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India’s favourite comedian is in town: Interview with Papa CJ

Stephen Clarke

Fri Apr 10 2015


STAND-UP comedian Papa CJ is in town for his debut performance at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Hugely popular in India and with numerous accolades under his belt, Papa CJ took the time to talk to Meld about how he got started in comedy. 

When Papa CJ was first breaking into the comedy circuit, he lived a gruelling life performing for free and paying all his own expenses. Every day for a year he would battle with hundreds of other hopeful comedians for a five-minute time slot. He would routinely catch two night buses after a gig and arrive home around 4am, only to be up at 7:30am. Amazingly, he saw stand-up comedy for the first time only three months before his first show.

“There was a guy on stage talking rubbish….and that was his job. Three months later I was on stage and I did 250 gigs in my first ten months.”

That first fateful encounter with comedy was at the renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2004 during some time off from work.

The son of a tea farmer from Calcutta, CJ had taken a loan out to study at Oxford University. After earning an MBA, he worked as a management consultant in London for four years to pay off the loan, and then took some time off to learn some new things.

“I hated the consulting job. Absolutely hated it. So I figured I’ve got time off, let me give it a go: there’s no downside. And I just loved it and I threw myself into it and the bright side was I didn’t know how difficult it actually was to succeed.”

Stand-up is notorious for being a profession that is exceedingly hard to break into. For CJ, the hard work and lack of sleep paid off, eventually.

“At the end of [that year] I had no money, no friends, no relationships, and no life, but ….every single comedy promoter in the country knew my name.”

Ten years later, Papa CJ is the biggest comedy name in India. He has performed in over 2000 shows across four continents, including international comedy fixtures around the world such as the Edinburgh Fringe where he originally caught the performing bug. In 2008, he also made it into the top 10 out of 3000 comics in NBC’s TV show Last Comic Standing, without being daunted by the prospect of performing in front of a national audience.

“I remember the American comedians being so excited; they were like, ‘Oh my god 10 million people watch this program’ and I was like, dude I come from India – I open my bathroom window and 10 million people will show up live.”

For CJ, life in India is a great place for cultivating his comedy. The famously colourful country pulsates with a unique and vibrant energy that only a population of 1.25 billion could provide.

“India’s a goldmine of comedy, you just have to look around. The way we drive for example. In Melbourne you drive on the left of the road, in Calcutta we drive on what is left of the road.”

CJ doesn’t just poke fun at his own country. He loves to turn the Western perception of India on people’s head and doesn’t miss an opportunity to put a twist on a stereotype.

CJ’s new show Naked is a step in a new direction for him.

“It is deeply personal. It connects with audiences on an emotional level. It’s a combination of stand-up comedy and storytelling. It’s connecting with people in a way that I’ve never been able to before. It’s an absolute new level of comedy for me. After I got off stage the first time performing it I felt I was twice the comedian I was.”

Papa CJ is performing his new show at the Trades Hall at 9:45 pm this Friday and 8:45pm on Sunday as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.