Born and brought up in Ghaziabad, 26-year-old Surbhi Bagga came to Mumbai for a job in advertising, where all the rejected ideas that didn’t make it to the billboards or get executed made their way into her standup sets. “Comedy became an outlet for me, it was never a career move.”
But when she didn’t bomb and she realised the craft came naturally to her, she found herself as a contestant on the reality show Queens of Comedy. Today, Bagga is a regular on the Mumbai circuit, and will be performing at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender later this month in Pune.
Over 20 questions, she tells us how she sees the Indian standup comedy scene, and how pleased she is to see audiences evolve.
1. What words have people used to describe your comedy?
I think one of the major words is awkward. Initially, I would get nervous on stage and people would realise I’m being awkward. But now I kind of own it?
The things you do on stage leak into your life as well; it becomes a part of you. The more I open up on stage, the more I open up among my friends, in my relationships. I like being able to say things that are on my mind. As a comic, I can get away with so many things. “HAHAHA, I was joking.”
2. What do you love about the scene right now?
There are so many people trying to make it more inclusive. When I started out there was maybe, like, one girl on most lineups. I remember going to green rooms where I was the only female. I would bomb just because there were so many men around me. The audience was used to watching men doing comedy. I knew my jokes wouldn’t work. I feel like now the audience is becoming used to listening to female voices. I know it sounds like I’m talking about something that happened god knows how many years ago, but this really happened in front of my eyes.
I’ve seen the difference in how audiences have become used to listening to different voices, and are keen on watching experimental stuff too, not just standup (we can sing songs!). I haven’t performed much yet, I haven’t done a tour, but from the metropolitan cities I have done gigs in, I see that the audience is very appreciative of new content. This is a change I really like.
3. How many minutes do you have right now?
I think I have around 30 minutes.
4. A recent bit you saw that blew your mind?
Blew my ‘ass’ you mean? <laughs> Bangin‘ by Nikki Glaser.
I’ve watched it six times; it’s so entertaining. It’s not only a comedy special, but it’s also like a PSA. I’d like for all men to watch it because she talks about relationships, dating and love. I feel like we need to do this for our fellow women. Nikki [Glaser] really owns up to it now. She’s like, “Yeah, I talk about this on my podcast, my Instagram, my special, I wanna do this for my fellow women.” It’s what I want to do.
5. Your current favourite Indian comedian?
I love Shreeja Chaturvedi. She is someone I have loved since… um, okay let me tell you the story about Shreeja. I think I saw her doing her first set at The Habitat. I was in that phase where I was just lurking around open mics and getting a feel of it. I was a nervous wreck. I’d go and sit and watch a lot of comedy shows.
One of these shows was Shreeja’s debut performance. She was the only female comic on the lineup and she won that open mic. I remember being like, “Hey, I like this girl.”
And it’s so cool because I moved cities in the middle, and Queens of Comedy happened, and then Shreeja and I became friends. Man, I love Shreeja.
6. Your current favourite international comedian?
I really like Nikki Glaser. Pete Holmes is someone I loved even before I started watching his comedy. I was really into podcasts and I listened to his podcast ‘You Made It Weird‘ and he’s so funny.
7. An Indian comedy bit on YouTube you’ve watched at least five times?
I love Pratyush Chaubey. I haven’t hung out with him much but on stage, he’s SUCH a funny person. He’s so hilarious. The stories he tells are really fun and I love his style.
I keep going back to people who’re not exactly doing standup but are doing sketches. Like Abish’s ‘For No Reason At All‘. It’s silly but it’s so funny. I’ve watched it on my phone, I’ve watched it on my TV, I’ve watched it on my iPad, I’ve watched it everywhere. I keep going back to sketches more than standup bits.
8. An international comedy bit on YouTube you’ve watched at least five times?
I love Iliza Shlesinger. She has a bit about how every time you get ready, if you have just five more minutes, you go hard. Like when you’re completely ready but, say the person who’s going to pick you up is five minutes late, you do an extra touch of makeup, where you go all glitter.
She also has this bit about being drunk. So she has multiple bits on YouTube that are about going out as a girl and dressing up. They’re very relatable and funny.
