From being the cheeky youngster with an uncanny ability to laugh at his eccentricities to a man who no longer pressurises himself to be funny all the time and has made peace with himself, standup comedian and host Abish Mathew has come a long way. He’s been secure about his identity and while juggling his roles as an entrepreneur, a talk show host and a comedian, his desire to evolve and reflect has kept him in good stead.
The digital medium has played an integral role in his success, be it the response for Journey Of A Joke, his videos for the series For No Reason At All, his quirky take on mundane issues, or Son of Abish. Son of Abish, in particular, has been a revelation in terms of its innovative show segments and famed guest lineups across every season and the fact that it has lasted six seasons says a lot about how it has grown on the audiences. What if we say that the show wasn’t even conceived for the digital medium initially?
LetsOTT.com talks to Abish Mathew about that and more, as the seventh season of Son of Abish, is set to stream on a premier video platform soon. Here we make this attempt to understand the man beyond his humour.
Abish, I need to say this, I really like you as a standup comedian, but you make for a better host!
Yes, I completely agree.
What do you think goes into the making of a good host?
With standup, I’m working on my craft, thinking of a setup, trying to figure a punchline. The job of a host is very similar to how you treat your friends, relatives when they come home. Even if you don’t like a few of them coming over, you still don’t make them feel unwelcomed. The difference between an anchor and a host is that the former connects various segments of a show, but a host develops the show from scratch. I’ll call myself a much better ‘show creator’. Be it ‘Journey of a Joke’ or ‘Son of Abish’, creating new shows has given me the experience of hosting. As you do it more, you get better at it. I’ve always loved the stage anyway!
Has age changed the way you have perceived humour?
I’m 100% wiser and smarter than I was before. People do standup because they like doing it and not because it’s their retirement plan. Fun either comes instinctively or through time, but the content that you consider ‘funny’ defines your brand of humour. I was always afraid of what my voice as a comedian was and kept asking myself ‘if I was edgy or family-friendly?’. Age has taught me that I shouldn’t worry about the voice but rather be scared of ‘doing’ and people will anyway slot you in boxes.
Is it easier for you as a comedian to recover from a false start and still make the show work now?
Experience on stage has given me the ability to make any bad show feel like a good show, but life experience has got me to know ‘when to speak’ and ‘when to let others speak’. A comedian always burdens himself with the thought that he has to remain funny all the time. Age has told me you needn’t have to be funny always; you need to learn to be a good host. If I was younger and I was speaking to you, I would have made all the effort to sound funny. I don’t do that anymore. ‘Being funny’ is only one of the many things I can do as a standup comedian. Age has removed that sense of competition and has taught me acceptance.
Must say that your humour has depth now…
I have matured as a person but I continue to be immature in a lot of things as well. I made a conscious choice to go to therapy back in the day because I was not happy with myself. People called me hardworking and I often wondered if it meant that I wasn’t talented enough. Hard work is an over-glorified skill but I feel it is the very basic thing you need to do as a person. I’ve understood that I am a man of many identities and I’ve only grown with that understanding. The only difference is that I am absolutely honest on the stage now. I might not be a great joke writer but no one can take away the fact that I’m funny. I’m lucky my fans understand that but the audience for Son of Abish is the best lot – they don’t send me one-liner comments, they send me paragraphs and these are as good as letters.
Are you a different person when a camera is in front of you?
Not at all. I’ll give you an example. Son of Abish started as a live show and I edited it and put it up online only for marketing and to help me sell tickets for my next show. It went so viral and resonated with people so much that it ended up being a digital talk show. The ground reality is that I love going on stage in front of a live audience and someone capturing it makes me feel happy too. I develop shows that I find happiness in because I don’t want to become the data analytics guy ever again. There was a phase in my life where I was doing a lot of Youtube data analytics, working around algorithms, deciding titles and thumbnails. I had a feeling this is not what I started out for. And then I started a company and hired people who loved playing around data and I’ve let them be. Letting go is one of the best things I’ve learnt in the previous year and a half.
How do you react when an episode/show close to your heart, that you genuinely believed in, doesn’t pull in great numbers online?
A few years ago, numbers and views were my metrics of success. I wasn’t garnering those big numbers while my counterparts were going great guns. However, many people came up to me and asked why was I empowering numbers so much? It made me realise that an artist needs to stick to his vision no matter what; Christopher Nolan believed that he could tell a story about three different timelines, stuck to his objective and the results are there for everyone to see. Similarly, I stuck to what I was doing and decided to figure my audience out eventually. If there are 8 billion people on the earth, I’m sure at least 8000 among them will like my work.
Never be pleased by the numbers but look at how you’re engaging people – the emails and DM you get after every episode. If the comments are really long, it means that you’ve affected them. We did something called The Gender Identity song recently – it involved animation, it is extremely expensive, it doesn’t get many views but I’m planning to do something on similar lines this season too. It gives me a feeling that I did a good job and feel proud about it. I always say myself ‘Keep your head low, enjoy what you do and the audiences will slowly grow.’
The best part of having a digital show is that there’s every chance for an audience to come back to an episode and rediscover it. There’s a great shelf life for content and one can never be written off…
I love this word ‘posthumous’ and the idea of becoming relevant or popular after you die. If the content that I make in 2010 makes sense to a kid in 2050, it tells you how amazing your life was! Many astronomers were laughed at for their discoveries early in their life but were revered for the same reason later. People realising the value of your work much after you’ve done it makes you feel good. There was a point in my life when I was concerned about relevancy, shelf life, numbers, money, but I’ve realised these are good things to be afraid of. It keeps your amygdala active (brain cells that are responsible for your survival). For instance, I tried my hand at directing and didn’t enjoy it all because there were so many problems within the system, it was all so segmented that it made me feel crippled. When I started my company Absurdist (Studio), it gave me an opportunity to think beyond industry conventions.
