Until 2012, comedy was not on Abish Mathew’s radar. That year, the stand-up who brings intellectual rigour to his comedy, quit his “mundane job” as a radio jockey with Delhi’s Hit 95 FM to move to sapno ki nagri Mumbai.
Cut to today, Mathew is among the most sought-after comics on the Indian scene. He has made it on the Forbes India 30 under 30 list (2016). He has his own talk-show Son of Abish, has hosted Comicstaan and has collaborated with All India Backchod on a few projects. He has regular gigs and has performed alongside comedians headlining international tours.
Son of Abish, which explores
issues such as fake news and gender identity, is now in its sixth season and is
“not just my sense of humour” but the brainchild of multiple writers from
different backgrounds who bring in different perspectives. Tell us more, we say. "Pehle istemaal karo, phir vishwas karo!” , he chortles.
Also Watch: The Secret Musical Life of Prateek Kuhad
You'd be hard-pressed to find a comedian with deeper Mallu roots than Mathew. Growing up watching Mollywood (Malayalam movie industry) actors, Mohanlal and Mammootty, we know where Mathew got his filmi keeda from. The church was his first stage, and its parishioners, his first audience. “I was a kid who was born and brought up in a very Christian manner—Mondays, Tuesdays go to church; Wednesdays, novena and church; Thursdays, church; Fridays, adoration and church; Saturdays, church, rosary and adoration; and Sundays, church and catechism class.”
Would you have ever thought that someone spending so many hours at god’s place would go on to become a comic, and not a priest! “The church was where I started performing music, theatre and hosting events. I picked on this comic flair from my father – he was able to enter any situation and diffuse it by just being funny–so that was a trajectory I was to take, as it inspired me.”
Finding comic timing
As a small-town kid who grew up without the internet, or even cable TV, he had to always find creative ways to keep busy. His cousin-sisters were easy targets. “They would often call me annoying but would laugh after saying that. I thought being annoying equals funny. And then with time, the annoying part went away, and only the funny part stayed.” Back in the day, he didn’t know that comedy was an art form. But then came the internet.
“I saw Robin Williams perform A Night at the Met.” Soon, he was introduced to the improv comedy legend, Jonathan Winters best known for taking a seemingly banal pen and pencil set and turning it into a series of brief, hilarious sketches. Then Russell Peters came along. Mathew was thrown open to a world of three different forms of comedy. “When I saw them perform, I realised this is what I wanted to do, and this is what it (comedy) is called.”
Also read: Russell Peters on The Quirks of Being a Stand-up Comic
His Brand of Comedy
Comedy is not designed to make audiences feel comfortable. Abish is more interested in hitting the audiences in the face, figuratively of course! “The ability for us Indians to take a joke is insane. We’re pretty chill with making fun of each other. Anyone who gets offended by a joke is not truly being an Indian.”
According to him, offence
is taken and not given. “Offensive humour is when I make a joke and you take
offence, then that’s on you. You have a right to be offended. So when
I get any hate online, I am not averse to it. If there’s love, there’s going to
be hate. If I have the right to make a joke on you, you have the right to make
a joke on me,” he says. It’s all in good humour, and Mathew is just as ready to
laugh at himself as his audiences are to laugh with his act.
Comedy is a great instrument to start a conversation. While he believes that comedy and activism can intersect, he also thinks that we should treat comedy as it is—the art of making people have a good laugh. Which is great for your mental health btw.
What’s Not Funny
“Anything I can’t really feel a connect with.” Comedy for him is always about punching up and not down. Punching up means not making a joke at the expense of marginalized groups with little or no power. While punching down may not be a wrong thing, it is out of the books for him.
He explains, “Death is something I’m comfortable joking about because it’s something I’ve experienced. But if someone were paraplegic, I wouldn’t make a joke on them.” It’s not about taking a higher moral ground but about being empathetic in your act. “For me it’s all about understanding the situation another person or group is in, knowing their lives closely. Once I have empathy, it’s easier to joke about it.”
About Son of Abish
A team full of creative people helps open up the spectrum, says Mathew of his homegrown, independent late-night talk show, now live on his YouTube channel. The show features artists, celebrities and people from different fields, for a light-hearted conversation that also explores pertinent topics such as fake news and gender issues. Apart from monologues, sketches, music videos, animated shorts and a rap, don’t be surprised to find Mathew playing kabbadi with YouTuber BeYouNick or trying his best to win a battle of skill and wits against actor-model Sobhita Dhulipala. In Mathew’s own words, “We have a lot that’s waiting to be unwrapped on the show, but most importantly, we have good clothes.”
Creatives by Vartika Pahuja