9. An Indian comic who is underrated?
I think Neetu Bhardwaj is damn funny, so is Urjita Wani—she does really fun jokes. I feel like these two are pretty underrated. Shreeja [Chaturvedi]! Even after the show [Comicstaan, S.2], I feel like Shreeja needs to be more out there. She needs to be on hoardings and shit. Oh, Shashwat Maheshwari is also hilarious. I love his style. He’s so straightforward.
10. An international comic who is underrated?
I can’t tell if they’re underrated because I discovered them on their Netflix specials. But I really like Sarah Schaefar. She doesn’t have a special but she has an iTunes album, which is hilarious. It’s called ‘Live Laugh Love.’ There’s another one, her name is Emily Heller.
As you can see, I have a pattern, I lean towards female comedians because there’s more relatability. They should be out there more.
11. Do you have any rituals before you go up on stage?
Yes, I like to do a quick CTM, which is Cleansing, Toning and Moisturising. <laughs> I’m kidding.
Okay, so my actual routine has now become just breathing exercises. If I’m trying new jokes, I get nervous. It always feels like your first time when you’re trying new jokes. I do some breathing exercises and move my hands a little bit. I do this thing if I get too breath-y. I’ve learnt that it’s nice to keep your hands on your head so your diaphragm basically expands and gets in more air.
It’s so weird because every time I go up on stage, I’m just like “Huh! Breathe in” and I keep my hands on top of my head and people now are just like, “Okay, this is your routine I guess.”
12. Who do you test your jokes on?
My friends, my comic friends. My civilian friends are also like really fun to hang out with. The thing is, as a comic, I’ve noticed, a lot of times when I’m talking, my civilian friends go like, “Hey, is this a new joke you’re trying?” or “Haha, don’t make a joke out of this” and I’ll be like not everything I say is a joke. But now, I wonder, “Is this funny?”, “Should I write it down?”. If there are thoughts that come to my head and are slightly funny, I write them down and I feel like I should be ashamed of this. <laughs> I feel like I’m not enjoying life in the moment, but yeah I think it’s a part of the job.
It really kills the vibe though, at parties, it really kills the vibe. <laughs>
People also can tell when I’m doing a set. I’ll start talking about a weird thing and people are like, “Is this a new joke you’re trying on us?”. Yep, it is.
13. What songs do you have on loop right now?
I have been listening to Billie Eilish a lot and the song that I like right now, <groans>, oh it’s a heartbreak song. It’s called idontwannabeyouanymore.
I’m also watching Bojack [Horseman], whose episodes always have really cool credits songs. I Shazam all of them.
14. What’s the first joke you did that got you a laugh?
I remember that whole set and I still do it when I have nothing. I’m like, “Gotta win back the audience.”
My first joke was about startups. It’s about how it’s so easy to open a startup these days because all you need is, one foosball table, some quotes from Steve Jobs and… some sexual harassment.
This is a joke I did back in the day when the TVF thing was relevant. I thought it’s one of those joke that’s topical and will lose value but it’s not topical! I do it every time and unfortunately, it’s always relevant. Good for me, I don’t have to write new jokes. <laughs>
15. What mode of transport do you use to get to a show?
Autos, for sure. And trains. Though now I’ve moved houses, and I stay around places in Khar and Bandra, so I take an auto.
16. Have you ever performed a show while you were high?
Yes, I have and I’ve been so much freer. The thing is, most of the times I’ve done it, I’m a lot more myself on stage.
I don’t want to get used to it because I really enjoy going a little high… just a little, not like stoned. Just happy and comfortable. I’m not a confident, extrovert, public speaker kind of person, so this really helps me bring my guard down and talk on stage. It’s freeing that way.
17. What social media platform are you most active on?
I’m very active on Instagram and Twitter. Facebook toh I can say, we aaalll have let it go. I think we need to pull the plug on that. I love Instagram because now it’s okay to be sad on instagram, that’s my favourite revolution in technology. It’s okay to be grumpy like “I’m sad today, I’m just gonna post sad memes.” I like to do tiny sketches on Instagram, so well, look out for that. <laughs>
18. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received so far about being a comedian?
This sounds very trivial, but I think I’ve received the best advice from my friends who’re not comics. They’re more objective.
