Amazon Prime Video | 1 hr | Released: April 2017
Earnestness isn’t always a good quality in a comedian. It can dull a comedian’s edge, and make performances predictable. Even comics who aren’t particularly aggressive, such as Jerry Seinfeld, tend to hold on to at least a sliver of meanness in their performances, to make sure that they remain surprising.
Azeem Banatwala, however, makes his earnestness work for him. Indeed, it is his most defining quality as a performer. Both physically and vocally, there is a sincerity about him that is utterly endearing, and, somehow, rather than detract from his performance, makes you want to laugh with him. During his sets, every now and then, he pauses and breaks into a sheepish, lopsided smile, as if to say, “What the hell am I going on about?” The effect is wholly disarming.
This is not to say that Banatwala coasts only on this charm. He is a skilled, practiced performer, who knows how to carry a crowd through the highs and lows of a set. At one show I watched in Delhi, Banatwala took the stage after a local comic had overheated the crowd with predictable (but inevitably popular) material about male and female stereotypes. When Banatwala took over, his low-key persona made me think he would bomb, but he steadily and comfortably eased the crowd into his set, and soon had them settled into his considerably calmer wavelength.
This skill is in evidence in his Amazon special too. He delivers an effective set, peppered with observations, short anecdotes and the occasional one-liner.
Yet, throughout, there is a sense that both as a writer and performer, Banatwala has not pushed his material far enough. He’s mined enough ideas to make his set work, but he doesn’t seem to have dug deeper to see what more he might find.
This shows up in a couple of different ways. For one, he falls back on a few regrettable clichés. In one bit, for instance, he talks of first-time flyers (“Indian idiots”) speaking poor English and molesting air hostesses. Now, comics must explore the boundaries of offensiveness—that’s part of their job. But punching down socially has long been recognised as bad comedic form. Here the stereotype of passengers with poor English also being the ones to misbehave is problematic, and not particularly funny. He also occasionally seems to be working ideas from an earlier decade—such as Angelina Jolie’s adoption of African children, the importance of parents slapping their children, and, even more dully, tensions between wives and mothers in law. His extended bit on how all conversations in a relationship can be broken down into “Nothing,” “Something” and “Anything” is amusing, but also seems somewhat old fashioned.
There’s also a sense that even his more promising ideas haven’t been whipped hard enough into shape. There’s a great premise he takes on, of how smoking a cigarette supposedly reduces your lifespan by five minutes, while laughing increases it by two minutes. This is rich ground for comedic exploration—but, while Banatwala certainly gets his laughs, it feels like he doesn’t go as far as he could have with the idea. It’s the same feeling one is left with after several of his more interesting premises: traveletors in airports, power windows, emoticons.
His voices and mimes are occasionally awkward, but his hapless grin at the end of them helps keep the viewer on his side.
In his timing and delivery, too, Banatwala seems to have found a solid working level, and stayed there. His voices and mimes are occasionally awkward, but his hapless grin at the end of them helps keep the viewer on his side. Between bits, he falls back on the link-line “It’s terrible” far too many times in the show—a sign that he hasn’t polished his flow finely enough. He clearly loves callbacks—there are several of them in the set. But callbacks work best when you don’t realise that an idea or image is going to return. Banatwala’s sleight of hand isn’t strong enough—you start to get a sense of what is likely to reappear in the show, and when it is coming.
Still, a potentially brilliant comic falling short of that potential may be reason to be optimistic. Perhaps in future live shows and specials, we can hope that Banatwala will combine the strengths of his hapless stage persona with a more rigourously crafted and delivered set.
Dead Ant review policy: 1) We pay for shows that we review. 2) When we review live shows of any kind, we might mention subjects that are dealt with, but will avoid more detailed discussion of premises or jokes. 3) When we review or discuss YouTube videos and OTT specials, since they are already accessible across locations, we may get into more details discussions of the material. These reviews aim to foster closer conversations about comedy, and hence are for people who have already watched the videos, or don’t mind knowing details of it beforehand.