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Next Big Thing: Chirag Panjwani on Performing at Chai Tapris & Being Part of the 'Scene' in Five Cities

By Jaanvi Advani 11 March 2020

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Originally from Agra, 27-year-old Chirag Panjwani has studied and lived in lots of different places. As a result, he has been performing comedy in a lot of Indian cities; he was a regular on the Bengaluru circuit for about six months, has tried his hand at comedy in Ahmedabad for two whole years, worked Delhi’s comedy-watching crowd for a year-and-a-half, and even made a brief appearance in Kolkata, before setting up base in Mumbai. That was about nine months ago.

Iske pehle maine theatre kara tha. But voh log first year mein light aur sound ye sab kuch karvate the, jo mujhe nahin karna tha. I wanted to do something jis mein I could directly get up on stage and perform,” Panjwani says. So after doing theatre for a bit and watching lots of Bill Burr and Louis CK, he started doing comedy.

It was when he watched Pretentious Movie Reviews and found out that Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath do comedy too, that Panjwani realised that a scene exists in India. So he started out in Bengaluru, where he was working at the time.

1. What words have people used to describe your comedy?

A lot of people are surprised that I still exist. “Oh tum abhi bhi kar rahe ho? I thought you left.” I kept changing scenes so I had to start afresh in a new city each time. Currently, they haven’t really acknowledged my comedy to describe my comedy. It used to be very energetic initially, and then hacky, probably? Sometimes, someone will describe my style as ‘absurd’ but that happens rarely.

2. What do you love about the scene right now?

The nice thing about the Mumbai scene is the amount of stage time you get. If I plan it properly, I can fit three open mics into a night.

Another good thing about Mumbai is that you get to watch a lot of polished comics workshop their material and improve on it. In Ahmedabad and other smaller cities, you would only get to see them on tour with their solo.

Thirdly, it’s easier to catch international acts if you’re in Mumbai. For instance, Jack Tucker aaya tha and he would never come to Ahmedabad. Instead, they make a beeline for main cities where standup is happening. So, I’ve watched Aziz Ansari, attended the Melbourne Roadshow and so on. There’s a lot of exposure; you get to see a lot of acts and then you feel embarrassed about your material. I think it’s important for that to happen on a daily basis.

3. How many minutes do you have right now?

I would say about 40-45 minutes.

4. A recent bit you saw that blew your mind?

I keep visiting Norm McDonald’s old bits.

Also, not sure if it’s a bit or not, recently I watched half an hour of Joe List on Netflix, in which he has a bit about gymming and a girl teasing him about his big forehead. I really enjoyed that.

5. Your current favourite Indian comedian?

Kanan Gill. I recently saw him do The End—his second or third trial solo—and it was tighter than most specials I’ve seen. If you haven’t seen that, you should.

6. Your current favourite international comedian?

Norm McDonald.

7. An Indian comedy bit on YouTube you’ve watched at least five times?

Manik Mahna’s first video, Classmates. Because I was in the Delhi scene for a bit, I also enjoyed watching him on stage.

8. An international comedy bit on YouTube you’ve watched at least five times?

There’s a 12-minute bit by Norm McDonald where he describes how he would kidnap a lady in great detail. It’s such a horrific thing to talk about but voh itna innocuously perform karta hai that it never becomes serious. It’s a part of the first special he put out, Me Doing Standup. That’s a very nice special—he tells four stories in it, and all four are about death, but it never seems morbid.

9. An Indian comedian you think is underrated?

I can’t say myself. <laughs>

Anirban [Dasgupta] is already decently celebrated within the industry but I think he should be selling out auditoriums. I don’t understand why people aren’t locking clubs and venues to see him. In terms of public fame and recognition, it should be Anirban. In terms of spots, I think me. I deserve more spots. <laughs>

10. An international comic who is underrated?

Drew Michael. He puts out some stuff on YouTube that doesn’t get a lot of views toh I can only judge based on how much traction he’s getting. He deserves more.

11. Do you have any rituals before you go up on stage?

It’s a task to try and keep yourself in a good mood. I usually avoid people who remind me of the realities of where I am and what I’m doing. That’s the only ritual I’ve been following—keep myself in a decent mood.

12. Who do you test your jokes on?

At open mics only. Within the first two years of starting comedy, I realised that you need a circle outside of comedy as well <laughs>. I am not risking things with my genuine friends by trying material on them. I just do it on stage and then bomb and go back, so that I have a happy life outside of comedy at least.

