By Jason Tanamor
Papa CJ is an established international comedian. As his website states, “rumored to be a direct descendant of the Maharaja of Merebaapkaraj (pronounced Mere-baap-ka-raj) in India, in 2008 he was chosen as one of the top ten acts in the world on NBC’s hit TV show “Last Comic Standing.”
The direct descendant took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Zoiks! Online.
Q – Where did the stage name Papa CJ come from?
A - As a teenager I witnessed a brutal assassination by an international mafia cartel and have since been under a witness protection program by the International Court of Justice. That's why the stage name. Although the latent fringe benefits are a brand that is catchy and memorable and anonymity from the psychos who want to find you after a show and stab you.
Q – You have an MBA from the University of Oxford. How and why did you get involved with stand-up comedy?
A - I saw stand-up for the first time in 2004. That’s when I figured that if you could make a living fooling around on stage, I didn’t want to be in an office anymore. I’ve always believed that if you love what you do, you’ll get good at it and if you get good at it the money will follow. The challenge is whether you have the tenacity, perseverance and self-belief to get from loving what you do to the money actually showing up because it can take a long time and it isn’t always easy. In fact if any of you out there are considering it I'd suggest you try prostitution first. You get paid better for a shorter performance and you don’t get screwed or abused as much. But while starting out in stand-up can be tough it does lead to a fun life – waking up late, never having to commute at rush hour, traveling to interesting places all over the world, working less than two hours a day, exercising free speech in its truest form and of course, spreading laughter and cheer.
Q – Being a stand-up comedian from India, would you say that your material is suited for all countries?
A - In that question, replace the word India with any other country and the question still holds. The answer is yes for whichever comedian you ask it to. It all depends on how much effort the comedian has made to customize his material for the country he is performing in and whether he has thrown in the relevant local references. What matters is whether the audience can relate to where the comedian is coming from. The thing with the US is that Americans are not very good at laughing at themselves and expect the whole world to revolve around them. To be catered to them. Case in point, the 'World Series Baseball' How much of the 'world' really takes part? Now I wrote that line intentionally. Because I know that me writing just that line above has pissed some of you off. And you're thinking, 'I don't like that Papa CJ. He sounds anti-American.' And that just proves my point. Take a chill pill dude. I'm not a politician offering a deep critique of your basic beliefs and way of life, I'm a bloody comedian. Relax! It's a fucking joke!!
Q – Do you think "Last Comic Standing" (LCS) was biased toward certain performers versus others?
A - A local (US) performer always has an advantage. Firstly because a large part of humor is culturally specific. Secondly because audiences in different countries have different sensibilities which you can only understand after having performed there at least once. And thirdly try putting any comedian in the world in competitive show against me in India, where only an Indian audience votes. Who do you think the audience is going to vote for?
Q – How much did LCS help your career in terms of exposure and experience?
A - I remember at the audition in Miami, one of the comedians said, 'Did you know that 10 million people watch this program?’ To which I said, 'I come from India brother. If I open my bathroom window to crack a joke, 10 million people show up live.' Unlike the other comedians, I came along just for the experience. I had never performed in America and I thought it would be fun. You might not believe me, but I have never even seen the show, not even the one I am on. For me the journey was over in Vegas after the semi-finals because after that it becomes a reality TV show.
Q – When you told Iliza Shlesinger, "Welcome to the big leagues, sweetheart," on LCS, do you think that was the beginning of the end for you on the show?
A - Well firstly, I didn't really give a crap about how far I got. Secondly, I'm not the kind of guy who becomes a monkey just because the camera comes on. I'm a regular guy who does stand-up. However the soulless putrid filth that is reality TV survives on sensationalism and I was just giving the audience a bit of that to feed on. The live audience who voted me out hadn't seen that and in fact I had been voted off the show over a month before those episodes aired, I think. So no, that's not why I got voted off.
As regard to voting for Iliza, if she performed her winning set in front of 20 Indians they wouldn't laugh because they wouldn't know what she was talking about. So I voted for her because I personally didn't find her funny and couldn't relate to her material. I was being true to my thinking. Of course at that time I hadn't considered the fact that the local audience would relate to her material and that she was from LA and the elimination performance was in LA. And for those of you who might think I voted for her because she is a girl, screw you. Because in YOUR minds you are putting women on an unequal playing field. You're saying that women should not be 'picked on' because they are weaker. I gave her the respect of considering her equal to every other comedian. And I'm glad she got to where she did because she is a lovely person and deserves the success.
Q – How difficult is it doing stand-up around the world where you deal with different cultures and languages?
A - Stand-up is a beautiful art form because you are learning and growing with each performance. I've been performing for less than five years. Even in my own eyes I'm just touching the tip of the iceberg. It's a joy and a privilege to perform in different countries and cultures. I've performed in Europe, Africa, America and Asia and the journey has been fun. With each performance in a different culture I've learned something new. The third show in a new country is twice as good as the first show because you pick up on so many nuances of the local culture and sensibilities.
Q – Is it difficult to write universal material or do you often find yourself dancing around Indian stereotypes?
A - Writing universal material is not an issue. But the question you ask is one that every so called 'ethnic' comedian faces. You see the thing is this. I can count on my fingers how many Indian stand-up comedians there are that perform in English. And that is including the British-Indian and American-Indian comedians. If you look at Indians from India then I can count them on one hand. Now if I don't talk about what it is like being Indian, then who will? Who is gonna offer our point of view? How many white comedians do you know who can talk about relationships with their girlfriends? You want to hear the same stuff from me? Asking me why I talk about what it’s like being a brown guy is like asking Richard Pryor or Chris Rock why they talk about being black.
Q - A lot of comedians are offered sitcoms based on their lives. If one was offered to you, what type of television show would you have?
A - Interesting you ask that question. So far I've been doing stand-up because I love doing it live. There seems to be a trend in the US about live stand-up being a means to an end as opposed to an end in itself. It's all about doing my seven minutes and getting my sitcom. As regard to the kind of television show you'd have a sitcom around my life. That's something you'd have to ask the TV chaps. Because what is OK for TV has nothing to do with reality or what I might want to be shown. It's what the studios think the audiences want. I'm not sure I'd have the patience or moral and ethical flexibility to tolerate that. I'm not Chris Rock or Seinfeld where I have the muscle to dictate terms. Besides if they beeped out a joke with clean language on a three minute set on LCS, do you really think they would approach me with a sitcom? Ha! Leave me with the joys of performing live and don't tempt me into the world of TV. I don't need that much money and I don't want that life.
Q – Anything you wanted to add?
A - Get out there and support LIVE stand-up comedy. It is an art form best enjoyed live, not in front of a screen. It's like sex. There is no substitute for actually being there. The magic lies in the spontaneity of it. Of reacting to what happens in the room as opposed to 'performing' a chunk of material that some producer has signed off as being fit for television audiences. Watching stand-up on TV is like surfing comedy porn (only worse because the stand-up is censored and the porn isn't). So if you're surfing comedy porn, that makes you a wanker. You don't want that!
Jason Tanamor is the Editor of Zoiks! Online. He is also the author of the novels, "Hello Lesbian!" and "Anonymous."
By Jason Tanamor