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Next Big Thing: Sumaira Shaikh, on Eminem, the Community Feels of the Indian Scene, & Having to Retire a Rape Joke

By Mihika Jindal 10 May 2019

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Next Big Thing is a series where we talk to comedians who haven’t quite broken out online or as live acts yet. These are the names you want to watch out for, if you want boasting rights later about having seen them start out.

Sumaira Shaikh has lived in (South) Mumbai her whole life. “Life has just pretty much been limited to this pin code. So growing up I didn’t know there was this whole world out there. Web nahin tha bachpan mein. All you watched was TV. That’s it, that’s your worldview.”

Shaikh studied psychology and wanted to be a counsellor, but happened to fall into the habit of watching comedy in Canvas Laugh Club (CLC) in 2016, which was quickly becoming a “proper replacement for movie outings.”

The art of comedy had her curious, and besides attending gigs regularly at CLC, she also started digging deep on the internet and watching all that she could. But unlike most comedians who get into comedy watching international comedians, it was all Indian comics first for Shaikh. “How do you get into it? What do you do? So I just Googled it, and CLC at that time was the only option, it had a legit website. Wahan pe likha tha ki open micers can come and try for free.” And that’s when she figured she’d also give it a shot, with an all-women open mic at The Hive.

Shaikh has also worked behind the scenes – with AIB, and then as a writer on Abish Mathew’s Son of Abish and Sumukhi Suresh’s Behti Naak and Amazon Prime series Pushpavalli (which she also briefly stars in).

Bursting with things to say, we got into her head some more over 21 quick questions.

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

Initially, they used to say, aur abhi bhi kehte hain matlab, that it’s deadpan comedy. And I didn’t know what deadpan was. So I Googled it. But that’s not something I wanted to pursue. I was just nervous on stage. I didn’t really go for it consciously. Dark humour is another thing that I often get.

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

The comics are very in sync, and support each other. I started viewing the scene like it’s a school. Like you know how every comic is in a different year. And how seniors sometime socialise with you. And it feels like this school has branches in different cities. So whenever you go to a different city, you’re like, “oh! I already know some people here…” So there is this community feel.

And then they help each other a lot. Sumukhi [Suresh] actually did a show for me so I could tape my video there on her show. And Kenny [Sebastian] came on board to direct and edit that video.

3. How many minutes do you have right now?

I right now have about 30-40 minutes.

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

Do you know this comic called Joel Dsouza? I recently did a show with him and I, after a really long time, heard all the shows, and all his bits are really strong. He’s so funny. And that’s when I was like, “Ohh! Gotta write more…” <laughs>

5. Your current favourite Indian comedian?

I will be a little biased here, for Biswa [Kalyan Rath]. I toured with him across many cities over six months, where I was his opening act. I saw his set developing every day. It was like a privilege. I love his energy.

6. Your current favourite international comedian?

James Acaster. I watched his Netflix special that came out a year and half ago, ya aisa hi kuch. There were four one-hour sessions that he put out. He is so fresh, and he’s so different from everything I was watching, it was like I fell in love with standup again. It’s very beautiful.   

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

<chuckles, again> I think all of us have. Abhishek Upmanyu. The first one that he put out. It was always so funny to watch him live. The Respect Your Elders one, it’s so easy to watch.

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

Stewart Lee.

9. An Indian comedian you think is underrated?

Underrated toh pata nahin. I think Anirban [Dasgupta] is one comic who is consistent and humble. He’s not really underrated but, like, so consistent.  

Ummm… maybe we’ll come back to this question.

10. An international comic who is underrated?

Oh, I am just going to say it. I think Stewart Lee is underrated. I feel he deserves a Netflix special.

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

I very recently started doing what a very dear friend Amandeep does. He is also a comic, who has this problem of fumbling on stage. I also fumble. So it helps when you rap before going up on stage. And so I now have started looking at lyrics, and doing a rap, and trying to get in a flow. It generally helps.

12. Who do you test your jokes on?

First toh it was all the friends I knew. Now there are comics you can sort of irritate. So it’s all my friends in comedy. Like I can call Shaad [Shafi], Urooj [Ashfaq], Joel (Dsouza), Amandeep , Shashwat [Maheshwari]. So yeah, all of these.  

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

These days the mood is thoda sa rap. The one that am looping right now is Rap God by Eminem. I used to listen to him in college, and I recently started listening to him again. Eminem really helps with life.

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

I remember it very well. It was my first open mic at The Hive. It got a huge laugh too. It was a rape joke. But I dropped it immediately. It was nice, it was edgy, it could get a laugh, but it could also get a totally opposite reaction, which I got at CLC. The joke was: “My friends keep trying to cheer me up and whenever they try to cheer me up they tell me this very stupid quote, ‘don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.’ Except I am rape victim, and it doesn’t work.” <sighs>

Someone after the CLC show actually came out, met me and asked me, “Hey! Are you really a rape victim?” (I’m not, I just dropped the joke.)

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

Trains and rickshaws are the best. Sometimes a cab, when it’s not expensive.

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

No. Never. Because I am too too scared to lose control on stage. Even coffee. Initially I used to not have coffee on days I was performing. Very recently I started, ki chalo, coffee toh pee hi lete hain.

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

Oh ya, how can I forget! There was this gig. And they said, come, it’s an open mic. There will be audience. And a lot of comics went. I remember Piyush Misra was on the line-up too. And this is kind of an event where you imagine your [building] society people would come. So like how they’re wearing traditional clothes. Like full Gokuldham style.

Every comic went up and bombed. I remember going, whaaaaaa….  

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

Instagram and Twitter.

19. We have heard that you’re nervous about going live on social media. Is that true? What about it makes you nervous?

I am nervous because I am very shy. But Instagram live is something I am getting used to. They tell you how many [people] are staring at you, like the number, but they are not interacting. It’s like performing for audiences you can’t see.

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

It is the best advice, and everyone says it almost every night—keep at it. It’s all about keeping at it, consistency. Because it gets very tough sometimes.

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

I am going to sound like a hypocrite, yaar. Because I also have those jokes. I think Mumbai vs. Delhi, like city vs city jokes.

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