13. What songs do you have on loop right now?

I’m not really a song person; comedy ne meri life kharab kar di hai. I used to have genuine taste in music and movies before but uske baad aise guilty feel hone lagta hai ki I should be listening to more podcasts ya koi aur bit sunn lete hain. In case koi gaana suna deta hai, toh voh sunn leta hun. Nahin toh khud se maine consciously music discover karna hi band kar diya hai kyunki comedy ne meri social life ka gala ghott diya hai aur mere saare personal taste vagerah chheen liye hai mujhse. <laughs>

14. What’s the first joke you performed that got a laugh?

There was a very embarrassing joke about The Hulk, my favourite superhero, that he resembles a penis; when he gets angry, he gets big and when he’s small, all rational decisions are taken. I did it in my second open mic and sab logon ne taareef hi kari thi. I was like, “Wow kya genius open mic’er hoon main.” <laughs> So this used to be my closing joke for a good seven-eight months. Everyone in Bengaluru remembers it, which is [now] awkward.

15. What mode of transport do you use to get to a show?

Local train and autos. On the days I do well, I take a cab back home. “Aaj kill kara hai, aaj Uber deserve karta hoon.”

16. Have you ever performed a show while you were high?

Long back, and accidentally. I was out drinking with friends and then I went to a venue where I tried some new material and did very well. Toh I was like, “Toh sirf yehi problem tha? I should always be drunk.” I tried replicating that a few times and it didn’t work out. Uske baad se main aise pretend karta hoon ki nahin nahin ye kaam ki jagah hai, serious hai.

17. What’s the weirdest place you’ve performed at so far?

We were trying to set up the scene in Ahmedabad and someone called about performing at a venue called MBA Chai Wala, so we agreed. What we didn’t know was that it was literally a chai wala on the street! We connected a lamp there and performed anyway, but you could hear traffic. Aap joke suna rahe ho aur aapke side se bike jaa raha tha

18. What social media platform are you most active on?

Instagram. You keep seeing comics putting out stuff about tours and solos and you’re like, “Accha I can ask them for open spots now.” If I could pull an audience on my own, I would leave Instagram and not be there. <laughs>

Me and two of my college friends—Shivam Sachdeva and Debarshi Majumdar—we keep making silly stuff for Instagram as well. For purely personal reasons. People have called that absurd.

18 (a). We were coming to that…we love it! Tell us more.

There was one principle that we operated on—ki kuch banate hain toh hum teeno ko hassi aani chahiye. <laughs> It was more about trying to make the other two people laugh. We’ve done eight or nine videos and, since both of my friends are still in Mumbai, we still make some random videos.

19. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received so far about being a comedian?

“Don’t take advice from other comics; sabka style alag hai so you should focus on what makes you laugh.”

There’s also a very underrated piece of advice—enjoy yourself on stage—which I’m not able to do if the audience is not enjoying themselves. But I see other, more experienced comics doing it, genuinely enjoying the material they’re doing on stage. I’ve had those moments very rarely, so this is a piece of advice that I’m trying to implement.

20. One thing Indian comedians should stop making jokes about?

You keep saying “these” topics but then someone comes up with a really good joke about it. Jaise Rahul Gandhi jokes ek time pe were very irritating and annoying, but then you would occasionally hear a comic do a very nice Rahul Gandhi joke.

Also, I think jokes you genuinely don’t believe in, but are doing because you think it will get a laugh or because it is the ‘right’ thing to say.

21. You’ve performed in so many cities, tell us how each scene is different?

In Ahmedabad, there was barely a ‘scene’; there were very young kids who were trying comedy. Of these, only a couple were genuinely serious about it, like Laksh Nayak and Nisarg Avashia. It was bad in terms of logistics and venues, and how people perceive standup. Ek venue ke owner ne mujhe puchha tha ki “Yeh jo tum kar rahe ho, yeh kyun kar rahe ho?” Maine kaha, “So that we can have a career in this.” He replied, “Can I speak to your parents? I’m genuinely concerned about your future.” Ahmedabad mein aise type ka reception hota tha, and people were doing it just for the fun of it.

In Bengaluru, people focussed more on the content and writing jokes. As far as Delhi goes, it was more about what your on-stage character is. There’s a greater focus on your persona and how you’re delivering jokes.

Mumbai mein it’s strictly business. Pehle, comics used to discuss ki iska yeh bit accha hai, iska yeh bit. Abhi sab aise baat karte hain ki yeh video kab daal raha hai. Voh bohot annoying hai. I preferred it earlier.

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