As he embarks on one of the largest world tours curated by an Indian comedian, Kenny Sebastian puts on a show unlike anything he’s done before. This time, in Professor of Tomfoolery, Kenny takes on matters of the heart, manoeuvering complex conversations with his signature quirky, endearing wit.
Known for his lighthearted examination of the peculiarities of Indian society, Kenny is bringing his show across the globe, from Bangalore to Berlin, and will be hitting the Vogue Theatre stage in Vancouver on April 16th.
As someone who has been watching Kenny since his early days on YouTube, it was surreal watching him live at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto — perhaps one of the last places I’d have imagined one of my favourite Desi comics hilariously dissecting my childhood trauma as a brown kid.
Kenny is among a pioneering wave of Indian comics who came up during the late 2000s by creating comedy skits and commentaries on YouTube. Although he had been doing stand up six years before he went viral, the Indian comedy scene gained momentum around 2012, with the Internet reaching the masses.
In the early era of predominantly white YouTubers, comics like Kenny were able to connect with an untapped niche of Indian viewers. After being exposed to largely western humour, like Seinfeld or Friends, or contentious diaspora comics like Russell Peters and Lilly Singh, the emergence of an Indian comedy scene online was transformational. For the first time, we were in on the joke — being able to laugh at shared cultural eccentricities, we learned not to take ourselves quite so seriously.
However, for comics like Kenny Sebastian, this also meant that they had inherited an unseasoned audience.
“There were points when we used to do live shows where the audience didn't know that they could clap and laugh, because they thought they were being rude,” he says in an exclusive interview with 5X Press. This initial lack of the audience’s exposure to comedy pushed him to, in his words, “oversimplify” his content, out of fear that he would lose their attention.
Ten years down the line, however, the comedy scene has since evolved. Inspired by fellow Indian comics who are pushing boundaries, Kenny Sebastian has decided to test his limits — as well as his audience’s — by doing what us Desis like doing the least: talking about our problems.
“It’s about time,” he says, a smile on his face as he speaks to a sold-out audience in Toronto — and I couldn’t agree more.
“It’s really fun when [the audience] get to see a brown, Indian performer at a 'white' venue,” Kenny says. He goes on to say that his audience is generally unaccustomed to seeing a brown face on stage at prestigious venues, saying, “We usually come in for non-Indian events.”
“It’s a very lonely experience,” Kenny laughs, as I ask him how it feels, being an Indian comic performing in international, historically white-dominated spaces. He explains that with the exception of his audience, there is a distinct lack of support for an Indian comic like him abroad.
Despite it all, it is clear that he’s cultivated a powerful global fan base as well — Toronto’s Professor of Tomfoolery was a sold-out show, and is undoubtedly one of many more to come on his world tour.
Before catching the show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, I asked Kenny whether he observed a difference between his shows in India, and his shows abroad. “There’s absolutely no difference,” he says, to my surprise.
“There’s a big misconception that there’s a divide or there’s a difference between Indians in India, and Indians abroad. That difference is completely gone — so I don’t change any of the jokes. I don’t change any of the references. The laughs are exactly the same.” In fact, he says, his audiences abroad are somehow more excited to see him — and now, having watched his show, I couldn’t agree more.
Typically known for his paavam or wholesome, unassuming comedy, Kenny takes his observational humour to a different level — somehow managing to say what we’re all thinking, but too afraid to say out loud. Throughout the show, he touches on themes like masculinity, mental health, and generational differences; deftly weaving through heavy topics, all while keeping the audience roaring with laughter.
“It’s the most personal show I’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s real — it’s stuff at home that you should probably be talking about, but you don’t.”
At 32, Kenny tells me, he wanted to write a show that was reflective of his experiences, going beyond what was expected of him as a performer. Surprisingly enough, he finds that this was the show his audience relates to the most.
“This is the only profession that rewards you for being authentic,” he emphasizes. “If you’re a stand up comedian, people are coming in directly for the kind of person you are, because your humour is reflective of who you are.”
However, Kenny says, stand up has been a high-risk, high-reward experience for him. Along with the laughter and the applause, stand up comics often experience social rejection in equal measure.
More often than not, one’s creative process is private, and only their final product gets to see the light of day. For performers like Kenny, this process looks very different. Before going on tour, he explains, stand up comics often test their material ongoingly at open mics. This time around, he says, it was particularly difficult given the complexity of his subject matter.
“When you’re concocting [the show], it’s horrifically painful, you bomb a lot, and an audience that recognizes you is like, ‘Why is this guy bombing?’” he says. Very candidly, he explains that he still hasn’t learned how to recover from those experiences. “You know, it’s very unhealthy,” he says, “You have to take care of your mental health, because it hurts every time.”
He provides an analogy, describing the awkwardness and discomfort you may feel when you crack a joke in front of a group of friends, and no one laughs. “Now, imagine doing that for a paid audience,” he says — and that’s when it sinks in.
“I don’t know why we do this,” he laughs, “It makes no sense. Any normal healthy person should not be actively putting themselves up for social rejection professionally. That’s why there are so few comics — the price is so high.”
“Why do you do it though?” I ask, curious as to what drives him through this process.
“There are a lot of reasons not to do stand up, because it’s not very mentally good for you, and you’re away from home, and you can get into a lot of ‘trouble,’” he replies. “I’m just in it because I feel very blessed that I get to do a job like this.”
Throughout our conversation, Kenny’s love for comedy, constant desire to create, and gratitude for the position he’s in is palpable.
“I can't believe that I'm traveling to another country and there are, like, 1000 people sitting who paid money, who just want to hear me tell jokes, which is incredible,” he says.
“I've done other creative jobs and nothing gives you as much joy, as much direct control. I write the joke, I decide the flow of the show. I say what I want to say, and I receive the laughter immediately, so it's an incredible turnaround of creativity.”
Professor of Tomfoolery is an incredibly unique exploration of intergenerational differences in Desi households, posing difficult questions in a seemingly effortless way. To me, the beauty of the show lies in Kenny’s ability to keep his audience entertained even in the most uncomfortable moments, so much so that the gravity of his words only sinks in as you leave your seat, leaving you with much to reflect on.
Sitting in the audience, I was overcome by the significance of this moment. To be able to share in the nostalgia, familiarity and connectedness of these experiences 7,000 miles from home, and to have someone who prompts us to gently interrogate our identities, while encouraging us to laugh through it all.
Kenny Sebastian will be performing at the Vogue Theatre on Sunday April 16th, 2023. Click here to get tickets.
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