My friends have given me a lot of, “You should really be yourself on stage.” When you’re in the scene and have seen a lot of comics, you think maybe this is how comedy works, this is what a punchline is, this is how I need to write my joke.
But a lot of my friends have told me that “You don’t need to do this, you’re naturally funny, just go on stage and talk how you do and that’ll become a style that people will like.” That’s something I think was very good for me and I’m working on it.
A lot of my jokes are not setup and punchlines; they’re like setup and no punchline. Some of them are rants now. Not everything has to be joke, joke, joke. It could just be me talking about what I find funny or me ranting. I’m trying to own my voice because my friends say I’m funnier off-stage and I’m trying to bring that on-stage.
19. One thing Indian comedians should stop making jokes about?
Uh, no. I think audiences need to stop being like, “Periods and bobs ke baare mein jokes kyun kar rahe ho?”
Honestly, it’s so funny. So many period jokes that I have in my head and don’t do on stage are so funny. How can we not talk about our period? It’s most of our life. Half the month, I’m upset because my period is coming, then I get my period and then I’m upset because nothing is happening in my life anymore. It is what my life is, how can I not talk about it?
I feel like everyone should be able to talk about what they want and no one needs to stop making jokes about anything as long as it’s not really offensive and it’s funny.
20. You were into the world of podcasts way before everyone started. Do you actually overthink everything? Is that how the Overthink Tank happened?
Yes! Oh my god, thanks for acknowledging that I was the first podcaster. Like, “By the way, I started the wave and everyone else is just riding on it.”
Podcasting is such a great medium because I feel like the things I hear last longer than the visuals I see. If it’s in my ears, it goes directly into my brain and those things really stay with me. Also, sometimes I’d do this thing when I have nobody at home, I play a podcast in the background and feel like I have friends over. Also, I just couldn’t deal with my thoughts anymore a single second longer.
Podcasts got me into therapy. I heard of so many comics going to therapy and getting help and then I realised that this is happening to me also and I should get help.
At IVM [Indus Vox Media], I produced seven podcasts and hosted two (Dating is Garbage and IVM Likes). It has been fun because a lot of people who listen to my podcast come to live shows now. They’re not even comedy fans.
It took me two whole years to get Overthink Tank started, even though I’d had the idea in my head for ages. I remember I was napping in a cab on my way to NH7 [Weekender] three years ago. In my dream, I thought, “You know I overthink things so much, don’t you think it would be great if I had this device that could overthink things for me so I can just relax, breathe and not worry about things.” I woke up and I was really into this idea.
I was wondering what it should be… should it be a sketch? What should it be? I didn’t know podcasting was a thing back then. I just wrote this down on a piece of paper and the right medium came about two years later.
21. You said you have massive under-productivity guilt? What do you do when you don’t work?
I beat myself up for it. It’s still a problem. Every time I don’t have anything going on, I let myself spiral so bad. It does happen less often now. As a freelancer, I’ve met a lot of people who’re in the same boat and they’re like, “Just ask your brain to shut up.” We all know it’s our mind trying to make us feel guilty about things. I would feel guilty all day about not doing anything and then stay up at night till like 5 am so I could justify my sleep. You feel guiltier when you sleep and I’d think, “You don’t even deserve this sleep, Surbhi.”
22. Any more content coming up that’s gonna blow our asses? Should we be expecting a special anytime soon?
Ooh, a special… not anytime soon. I really want to do more podcasting. The third season of the Overthink Tank is going to come out. We’re trying to build a guest list, we’re working on making a forum for people to send in more questions and I feel like that’s something you should look out for. I’m really excited about it because this time, it’ll be bigger and better. We start recording this month.
If you have something that you need me to overthink for you, please send it in at firstname.lastname@example.org.
23. You’re too in touch with your emotions on your Instagram, LOL. How’re you comfortable putting up videos post a sob session saying you just cried?
Good question. I am. I’ve gotten used to talking about my feelings because of podcasting. I remember doing this on Dating is Garbage so much. I would just talk about things without any filters. Honestly, when you’re in a podcast space, you forget that this is going to go on air. Since podcasting started, it has been constant growth and I’ve become more and more okay with sharing the silliest things I do, and not just the professional side of me. It feels like an outlet now. I’m not doing it to garner audiences, it relieves me.