Varun Thakur talks about his journey in comedy and the impact of OTT on his career
Varun Thakur during a live performance on-stage
Though he needs no introduction, for the uninitiated, Varun Thakur is an actor, comedian, dancer and a host. Starting his career in 2009, he released his first special on Amazon Prime Video in 2017 which took his career to new heights. In an exclusive chat with OTTplay, Varun talks about the current comedy scenario in Indian and the new avenues that have opened up for younger comics.
When you come up with a character like Vicky Malhotra, is it a very instinctive process or does a lot of thought go into giving the character its individual traits?
Vicky plays a very important part in my life and career. It started long ago. Apart from doing comedy, I'm also an actor and a large part of acting requires you to go for auditions. When I used to go to these auditions, I used to meet these rich kids from Delhi, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Punjab. You've come down to struggle in Bollywood. But all these guys are rich. They wear branded clothes and they come for the audition in their luxury cars. I am good at acting and mimicking so while talking to these people, I was already forming a character in my mind.
How do you write skits that are specifically addressed towards Vicky Malhotra?
If you look at my special on Amazon Prime, I am telling stories about Vicky’s life, and he is not a real person. You can only do it when you have thought it through that much. To make a one-minute video of Vicky, I usually spend 3-4 hours writing it. The people who like Vicky the most are women because they understand the satire behind it. I am not actually being a sexist person and all the women have met a character like Vicky in their life, at the gym, in their workplace or at a coffee shop. It’s been eight years and I am never going to let go of this character.
You started your career in 2009-10 and had your first Amazon Prime Video special in 2017. Tell us something about the journey in between and did the special actually help you in catering to a much wider audience base?
Starting in 2009, we were just a bunch of people who liked comedy but did not have any idea on what to do. Then a comedy store came in and they started giving us spots and it became an altogether juggernaut. From 2009 to 2014, it was just a bunch of us trying to make a scene happen. Then YouTube came in and it was the next breakthrough. There was AIB, SnG and EIC. These big three groups and comedy became a legit career choice. Then OTT came and in 2017 there were 10 specials which were released by Amazon. With OTT, we could reach out to 10 times the number of people we did from regular shows.
With the advent of OTT, do you think it is easier for younger comedians to gain success and fame very early in their career?
Yes, at the moment, the scene is much better. But there is no shortcut to fame. It is a slow process. What has changed now, compared to the time when we were starting is that the avenues have increased, and people’s understanding of comedy has increased. Due to people’s wide consumption of YouTube and OTT platforms, awareness has increased. What might have happened five years earlier will now take two years to happen. There are people who have been doing it for so long and now they have found success. On the other hand, there is Anubhav Singh Bassi, who started in 2017 and is killing it today. But that also comes after putting some time in, polishing your craft and putting it out there. But there is no better time to do it than now.
What advice would you like to give to young comedians venturing into this field?
The only advice I would like to give the youngsters is that you have to put in the time. It’s not about putting that one video and getting popular but it’s about sustaining it in that environment. Also, don’t get disheartened and give yourself time and space to improve and get better at your craft. Every single person out there, from big to small comedians, has bombed on stage. Today there are a lot more avenues for you to succeed but that will take time. Be prepared to put in that much time and do not expect instant success.
After working for so many years, have you come up with a viral formula that works for you online or do you still go through the whole scriptwriting process?
I don’t think I have come up with a formula for success, I don’t think anybody can guarantee virality, it is so subjective. Sometimes the best video does not get any views and sometime the video we think is very average gets a lot of views. There is no hit code for virality. The only thing that can get you closer to virality is consistency and I observed this when my special came out or when I started doing comedy. I saw an instant jump when friends, family, fans, celebrities and audience started liking the videos. Just keep at it to find your pace and audience.
How do you think the Indian comedy scenario is different from other countries in terms of content? Do you think that the kind of audience that consumes it is also different?
Our audience has now grown exponentially. The Indian comedy scenario has been there for so long and some of the best comedians have come from India like Johnny Lever, Raju Srivastav and Mehmood. We have had a culture of comedy but standup comedy in English was never there. Now we are up there with the rest of the world which also pushes us to do better stuff and not rely on average jokes. A lot of Indians come to watch Indian comedians outside when they are on tour. The comedy scene in India is fantastic and it has become a legitimate career option. It is only going to get bigger and better now. Earlier you could count the number of comics on your fingers and now it is insane to see the number of comedians out there in various languages.
Who were some of the inspirations and guides in the initial days of your career and how has it changed now?
Growing up, I loved seeing Johnny Lever in every scene. We used to watch a lot to English stand-up comics as well like Geroge Carlin, Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. Watch and see how they frame their jokes. We used to imbibe a lot from these people. Now we have a wide variety of comics in India and some of my favourites are Kanan Gill, Abhishek Upamanyu and Biswa Kalyan Rath. I look up to them to see how much they have grown. It is inspiring to see your colleagues at such heights which also makes you pull up your socks and work.
Could you tell us a little about the projects that you are currently working on?
I am touring for my new special which is called Space Cadet and I’ll be going to Australia this September and Europe and USA next year. It’s about me growing old, the effects of married life and everything that is happening around me.