Jagan Krishnan is one of the few comedians in the country who has managed to successfully marry his two passions: music and standup comedy. The Chennai comedian’s debut solo special—a musical romantic comedy show titled Jagane Thandhiram—has been making waves across the globe, earning him a sold-out India tour and shows in Malaysia, United Kingdom, Dubai, Australia and New Zealand. But a comedy career wasn’t really the future Krishnan once dreamed of, at least not until 2015.
“Obviously I wanted to be a rock star,” laughs Jagan over the phone. “I really wanted to get into music. It was something I started talking about in the later years of my college life. That’s when I really wanted to get into music.”
Jagan quickly realised that being a rock star wasn’t on the cards. Making it big in the music industry is a tall order, requiring unwavering focus, constant practice on your instrument, and a whole lot of luck. “I was just too lazy to give it so much time at that point,” says Jagan. “And just like that I joined the slew of comedians who had given up on art, music, engineering, film-making.”
That shift didn’t happen immediately however. After graduating from Tamil Nadu’s Rajalakshmi Engineering College in 2010, he worked at a couple of companies as a systems analyst before finally landing a job as an IT consultant at multinational consulting company, Cognizant. This is where Jagan’s creative juices started flowing once again. He got into the habit of watching standup comedy to unwind after long days at work, checking out specials by the usual suspects—Russell Peters, Gabriel Iglesias—as well as some upcoming Indian specials. But it was Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle who inspired him to pick up the pen himself.
“He made me realise joke writing can be fun and making people laugh can bring so much joy to both parties involved—the comedian and the audience,” he says. “I thought to myself, even I can make people laugh so why not give it a shot. Not in the same dark way as Boyle, but in my own style.”
Luckily for Jagan, Cognizant has an internal standup comedy club where employees can put up performances for the office. “People would do mimicry, they would mime and they would dabble in standup comedy,” he says. “Basically, the main motive behind the initiative was so they could avoid inviting big shot actors and performers for our entertainment because they charge a lot of money.”
Cognizant’s amateur performers were rewarded with free food, but it was the chance to be on the stage that really appealed to Jagan, who was still holding onto his rock-star dreams. So he signed up for a competition and went through multiple rounds of auditions, before finally getting the chance to perform for a crowd of 500 colleagues. “It was a ridiculous number of people to perform to for the first time ever,” he laughs. “I would never advise any comedian to do that.”
Jagan ended up placing second in the competition, which opened the doors for more opportunities to perform for his colleagues. More importantly, he came to the notice of comedian Manoj Prabakar, who also happened to work at Cognizant. He recognised Jagan’s zeal for the art form and introduced him to the city’s open-mic circuit in 2014, an opportune time to start making waves in the scene. “It was the time of the standup,” he remembers. “Big TV channels like NDTV Prime were hosting up-and-coming comedians. That’s when I met comedians such as Praveen Kumar, Karthik Kumar and Raja Sekhar Mamidanna in the open-mic scene. We really hit it off and started a comedy comedy collective called Evam Standup Tamasha.”
Jagan and his peers very quickly became the rising stars in the Chennai standup comedy scene. After a few months of regular gigs, Jagan figured that just standing on the stage and telling jokes wasn’t doing it for him. He wanted to bring in more elements to his performance. So he started bringing his guitar along. “That was the one good thing about learning how to play the guitar,” he said. “It became my signature in the scene.”
Soon after, Jagan teamed up with comedian Mervyn Rozario (who goes by Mervyn Rozz). In 2018, the duo started performing a hybrid standup comedy show in Tamil—titled Oru Time—which featured traditional standup comedy as well as some musical flair. The show was a hit, selling out venues across South India. They took it overseas to Malaysia, the duo’s first-ever international performance, and even had a US tour lined up that had to be called off due to visa issues. The two have developed a strong partnership that survived through the COVID-19 pandemic (they adapted the show for virtual performance and reviewed video games, movies and books on YouTube) and is still going strong. Earlier this year, they debuted a new improv show called Kaathuvaakula Rendu Comedians.
On the solo front, Jagan has found a big online and offline audience for his trademark musical bits—often involving him imitating the styles of popular Tamil film composers and musicians, drawing funny connections between their songs—even earning him a shout-out from Santhosh Narayanan. One of his most popular videos—with 1.4 million views—pokes gentle fun at the singing style of Carnatic and playback singer Sid Sriram.
In 2021, he was finally confident enough in his skills to start testing out material for his first solo hour, titled Jagane Thandiram. Written during the lockdown, the show includes original music that Jagan work-shopped on the stage for months, tweaking the lyrics and melodies one open mic at a time, till he was convinced he had the best version possible. Billed as a rom-com musical, the show tells the story of how he found the love of his life, filtereed through the sepia-tinged tones of ’80s and ’90s romantic movies.
“I really wish I had a story about how I was toiling away and then I had my big moment,” Jagan says, when asked about how he’s enjoying the critical praise the show is receiving. “But when you’re on stage it just feels like any other show. I never thought I would perform in New Zealand. I never thought I would perform in London. In fact, the show name is a reference to a movie that is set in London. So to perform there was a surreal experience.”
“The one moment I really cherished was performing for 1,400 people at Chennai’s Music Academy,” he adds. “If you told me even one year ago that I would perform my solo show for 1,400 people at one of Chennai’s most prestigious venues, I would not have believed it. But now, looking back at the pictures and videos, it feels like, ‘oh my god. I’ve really done something big.’”