollywood. I don’t think comedians should depend on Bollywood being ridiculous to be funny. As a comedian, you may ask yourself, “what if Bollywood throws me ten lakhs for ten minutes of work?” I don’t know how to answer that question and hopefully, I’m never put in that position.
Hopefully, in five years or so, India will be able to enjoy a different style of comedy and there wouldn’t be a need to sell out to Bollywood.
B&B: Given the reactions to the AIB roast, do you think twice about whether your jokes will offend people?
Naveen Richard: From experience, I think you can say anything during live shows. It may be really offensive, but everyone listens to it and moves on. The moment you put it up online, you’re putting yourself up for scrutiny. People who you don’t want to watch it end up having problems with it.
How you package it also important. For example, the next sketch we’re writing is pretty racist. But we found a way to address that issue despite it being offensive.
B&B: What is the future of India’s comedy scene?
Naveen Richard: It’s really picking up here; whoever’s in it now is really lucky to be part of one of the first waves. I think it’ll be great in ten years’ time. For that, we need more venues so that the word can get out.
Also, right now, we’re too busy taking offense, so in that respect we’ll always be twenty years behind the West.
B&B: Does your legal background come in handy now at all?
Naveen Richard: I thought it would come I handy at least when I get into trouble with cops, but I’ve found that being a law student gets me into even more trouble! I’d try to talk about some law that I studied in third year and they would bring up some local Act. It hasn’t helped me in terms of comedy, apart from the one joke I made:
My sole purpose of doing law was that I could put the Advocate sticker on my car. One year of saving after law school, I could finally afford the sticker.
B&B: What advice would you have for law students and graduates who don’t want to pursue law?
Naveen Richard: I met a law student just yesterday at a restaurant. He came up to me (I was surprised he recognized me; usually no one does) and said that he liked my stuff. He said that he wasn’t interested in doing law anymore and asked me how much comedy pays. I told him that money shouldn’t be the motivation behind getting into something like comedy.
Law schools today are like factories – especially Christ College. When I joined, we had seventy students in a batch, and the next year there were around 200 a batch. It’s just ridiculous, I feel bad for the students going there. Chances of placements are bleak, and they’re not going to learn anything. It’s just a money-making machine.
On second thought, don’t publish any of this. What if I need to rent out their auditorium for a show? (laughs)
There’s a scene in Godfather III, where Michael Corleone tells his son who wants to be a singer that he should take up law and then do whatever he wants. It’s true in a way, because once you have a law degree, you can diversify into a number of fields. I think it’s important to finish law school. There were so many times in law school when I felt that I wouldn’t have any use for it, but I stuck in there. I still haven’t written my bar exam, though. Let me know when the applications for the next one start.
I was lucky enough to know what I wanted to do other than law. Otherwise, I’m very indecisive – I take twenty minutes to pick what juice I want.
All that stuff about following your dreams is cheesy, but it’s true. However long it takes, you have to slog to get anywhere. If you want to be baker and people say your cakes suck, you have to work to get better. Two or three people may die eating your cakes, but eventually, you’ll get there.