A man I consider one of India’s finest all-format writers gave me some sound advice 11 years ago: remember who you’re writing for, but also remember that beyond a point, their opinions don’t matter. Once you start writing, there’s just you and the blank page. It took me the better part of a decade to understand what this eccentric, kurta-clad gentleman meant (he said this and promptly went back to making bunny ears with his hands; I was shadowing him at a writing workshop for primary school kids). At its essence, it means that artists should keep the people-pleasing to a minimum, whenever possible. Writers, painters, or filmmakers, their objective is the polar opposite of diplomacy. Sometimes making art means that you break a lot of things, make a lot of noise and walk away with zero explanations offered.
I was reminded of that encounter while watching Kanan Gill’s latest standup special Is This It? (available on demand from July 7-9 at Paytm Insider). This is a show that marks a stylistic departure for the 33-year-old comedian, who first found fame hosting a campy Bollywood review show. As a writer and a performer he has grown up significantly, and I don’t just mean the jokes themselves. It’s the way he carries himself, the calculated cynicism, even the segues he uses between jokes.
After a particularly dark joke results in polite laughter and a bit of a hush, Gill says, “This (makes a sweeping motion with his arms), how you feel right now, this is what I’m like. This is the vibe I bring to social gatherings.” A joke that reveals that Gill is okay with making his audience—or at least a segment—uncomfortable. At a different point, he says, “The audience is too unreliable. Before I go live, I laugh at all my own jokes backstage, one by one (mimes reading and sniggering quickly). Good joke, very funny, good boy, let’s go.”
This is a comedian who has far fewer fucks to give than even 2-3 years ago, an edgier, grungier variant of his usual persona. The special itself is about Gill’s three-point agenda: “Give up your dreams, death is coming, let’s party.” Gill then deconstructs each of the three statements at length, finding characters and situations that demonstrate their underlying nihilist logic.
For example, “death is coming” is illustrated in chilling fashion via a seemingly ordinary conversation with a wealth manager (a financial expert specialising in personal investments) that quickly takes a surreal turn. The (no-doubt well-meaning) financial expert asks Gill, “When will you retire?” and then, “When will you die?” in a casual rapid-fire that leaves the comedian reeling. The whole routine is brilliantly executed and demonstrates the average Joe’s relationship with the financial world very well. When Gill mimes the hemming and hawing regular folks do when they’re questioned on their half-baked financial knowledge, you can see shades of ‘cringe comedy’ bigwigs like Tim Robinson and Bob Odenkirk.
The very title of the show refers to a specific kind of existential despair that Gill circles back to several times—a despair closely associated with the coercive practices of 21st c. capitalism.
In a similar vein, “Give up your dreams” is demonstrated with the help of a funny story involving an American guru (“from the birthplace of philosophy, Cupertino, California”) and his faux-profound utterances regarding enlightenment. In both routines, Gill targets the infuriating opacity of the speaker—we don’t understand finance bros, and we don’t understand gurus, albeit for very different reasons. Gill’s real achievement with this routine is the suggestion that in contemporary capitalism, obfuscation and non-sequiturs are often much more lucrative than plain-spoken truth-telling.
The very title of the show refers to a specific kind of existential despair that Gill circles back to several times—a despair closely associated with the coercive practices of 21st c. capitalism. Wake up, go to office for a million hours, come back and doomscroll for another zillion—is this it? Is this all there is to it? “How dare you say ‘give up your dreams’, Kanan?” says the comedian as he lampoons a common retort thrown at him. “You know how hard I’ve worked in order to get somewhere to work hard!”
That last sentence and its circular logic is what Gill wants the audience to wrap their heads around. It’s why the comedian chooses to anchor his elaborate ‘capitalist logic’ routine around a pair of jokes about Amazon customer reviews—as Gill spells out later, this is a show directed at dissatisfied “consumers of life”, each writing their reviews with righteous fury.
There’s also a lot of faux-vomiting involved in this show. By my estimate, Gill imitates violent retching onstage about 20-25 times and that’s the only real complaint I can, well, hurl at him (I watched the show on a full stomach). The rest was very nicely done indeed, and it marks an exciting new direction in Gill’s comedy, one that I hope he pursues further. Being an onstage curmudgeon suits him. As GK Chesterton once said, “People like frequent laughter but they don’t like a permanent smile”.