World Laughter Day: Stand-up comedy has no grammar, says comedian Manoj Prabhakar

Ahead of World Laughter Day (May 7), we speak to stand-up comedian Manoj Prabhakar about the creative art form, what it takes to connect with the audience, and lots more...

author_img Rupam Jain Published :  05th May 2023 12:00 AM   |   Published :   |  05th May 2023 12:00 AM
Manoj Prabhakar

Manoj Prabhakar

Laughter they say is the best medicine. No one in their sane mind will disagree. In that sense, stand-up comedians are the new age laughing agents, trying their best to paint pictures of our regular lives in a way we perhaps fail to see — in the funniest possible way, that is. Comedy isn’t as easy as it sounds though, for what could make one laugh may not have the same effect on the other. It’s a tricky risk stand-up artistes take, and most of them will say it’s worth it. Ahead of World Laughter Day on Sunday (May 7) when Manoj Prabhakar takes centre stage, we talk to the comedian about stand-up as a creative art form, what it takes to connect with the audience, why he chose to quit his IT job and pursue comedy, and lots more. 

What does laughter mean to you?
Laughter is something we all need for a healthy life. It is the essence of life. 

What makes you laugh?
(Laughs) It’s subjective. Some days, a joke can make you laugh; on other days, the same jokes can irk you. It has a lot to do with one’s state of mind. I have never consciously attempted to figure out what makes me laugh. Whatever makes me laugh at a particular moment, I take the chance and laugh.

Since you’re performing on World Laughter Day, what’s your set like?
My comedy is usually very observational. I turn whatever I see around me into a joke. And I think observational comedy by default is relatable, because I am talking about things that people experience, just that I bring comedy out of that. For my performance on World Laughter Day, the set is going to be on similar lines. 
I will obviously be improvising on the spot, interacting with the audience. In a live art form, we generally tend to pose questions to the audience to understand what makes them laugh.
For the past year, I have been touring with my comic set titled Thinking Out Loud, which includes my travel experiences, things I love about it and things that annoy me. These are not experiences or thoughts in isolation; everybody feels the same; I am just the one saying it out loud, and in a funny way. 

Also read: Funny side up: Stand-up artiste Abhishek Kumar talks about how clean comedy can actually still work with all audiences

So what annoys you? 
Traffic! But I have a very different perspective about all things that makes people get stuck. And whenever we are stuck in traffic, we really want to know, why are we there, right? So I bring such questions to the fore. 

You mentioned your comedy is observational; what are the other kinds of comedy?
There’s self replication, anecdotal, crowd work, musical comedy, and more. Stand-up comedy has no grammar or rules or restrictions; anything that makes people laugh works. 

To make people laugh is the toughest thing to do. Do you agree?
To make people laugh is easy. But to make them laugh the way you want them to laugh is tough. I mean, if you just want me to make you laugh, I can fall down, roll over the floor and make you laugh, but say, I found something particular funny and I need you to also find that funny — that is difficult. So it’s like tuning the radio to a particular frequency to find the signal.  

Since stand-up comedians make people laugh, are all comedians always happy?
(Laughs) It’s a very tricky question! I mean, stand-up comedy is like any other job and you do have your highs and lows. We are happy on stage, yes, but that does not mean it reflects in our daily life too. Comedy itself is tragedy plus timing, right?  It’s all about the right timing in comedy.

How do you convert an idea into a joke?
It takes a lot of time to understand what your sense of humour is. When you watch a stand-up comic act, people in general think, ‘Okay, I also made my friends laugh, I can also do this’. But, making friends laugh is different from making strangers laugh. Once you start doing stand-up for a while, you will know what your sense of humour is. And then you also begin to understand what are the jokes people believe in. 
I make notes of anything usual or unusual that catches my attention. Then I go for open mics, and I try to figure out if my ideas are funny enough for the audience. I record my sets, go back home and listen to them, and find out exactly where people were laughing. I work upon my set accordingly, improve, add, edit. If one joke works, you don’t stop there, instead you want to see where the joke can go. 

Also read: Rahul Subramanian: All about how conversations evolve and more

While you watch where a joke can go, do you not have apprehension that it can say, end at a wrong place?
I don’t think there is a need for any restriction. If it is making sense and if it is funny, and I am not being regressive or making any inappropriate comment, I think it should be fine. That’s where I draw the line. Having said that, I think we need to learn that you have to laugh at the joke and not at the subject of the joke.

Manoj Prabhakar

When you’re performing, you can’t be pleasing everybody in the room, right?
With experience, after a point of time, you know what works and what does not work. In my opinion, if 60 to 70 per cent of the material in the show is good; if 70 per cent of the audience laughed for everything, then it is a great show.

What makes a good comedian? 
If comedy is an institution, comedians are teachers and the members of the audience are students. And you keep graduating. You evolve and bring fresh perspectives to the art form. At the same time, you make the audience learn too. So, there is ‘one size fits all’ for a particular audience at a particular stage. But once they watch more and more comedy, the same jokes won’t make them laugh. So, then, both the teacher and the students have to evolve, graduate.

You’re someone who does stand-up in Tamil and English. Where did it all start?
The number of stand-up comedians in our country is very low. I am sure it’s only in three digits. I always knew I wanted to do something creative. I used to watch a lot of comedy. I started doing open mics and then slowly moved on to shows. I was in the IT sector, and was doing comedy alongside. Then one fine day, I was confident enough to do comedy full-time. Of course, I had a backup plan if this didn’t work out. But that never happened. Since 2018, standup comedy is what I do full-time, and it’s 
been good.

Also read: Comedian Rahul Subramanian's Amazon special 'Rahul Speaks To People' promises humour on the fly

You mentioned we have very few stand-up comedians. Is it because there is a constant monitoring of content, shows being cancelled and so forth?
Oh, no, it’s not because of any of that. On the contrary, if someone (an artiste) has grown to that level, it only means they are on the right track. Sad, but that’s the truth. 

Free entry. May 7. 7 pm. 
At Village Food Court, Palladium.