A filmmaker recently talked about the need for the world to move on, begin working and not get locked up in our houses forever. Do you believe that too?
I know the filmmaker and I understand from what position he’s saying that! But, there’s a phrase called hedonic adaptation, which is the tendency of humans to cumulatively stop something and resume our activity at the same pace that we stopped at. It’s only going to do more damage to the world. The objective of this phase is to evolve and not to restart on the same path as before. It’s a time where you realise you’ve been using your car to go to a supermarket for a distance you could have comfortably walked. If people conceive lockdown as a cocoon, let’s see what kind of a butterfly will you be when you come out of it. Don’t go back to being a caterpillar. If you’re doing the same thing that you did before lockdown, you haven’t done yourself any service yet.
Standup comedians are always on the receiving end when it comes to creative freedom. And discussions in society have also become so binary in nature – one is either branded right or wrong and there’s good or bad. There’s no space for a genuine exchange of ideas. Have we regressed as a society?
I don’t feel this at all. Thinking of the two world wars that have happened in the past and the number of people who may have died and comparing this scenario with our world now, there are more number of road accidents and deaths happening today. The world is still a better place. Our lifespan in the context of world events is so small that it’s easy for us to imagine that we’re living in the worst times. When I listen to the situations amid which my parents grew up, I realise how tough life was back then and no wonder that they’re handling a situation like this with optimism. The loudest voices get the most spotlight in public and it’s to be blamed on capitalistic journalism. Even my creativity is capitalistic and I’m doing it because it’ll give me money to create more content that I want to. There comes a phase in every artiste’s life that ‘my struggle before was the money and now my struggle is for artistic understanding’. I don’t think people are angry because society is bad but I agree a lot of debates are happening. Everyone has a voice these days but some voices get heard more. That’s about it!
You, Kenny Sebastian, Zakir Khan, Vir Das, go a long way back and have been friends more than competitors ever since your careers took off. Have your conversations with each other during the pandemic taken a different turn?
Everyone got started on this journey together as friends and we still are. We’ve seen the efforts that went into it (our careers) and what it has eventually become. Respect is something that we’ll always have for each other. I always keep calling them to find out what they’re upto. Some of them are taking it easy, relaxing and trying to understand what they want to do. I’ve already seen a butterfly effect happening. All our conversations have gotten deeper and trust me, I haven’t spoken to them about jokes in the last few months. Our talks had earlier revolved around trivial things, numbers and money. We now speak about each other, our families and also have gotten the confidence that we could weave ourselves into the socio fabric even if we take a break.
What’s your approach towards content creation for Son of Abish?
The kid who watched Son of Abish in the first season would be heading for college now and it’s a great time for me to think what is this generation up to and create content. I’m going to do Son of Abish even if it doesn’t have any views because it’s a commitment I made to myself 10 years ago. Views are important to secure brands, popularity, be relevant and these hold good for any other show, but not for Son of Abish. My other shows may be a breadwinner, but Son of Abish is pure soul. Season seven of the show is going to be very different and I’m already liking it a lot though we’ve shot only one episode because the team is amazing. It’s a team that isn’t scared to tell me or anyone if an idea is bad or not working. It’s important to work with people who consider you equal – not above or below.
The pandemic would have certainly widened the scope of the show in terms of its guests, there are no barriers, thanks to virtual conversations, Zoom calls…
I completely agree and we’ve gotten actors and comedians from the US too for the seventh season. We’ve got Hari Kondabolu besides people who have been part of series like The Mandalorian. We’ve really reached out to an expansive lineup of guests – Shruti Haasan, Kalki Koechlin, Asif Ali, Rahul Subramanian. What would have otherwise been a challenge came across as a blessing. We were forced to evolve and we’ve made good use of it.
What effort goes into the guest combinations for Son of Abish? Bringing together a Kush Kapila and Guneet Monga, teaming up Vidya Balan with Dulquer Salmaan are very unexpected choices that worked great for the show...
A lot of effort goes into those decisions. We go with our dream combination every time because I know how an interesting show could come out of it! I say that with my experience as a host and with my ability to see a common narrative. Say with a combination like Dulquer and Vidya Balan, you subconsciously have a vibe that Dulquer is so full of heart, reserved and when he said Son of Abish was one of his earliest television appearances, I was genuinely flattered. The same goes with Vidya, she has great energy and I wondered what a great vibe they would have. Surprisingly, they hadn’t met before and their combination worked like magic.
A few years before, I used to meet celebrities individually and decide whether if they would team up well or not. I want the chemistry to come alive on the stage and a lot of factors go into it – it’s based on how I interact with them as a host and how I let the guests interact with each other. Many people feel it’s my individual decision but there’s an entire team out there that takes a call. We are very aware that if the conversation is not interesting, the episode will look bad, the season may not fail. There are times certain celebrities didn’t want to appear with the other guest on the show and instead suggested combinations and I didn’t go with them. Raftaar had told me once that he wouldn’t worry about whom he would be teamed up with because all it mattered to him was that Abish was the host. It’s the greatest feeling you could ever have!