Amazon Prime Video | 1 hr | Released: March 2017
Naveen Richard is one of the most talented actors on India’s comedy scene. Apart from his standup work, he’s also made a mark in sketch comedy and in fictional series such as Better Life Foundation and Pushpavalli.
In his standup comedy, Richard’s performance style has generally been driven by exaggerated expressions and delivery. This is in evidence in his Amazon special, Don’t Make That Face, in which almost every conversation he recounts is squeezed out in a squeaky, cartoonish voice, and every moment recreated with rubbery wriggles of his body and face. One gets the sense that he fears he’ll lose his audience if he slows down or pauses for too long. And while this over-the-top style is amusing in short bursts, it’s taxing on the brain over an hour-long special.
But, what is heartening to note is that behind this cartoonish style is some top-notch writing. Richard has several bits in the show that are spot-on: on stressing out about OTPs, on Wi-fi passwords, on identifying vegetables, on large Malayali families, on barbers. In each of these, he combines great observation with sharp writing. And we’re also generally fans of his long-running shtick (in both his sketches and stand-up) of not being able to speak Hindi well.
Many of these bits are overdone, but there are several moments within them in which it all comes together—a relatable observation, recreated with humour, delivered in his hyperactive style. And when it does come together smoothly, you see glimpses of a brilliant and original performer, whose physical exertions serve his material perfectly by elevating it into a strange, almost surreal space.
In all the caricaturing, it’s easy to miss the fact that a fair bit of Richard’s special is quite personal. Among other things, he talks about his family, growing up in Coimbatore and struggling with math. While the intimacy of the subject matter is bulldozed over by Richard’s frenetic style, it leaves one with the hope that as he grows as a performer, Richard will let his material breathe more, and trust that his audience is interested in his insights even if they are not always accompanied by physical contortions.
Richard’s special also offers an example of Indian comedians tend to overuse callbacks as a way to structure their specials. Here, as Richard reaches the end of the special he reaches back to pull out various jokes that he had traversed through the hour, before building to one final callback (never mind the fact that the same callback had already been called back a few minutes earlier in his final segment). While they no doubt help give shape to specials, one hopes that Indian comedians will grow to be more judicious in their use of callbacks, so that they don’t grow too predictable.
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