Sonali Thakker: A Comedian Who Has Her Own Unique Work Process
The most important thing in our stressful and hectic life right now is to spare some time and have a good laugh. But it’s not easy to make people laugh. Comedy is one of the most difficult arts. Yet, there are people who are working day and night and honing their skills to make us laugh by doing standup comedy. Luckily we got a chance to interact with a senior comedian and a fun lover, Sonali Thakker. One might not find much information about her online, because she likes it this way, for a reason. But she was sweet enough to talk to us and share some of her thoughts on her work process, the comedy scene in India, her experiences and many more things. Here is the excerpt.
I was trying to find information about you, but I guess you like to be off the grid. I came across this tour you are doing right now called ‘Take A Chance Tour’. How’s the tour going?
Yeah, that’s my second solo show. My first show was called ‘Almost There’, and now this is my second show.
I have done only two shows as of now, one in Bombay and one in Hyderabad. I feel like normally what happens with comedians is that they workshop their show in their home city. If they are working on a show, they’ll keep practicing like in Bombay and once they feel it’s ready, they’ll take it across different cities across the country. They will be on tour and which is what I did with ‘Almost There’. With ‘Take A Chance’, I feel like, I want to kind of work on it while I am performing it in other cities. I want to take a different approach in this show. At times what happens is, for example, I was raised in Bombay, then my sensibilities for the audience will be to Bombay and when I go to Delhi, I will realize that this particular joke is getting weak there, so then I’ll correct it there. So instead of doing that, I mean, instead of taking a ready show and realizing that something is weak later, I am workshopping it on the go.
Many a times, we look at comedians who go for particular theme/genres in their acts? Do you look for any such specifications? What would be the topics or genres according to you, which are bound to leave the audience in splits? Minimum guarantee that is.
I feel like I talk a lot about my personal experiences. And those personal experiences are a lot about traveling, a lot about relationships, now I am married for the last seven months, there is a bit of my marriage in my new show, and I talk a bit about maybe religious stuff but not too much. It’s mostly about me and my personal experiences. I feel like that’s the best way to make your own experience unique. If you have an experience, there is a very rare chance of somebody else experiencing the same thing. And that’s my point of view to how to make my act unique from the other.
If you watch any of my show, the first one or the second one, you’ll go back knowing me as a person, which I think is my USP. I don’t talk about politics though, that’s one thing I don’t talk about at all. Not because I am scared, but because I don’t have any knowledge.
Let’s go back a little bit. I would like to know where did the journey of Sonali Thakker start? Were you always interested in standup comedy or was it a taste you acquired over the years?
I was never really interested. I had heard about Vir Das and I watched a show of his. After that, I saw on Twitter that Rohan Joshi, Khamba and Vir das were doing a show called Headliners in a bar in Bandra. In those days, there were no tickets exactly. It was always like an event update on Instagram or Twitter. Back then the scene was so underground that attending a standup comedy event was a cool thing. I watched a couple of shows like that.
I then came across a standup workshop in a newspaper, which was being conducted by East India Comedy. And my then-boyfriend and now-husband Aditya Desai loves getting on stage and he loves theatrics. He enrolled in the workshop and he was the winner in that workshop and he started doing standup. At that time there used to be only one show in Bombay. I used to go and watch him at the shows. And maybe after six months, I got interested in the process. I was like, I am going and watching him at all these shows, so why not just get on stage. Why sit and watch in the audience when even I can do it. So, that’s how I started.
Aditya does a little bit standup now but he is also a standup comedian with Bhartiya Digital Party, the Marathi standup portal. He is a Chartered Accountant as well. That’s where we both met actually. Both of us were pursuing CA, and we were both failing at CA.
We both wanted to kind of do something else to distract our attention, so that we can come back to it with better concentration. So he took up standup and I took up dancing. Because I had never seen a woman do standup, so I didn’t even think about it. I mean you lead by example, and when you have not seen that example, it doesn’t come to you naturally. The only reason I decided to do it was if I am coming and cheering for Aditya as an audience member, then why am I just wasting my time standing in the audience and instead I should also get up on the stage.
Since you have mentioned about women representation in the comedy scene, there was not equal representation back then in the standup scene and most of the comedians were pretty vocal about it as well. But today it has changed and we have many established comedians like you, Neeti, Sumukhi and Kaneez who are doing a fabulous job and we have also seen in the two seasons of Comicstaan that many women comedians have participated. So how do you think this change happened and how important was it?
