Dead Ant

Review: Kanan Gill’s ‘Keep It Real’ Is A Competent But Far From Great Special

By Ajay Krishnan 26 November 2018

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Amazon Prime Special | 1 hr 5 min | Released: May 2017 

While many Indian comics build their humour around a core of aggression, anger or irritation, Kanan Gill’s onstage persona is essentially calm and unflappable. In many ways, this works in his favour—he gets you on his side quickly, and has you rooting for him through all his meandering stories.

But what his material sometimes loses in the bargain is an edge, a sense of risk. It’s not that comics always need this element in their work, but in Gill’s case, even stories and jokes that should be thick with tension end up flowing on gently for ten or 15 minutes till they come to an end. The prime example of this is one of the setpiece stories of his Amazon Prime Video special, Keep It Real. The story is about an incident from 2015 when Gill was robbed at knifepoint late one night in Bengaluru.

Comics even then were quick to joke about how the incident would guarantee him a good chunk of material:

And they were right. As many of the best comics do, Gill went on to transmute a difficult experience into humour to be shared with an audience.

The experience had to have been frightening, but somehow, Gill shows zero vulnerability while recounting it for his audience.

The only problem is that the story… doesn’t work. It’s enjoyable, thanks to Gill’s formidable skills as a storyteller. But the way Gill tells the story, it sounds like he was never in any danger at all, that he felt no real fear as his life was threatened and he was divested of his possessions. The experience had to have been frightening, but somehow, Gill shows zero vulnerability while recounting it for his audience.

As a result, there is no buildup of tension as Gill tells the story. And without that tension, he amuses his audience, but gets none of the intense laughter that he could have if he had truly put the audience in the moment of being robbed, and fearing for their life. Even when he talks about making a police complaint, the story feels quickly sketched out, rather than fully filled in.

At other times, the details of his stories just feel too implausible to generate any real empathy or interest. This happens in his encore to the show, where he talks about going to a public toilet where there is a pile of excrement so high it’s at eye level. One knows that he’s exaggerating, and that anecdotes don’t really need to be true. But they do need to be plausible to hold the audience’s empathy, and in stretching the details without too much care, Gill’s stories run the risk of falling flat.

But Gill’s talent is in evidence through the show, particularly his flair for precisely timed act-outs, such as one in which two school friends suddenly get frisky with each other. In another standout one, he acts out an incident in which he smoked too much too quickly. His choices here are simple but impeccable: he begins by miming taking puffs of a pipe, and then comments on his foolishness even as his puffing continues steadily. Then, with one graceful sweep of his hand, and some poetic writing, he conveys a sense of getting completely blown out of his mind.

Gill does some strong opening material about his parents’ unfamiliarity with technology, then talks a bit about childhood and education, before reaching perhaps the best known bit of the set, which contains the line “There is a cow.” It’s not bad, but one wonders if the line has become a catchphrase more out of an uncritical fandom of Gill, than an appreciation his humour.

Gill relies too heavily on callbacks, so much so that they stop being surprising or funny very quickly. Towards the end, they pile up fast and thick, almost as if the only way to bring the show to an end is to draw from its beginning and middle. It’s an understandable impulse for a comic, but Gill rushes through so many callbacks that one wonders if they’re becoming an easy crutch with which to draw laughter from the audience.

Ultimately, there is something so practised and smooth about the special that it doesn’t sufficiently surprise or delight. The one moment that does manage to do this appears to have been entirely unscripted, and for me was the strongest moment of the show—when Gill got an offstage “subtle cue” to wipe his face, and he proceeded to have a conversation with a crew member that should have disrupted the show. He then tried to find the exact spot from which to resume his set so that the show’s continuity wouldn’t be disturbed. It’s a lovely little bit that comes out of nowhere and serves as a reminder that Gill has well earned his place in the top rungs of the country’s comedy scene.

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.

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