Five minutes into The Most Interesting Person In The Room, Kenny Sebastian’s new Netflix special, I was worried. One hour of this? Will I make it through? Will he? It’s an absolute car crash at first. Sebastian kicks things off with the stage props—a guitar on one side, a harmonium on the other—and a childhood music teacher who hated western music. There’s a little show-and-tell about the harmonium always sounding really sad. Then a comparative analysis of shoes and chappals—shoe good, chappal bad—that goes on for nearly as long as the lockdown has. It’s an awkward watch, with wandering premises and limited payoffs.
To cut short any cheap suspense that may be building up here: yes, the set gets much better. Sebastian comes into his own about a third of the way into the special with a bit about how height shapes people’s personalities. How tall guys, whom he hates, have never really had to face much adversity. Short women annoy him. Short guys have been dealt a raw hand. It’s not exactly inventive, but Sebastian sells the material with great enthusiasm, and it’s here that the central premise of the set starts to appear.
There’s no narrative connectivity as such—apart from the callbacks that so impress live audiences. Instead, Sebastian presents a loosely crafted stream-of-consciousness peek into his mind, jumping from topic to unrelated topic with carefree abandon. It’s a collection of bits—some work, others fizzle out. There’s something on babies manipulating the world as per their whims, carried by his fine physical comedy and impressions. Another on relationships and cuddling. A third on the inherent laziness of western musicals. A lot is going on here.
One bit that does land well is an extended section on ostriches; that they’re losers and the true failures of the bird-world. (The physical comedy he employs while contrasting the grace of the cheetah with the fecklessness of the ostrich elevates the joke.) He bookmarks these whimsical explorations with little doodles on the guitar, singing out his jokes to a doting audience.
Tying it all together is the cult of Kenny Sebastian. The real theme of this set is Sebastian himself. There’s a point where he pauses for a sip of water, drinking extra slowly, soaking in the applause. Then he takes another sip. More applause. Another. More. Another. More. Another. More. More!
It sounds like an insufferable thing to do, but it lands. He’s pretending to be smug, not actually being it. And the audience is right there with him (to the point where a joke gets ruined because they cheer loudly when he talks of his creative arts degree, instead of being disappointed like the joke calls for). Everyone’s in on it. That’s when it dawned on me. It doesn’t matter, not to his fans really, how funny Sebastian is. The craft almost takes a backseat. They want to laugh, of course, but there’s more to it.
Tying it all together is the cult of Kenny Sebastian. The real theme of this set is Sebastian himself.
The people are there to spend time with him, to hang out with him, to admire his singing voice or marvel at his wit. He has an endearing stage persona, one that he uses effectively to paper over weaknesses. Stylistically, Sebastian uses a broad foundational premise—birds, say—and runs with it, jumping into multiple realms and expanding on each theme. The same bit will draw simultaneously from realism and surrealism; from mimicry and impressions and wordplay all together. So we move quickly from a pigeon not doing its homework to the majesty of an eagle to an ostrich being a disappointment to its grandparents. Even where punchlines fall flat, the density of the material keeps things together—there’s always another one coming.
While a lot of Indian comics use mannerisms steeped in snark or smugness or braggadocio or overt shows of supposed creative intelligence—cloyingly drawing attention on to themselves under the convenient garb of self-awareness or “meta-ness”—Sebastian projects a simplistic, every-man likeability. He’s a disarming, non-threatening presence, and people like him for that.
Jokes are as much about personality as they are about the words and delivery. A perfect example in the Indian context would be Zakir Khan, whose fans feel such a strong kinship for him that his gigs become collaborative affairs—he sets up the joke, the crowd shouts out the punchline. Comedians spend an inordinate amount of time finding that balance between the material and the abstract personality type that they create for the stage. It’s often mistaken for ‘relatability’, but it’s more about composing a whole character that the audience spends an hour with. George Carlin, the cantankerous old man (even when he was young). Ali Wong, the candid sharpshooter. Mitch Hedberg, the awkward stoner. Bill Burr, incel icon/fearless truth-teller. These tags stick, even when the jokes don’t.
The balance is a delicate one and, every now and then, the scales tip too heavily to one side. As they do with Kenny Sebastian, leaving him in a tricky place as an artist. The actual material too often gets relegated to third place—at various points, the crowd cheers adoringly as Sebastian performs the truly subversive act of taking a couple of steps to his right and picking up the guitar. It can’t just be a happy accident; a lot of this seems to be by design, where Sebastian’s easygoing, non-confrontational stage character becomes the underlying context to a gag that wouldn’t cut muster otherwise. Thus even a joke about engineering and expectations—one that belongs in the time of swine flu, not the coronavirus—is met with a disproportionate response.
He has his set of loud fans, a base he’s worked hard to cultivate, and they’ll always remain on his side. He’s having fun, and the crowd is having fun with him. But there remains a barrier to entry for new people; you either have to buy into the idea and dive right in, or you get to (like I did) watch from afar with little more than a morbid curiosity. The whole thing works best when Sebastian himself is The Most Interesting Person In The Room.