Standup comedian Amit Tandon talks about his engineering and MBA days, the experiences of running his own company, and how it all catapulted him into India’s comedy scene.
Amit Tandon got onto the stage in 2009 with a bag full of jokes, mustered the courage to step into the spotlight, and began his act.
But a few seconds in, his hands began to tremble, as he realised that most of his jokes were not landing. He recalls that he did get a few ‘pity’ laughs — some people thought it was impressive that a 34-year-old ‘uncle’ was venturing into a field that is not only nice but also predominantly filled with young people.
He says the tanking of his show bruised his ego. As the managing director of a company, he was used to being in control.
2009 was also the year that Mumbai opened its first comedy club. Delhi, meanwhile, had just taken a few steps ahead of the starting line. Since then, both the Indian comedy scene as well as Amit have come a long way.
Within a decade, the industry had witnessed a boom and saw the likes of Kanan Gill, Aakash Mehta, Kunal Kamra, Sumukhi Suresh, Kenny Sebastian, Atul Khatri, Aditi Mittal and many more comedians ruling the roost.
And Amit, now 47, has since done over 1,400 shows, including 200 across 25 countries such as the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Dubai and Singapore. His viral videos have earned a whopping 100 million views across all social media platforms.
When he first began, there was uncertainty — a sense of newness, and the fear of being labelled ‘boring’. For the first three years, he did not have a single billing show, which meant that no one paid to watch his standup. He remained an opening act, which he says was worse at times since the audience was eager to see the main act.
“When I first saw stand up, I thought I could do this. The only job is to crack a joke in front of strangers, what could go wrong? For my first act, I remember requesting the host to allow me five minutes instead of three, as I thought it would be too less. How wrong was I?! Every second can seem like a lifetime if your audience is not reacting,” Amit tells The Better India.
‘Making people laugh is a superpower’
Amit grew up in Patiala and moved to Chandigarh, and later went to Delhi for his studies. His family, which migrated to India during the partition, gave prime importance to education, he says.
He worked hard to get into IIT for his engineering degree and later pursued an MBA. Amit’s life graph was perfect on paper. This engineer-turned-MBA soon set up his own business, and when the funds dried, took up a corporate job. However, he says, he had always wanted to be his own boss, and so in 2006, he started an HR consultancy firm with his wife, which they ran till 2017.
His interest in comedy did not develop overnight. In the early days of his career, he would write and direct plays that received a few laughs, host college festivals, and later, the annual company meets.
A major struggle that many comedians had to overcome was stage fright. But with Amit’s experience in going on stage and interacting with the audience, this problem was not a big one. Neither was financial stability, he notes. He had his company to fall back on and discontinue comedy at any time.
Arguably, these were the two reasons why he stuck in comedy for three years, without selling even a single ticket. “After working the entire day in the office, when I garnered a few laughs in the night, it was empowering. I felt like a superman who has the power to make people smile and laugh,” he adds.
Creating content that resonates
Amit found his breakthrough with corporate shows first. Having fully understood the life and functioning of a CEO as well as an employee, his material was relatable.
That said, he did not shy away from exploring content that spoke to millennials. He would hang out with the younger lot with a pen and notebook, and take notes when he could. Once inside the comedy scene, he shed his corporate image, blending and acclimatising with his fellow comedians with ease.
“I encountered a variety of people — from college students to senior creative directors, people from the ad world, and so on — who helped me update my comic vocabulary. For the initial acts, I even used cuss words and sex jokes to gather a few claps, but decided to drop that because I wanted kids and the elderly to attend my shows as well,” he says.
This is why, if you closely observe Amit’s videos, you will notice that he largely has clean comedy sets that people from all age groups can enjoy and appreciate.
Meanwhile, most of his observational gigs are from his own life experiences.
“As a comedian, it is necessary to keep your ears and eyes open at all times. If you narrate incidents from your life, you will have fresh content every time instead of depending on a third party. If I keep ticking boxes that producers list, or do what others are doing, I will lose my audience quickly,” he says.
Here’s an example.
Taking on the best Punjabi tone possible, he asks what the point of having so many pillows in a hotel room is. Why does the bedding have to be so tight, that at night, half your strength goes into pulling the blanket?
The comedy lies in his delivery. On paper, it reads as borderline cribbing, but when he speaks directly to you, you can’t help but let out a laugh. At the time of our conversation, he was staying in a Goa hotel, and it took him no more than five seconds to come up with this joke.
“How you paint that picture with vocabulary, voice modulation, and expressions will determine how your joke will land,” he explains.
From talking about middle-class lifestyles to narrating his wife’s and children’s antics, Amit has made his comedy extremely specific over the years. While the majority of it is true, he confesses that some things are made up.
One of the key factors in his videos garnering lakhs of views, and his shows selling out, is his conscious effort to say what is on his mind. He never thinks if his thoughts are funny or not, and prefers noting them down.
For example, he would often wonder why parents are always blamed if children make a mistake. And how some parents spend their life raising children only to realise later that they did not spend enough time with each other.
He used both these thoughts and created an entire set from them, and the audience couldn’t help but whistle and guffaw at his jokes. Since most of his audience is above 25, he knows the content would be relatable. It is also interesting to note how audiences are now willing to laugh at themselves or their mistakes, he says.
Amit prefers to think of himself as more of a writer than a standup comedian. Just like the strides he made from his startup, job to comedy, he has ventured into other content mediums, including television.
He worked on two shows — SonyLiv’s Chalo Koi Baat Nahi, satirical sketches, and Netflix’s Comedy Premium League, a battle between comedians such as Mallika Dua, Rahul Subramanium, Sumukhi Suresh, and so on.
He also released his comedy events series ‘Comedians of the World’ on Netflix in 2019.
Amit has also diversified his creative portfolio by hosting a Spotify podcast Andar ki Baat, which invites people from different sectors like education, dental, health, etc to share trade secrets. He is presently working on a comedy series based on the Partition and soon hopes to release it on OTT.
“As an artist, I am not scared to explore new avenues, as standup has now become my bread and butter. The journey from my company being a backup to now standup taking that place has been a roller coaster, but definitely, one that I truly enjoyed,” he says.
When asked what the best compliment he has received so far is, he shares an incident from 2015.
“I was raising funds for a social cause through a show, after which a couple came up to me and said their daughter wants to shake my hand. She was 21 and was in a wheelchair. Her parents said that they rarely laugh, but my show made them forget their worries. I met other people with disabilities and realised I should stop complaining about my life and be grateful for everything,” says Amit.
Edited by Divya Sethu