It’s a very simple reason why the change has happened. The change has happened because more women started doing it, more women saw women doing it and as I told you before, you lead by example. This is it and there is really no other answer to it. Women saw women do it and women were like why not, let’s do it.
There’s one thing that I really wanted to ask you. In an age where most comedians like to put up a part of their work on YouTube, you haven’t uploaded any videos. What is the reason behind it and also don’t you think this may limit your reach?
Of course, it does limit my reach but I really enjoy the process. The beauty of doing standup for me personally is through performance standup. I am a blank slate and nobody has a context to my life. So whatever story I tell, the audience will believe it because they have no connection to my life. Tomorrow, if I get up on stage and say I have been a mime artist for ten years, the audience will be like, cool! The next day I can get on stage and say I am tired of being a struggling actor. I love experimenting with different characters. These are the years that I want to experiment the most and change my voice. I used to talk about different subjects before, I want to talk about different subjects now and I want to kind of build an organic way right now. So videos can be uploaded at anytime. If I want to get viral, I can do it later as well. Not now but maybe six or seven years later. I will have that much more to give to the audience and the more I learn, the more I will be able to give them later.
Of course, if you upload the video, there is always an advantage of having more audience coming to your shows. But I am very happy, fortunate and overwhelmed with the fact that every time I travel and do shows outside of Bombay, the audience does come and there are around fifty to sixty people who turn up. For me, there needs to be one more person than me to do a show. That’s it. And anything more than one is a bonus for me. So, I think that’s how I have built an audience over a period of time and I love getting discovered.
Sometimes a big comic is doing an auditorium show and if he needs to do well, he’ll call you to open for him and you get to do fifteen minutes. And among those thousand seated people, if you perform for fifteen minutes and even if twenty people like you, obviously they all will like you.
But these twenty people will buy the tickets for your next show. And those twenty people will tell another ten people and I feel that gives me more satisfaction than somebody who has watched my video and has come to my show. Maybe at a later stage, I will reach that satisfaction level but that’s not my goal right now.
Who is that one person (Indian or otherwise) that always manages to leave you in splits. Also, could you tell us about any one incident where you thought the audience couldn’t get your joke?
It happens a lot. In fact, it happened last night itself. In Bombay, we get on stage every night, sometimes two times a night and sometimes three times a night and we do small 10 minutes spot at different shows and this is how we perfect our material for maybe a big opportunity. I mean if we open for a comedian, we can’t do a new material or test our jokes on the stage at that time.
I think the comedian who makes me laugh the most, currently is Bill Burr. I really like Bill Burr and he is a comedian from the west. And in India, I really enjoy watching Sumit Anand and Manik Mahna.
How important is it for a comedian to actually know his/her limitations, given the fact that humor like common sense is highly subjective? How do you manage to connect to a pan-Indian audience?
I do, sometimes when I go to second-tier cities and third-tier cities, where Hindi is predominant. Yes, I face a little difficulty in terms of language, when I go outside. Because my stand up is maybe sixty percent English and forty percent Hindi or maybe seventy percent English and thirty percent Hindi. But that has its advantages like – because I perform mostly in English also, I could go to Melbourne International Comedy Fest for one month and perform and represent India over there. I mean if my set was in Hindi, it would not have been easy in converting it. And sometimes when I go to the second-tier cities and if the language is a problem, then the jokes may or may not work.
As we know, you’ve been performing all over the country. And an applauding audience makes for successful performances. Therefore, where do you think you achieve a seamless connect quickly with the audience. And why do you think that is?
Seamless connect with the audience for me, I think is relatability. I feel like relatability is the place where I find a connection with the audience. If your experience is something they know, like if they go, yeah even my friend was in a similar situation, or for example when I talk about my struggles with being a CA, everybody has that one friend who has done CA or someone who still hasn’t cleared his CA. Once you establish that relatability, the connection is established.
The stand-up comedy scene has really exploded in the last nine to ten years. Suddenly, comedians are becoming superstars with million-dollar deals on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Why would you say this sudden eruption of acceptance comes out? What has changed in people?
I feel that it’s a new art form and it’s something fresh. There are people who are of my age talking and saying the things that I talk to my friends. Again it’s the relatability on a mass level. What I do on a daily basis, the OTT platforms are doing it on their spaces. The best way to connect to our target audience is to create content where people are talking the way they talk. If you are constantly making content which is period based, one such show will run successfully because you’ll be like wow what a crazy world. But you can’t constantly keep generating content like that because all shows like that won’t work. And I think standup is the easy and a great thing to watch also, I mean you can finish watching a show in an hour. And that’s the reason I feel, the boom has started. I mean who doesn’t want to see things that they can laugh at. Comedy is always a preferred genre.
