In this new series of posts, we get inside the heads of comedians to figure out how they write. We spoke to Sundeep Rao, stand-up comedian, radio presenter and voice-over artist based in Bangalore. Rao will get behind the mic for his latest special, Thank You, I’m Sorry, on Wednesday, February 5. He talks to us about drawing from everyday life and how he writes punchlines.
How do you pick subjects?
My source of material predominantly comes from what I experience in life. It could be encounters with various people, conversations that I’ve had with friends and family, things I experience during travel and so on. When it comes to subjects that are topical or related to current affairs, I’ve observed that people end up vying for the first joke. There are about a hundred people talking about the same topic, and the first person to make the joke ends up getting the most recognition on social media. If you aren’t among the first people to talk about these subjects, it could feel repetitive and some originality is lost. What also tends to happen with this ‘quickest to the finish line’ approach is that you don’t dedicate enough time for coming up with your bit.
Personally, I feel when I pick a topic which is close to my heart or something that I’ve experienced myself, the writing comes from a place of honesty and I don’t have to force the joke. If you’re dealing with a subject that is alien to you, then you simply tend to approach it with a ‘premise, build-up and punchline’ structure. But when it’s a personal encounter or experience, then the story itself brings out the humour and there is no need to force the joke.
This is a personal preference. I prefer talking about things that I personally want to share on stage. The risk with this is relatability. A lot of people in India today want to hear about trending topics. At the end of the day what stands the test of time is the uniqueness in your voice.
What’s your writing routine like?
Since I depend so much on real life for stuff to use as content, I don’t look at writing as a typical process where I devote two or three hours everyday. But I constantly develop ideas in my head. For example, if it’s a conversation that I’ve had with someone, I let the conversation play out in my head and try to figure out the natural elements in the conversation that are funny. The next step is to ascertain if I need to exaggerate it to make sure the people are on board, or simplify it so that people understand where I’m coming from, and what I need to do to create enough context for them. This is my basic approach.
Then I try to identify where I can take this story as a comedian. For instance, I could create a wittier form of a response that I gave, or a more offensive version of the way the other person spoke. I could create a character for this person, or also apply a layer of social context to the conversation. What I personally like is the authenticity of a real conversation with a few tweaks here and there, because my job is not just to narrate conversations. I’m a storyteller but I also need to be funny. There are three basic principles that I follow for a joke or story that I narrate on stage. They should be honest, funny and shouldn’t be preachy.
“There are three basic principles that I follow for a joke or story that I narrate on stage. They should be honest, funny and shouldn’t be preachy.”
Tell us something about writing punchlines.
The key is word selection. Sometimes, fewer words can make the punchline substantial. Sometimes a punchline can be so good that you don’t really need to work on the build-up. The premise and the build-up can just be put out efficiently so that the people get the context and are on board with you, and then the punchline just seals the deal. If the premise and build-up are put out badly, you can see the punchline coming from a mile. Sometimes we comedians work backwards, that is, we weave a joke out of a great punchline. But the risk with this is that the bit we create can actually take away from the punchline. While the punchline is important, if your premise and build-up are well done, the punchline can just be a nice finish to that bit, as opposed to working a joke out for a punchline.
Who’s your sounding board?
As I said, a lot of my stories stem from real life. I try to narrate these stories to people that weren’t there, to see if they can understand the context and find the story funny in its natural state. This includes my folks and my wife at home. Sometimes I talk to a couple of comedian friends that I’m close to, and also to a couple of non-comedian friends. Sometimes a comedian might find something funny because they are in the space of thinking of funny things. They might get a joke quicker and don’t need more elaboration. But someone who isn’t into comedy may not get the context of the same joke.
Watch Sundeep Rao’s new show Thank You, I’m Sorry in Bangalore on Wednesday, February 5.