Talking about Inspirations, Who do you look up to in the field of comedy and are there certain aspects of your work that you derive from them?
There’s this comedian called Ali Wong is the US. She is a female comic and she recorded two specials when she was pregnant, on stage. She performed her standup over there for eleven years and no one knew much about her. Then she came up with her first standup solo show and now she is a superstar. So I feel, you should keep working hard, keep doing good work, stay focused, keep growing and stay grounded. That’s the motto. If you believe in yourself and maintain the consistency as good as it is, it’ll come to you.
In the present crop of comedians, who do you think has it in them to go to a global stage and perform? And where do you say we lack as performers in an international arena?
I don’t think we lack. Indians can also always perform international because Indians are everywhere. If you send a comic to Sweden, even there Indians will come to watch the show.
In fact, I feel Indians are more international than any international comic because an Indian can perform in any city of the world and there will be Indians but there won’t be people who speak English in every part of the world. I don’t think Indians are lacking behind, it’s what suits the personality. There is nothing missing in this or there is nothing missing in that, it’s what you are comfortable in and that’s it, nobody can define it.
I think Sumit Anand is a comedian who I feel can be an International comic. He has performed in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the one that I went for, it was his second year over there. And this year he went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is in Edinburgh. These are the two biggest festivals in the country.
I think Sumit Anand and Kanan Gill are the comedians from the current crop, who can maybe breakthrough and can become a cross over talent like Priyanka Chopra. And me, later.
Now that the standup scene in India has been growing organically, it has managed to inspire people to pursue this art. What would you advise to the upcoming standup comedians who are striving hard to make it big?
Don’t worry about YouTube subscribers and popularity. They will come. Just keep going to open mics and keep writing jokes. That’s it.
This may sound cliché but what else if not this? If you hadn’t taken up stand-up comedy, where would you have headed? And in doing so, would you have been a different person internally. In this sense, how does being a comedic artist change your views towards society in general?
I would have been a stockbroker. That’s what I was doing before this. I think I am a lot more aware as a person about society and people. I have become a lot more understanding and I have also learned to take the lighter side of the things. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened naturally, had I not been doing standup. But my life would have been way more organized if I was a stockbroker. I would have been making way more money and my parents would have been extremely happy.
But the fact that none of that is happening, should give you an idea of how much more this thing is happening over that.
One Million Dollar question that I have is what’s next for Sonali Thakker in time to come? And at which point would you think you’ve done what you set out to do?
The next thing on the agenda is to do three shows tonight and continue doing what I am doing for the rest of my life. And success is just there, I’ll reach it.
In stand-up comedy, if you had to open for 3 comedians worldwide who would they be?
Ali Wong, Jerry Seinfeld, and Bill Bur.
When you want to go and present your act, what are the first five things that you want to be decided upon?
How funny, how funny, how funny, how funny and how funny.
What happens when you wake up and you find out that you are Rahul Gandhi? What would be the first thing you would do?
I will go back to sleep again.
What brings out the best of your performances? Is it a highly receptive audience, or the energy of the place or perhaps your own material?
Fight with my husband over general things like nonpayment of bills.
Since you are a standup comedian and your husband is a comedian too, do you fight over who is funnier?
No, nothing like that. He knows the truth.
If you were to perform in North Korea or other volatile regions, what would be your opening line there at?
Main jo bi kahungi sach kahungi, sach siwa kuch nahi kahungi..
What are the three things about Sonali Thakker that not many people know?
1. That I have an Instagram account and if you knew that you would be following me.
2. I love doing Yoga.
3. I am a big Bollywood fan.
Given the chance to take up one other pursuit of art, what would that be?
Again for some super-duper complex questions..,
Scenario 1: You are in a drowning ship full of comedians. There’s the last lifeboat available which is occupied by comedians you know. One of them is fighting for a place to save you and one other suggesting they leave without you. Who do you think these people are?
I think my husband will be walking away and my friend Jeeya Sethi would be fighting to save me.
Scenario 2: What would your opening line be, when performing in front of house full of Trump supporters?
Scenario 3: What is that one joke that always cracks up people no matter what.
A funny one.
Thus, Sonali candidly puts her thoughts across and tells us about many different things about her and the comedy fraternity. We wish her all the best and will hopefully catch her act super soon..!! Peace Out.