by Mary Ann Ciosk
Abhinav Kumar tells me that it’s okay to call him Abhi.
“It’s fine – I’ve given up trying to get people to say the full name,” Abhi says.
Abhi moved to Leuven three years ago to pursue a degree in marketing at UCLL and was born in Coimbatore, in India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu. As he phrased it, when opening a stand-up show, “I’m from one of those brown countries, somewhere down in Asia.”
While stand-up comedy has long held an interest for Abhi, he hadn’t performed himself until this January, at Rock Café Leuven. Although Leuven doesn’t offer an abundance of opportunities for an aspiring stand-up comedian, Abhi has since performed in several other shows around the city, and even crashed a spoken word poetry night in Pangaea - a move he later described as a “huge misreading of the event”.
Nevertheless, Abhi’s Belgian comedy career has been a success. His shows allow the audience to catch a glimpse of Indian culture, or more often, how he perceives other people’s perception of Indian culture.
“I’ll tell you a little known fact about Indian culture. In Belgium you have lanes on the left for bicycles, but in Indian we have lanes on the left for women, because women have no rights.”
He goes on to explain that India is naturally a very cold country but the constant Bollywood dancing raises the temperature so high that Indians have to travel by evaporating and hoping to land somewhere convenient when it rains.
He also offers a foreigner’s take on the Flemish. He jokes about the harsh, hacking sounds in the Dutch language but explains that he’s realized that in each syllable, a small molecule of saliva flies from one speaker’s mouth to another’s and this saliva actually contains an entire universe of information that is then processed by the other person, allowing the Flemish to carry on two conversations simultaneously.
Whimsical anecdotes about culture and student life abound in Abhi’s shows, but some of his best material also comes from improvised moments.
In his first show, in the middle of his routine, Abhi unexpectedly takes out his phone to look at something. “Oh, it’s just another dick pic,” Abhi quickly explains to the audience.
Unsure whether it was planned or not, I ask Abhi if the moment of allegedly receiving a dick pic was scripted.
“No, I completely forgot a huge part, so I had to look at the script on my phone,” Abhi recounts. “Then I realized I’m on stage doing this, but at that point it was too late, so I blurted out, ‘oh it’s just a dick pic’. Later, classmates and people watching told me, ‘man that dick pic joke was so funny!’ - but actually I just forgot my material.”
But how does a first-time stand-up comic manage to turn what could have been a fatal moment of memory failure into one of his best bits through a clever bit of improv?
“Those are the moments you can’t prepare or train yourself for. I think it happens if you expose yourself enough to stand-up. Like if you’re in a group of people who always complain, and then you start to think ‘yeah my life also hurts’. You get the group mentality,” says Abhi.
To see him perform you’d assume he’s been practicing for years. An ease which likely stems from his avid interest in watching stand-up growing up.
“I used to watch a lot online. Most of my influence was from American comics like Louis C.K.. My English teacher used to show us George Carlin to show the way he makes arguments. At first I didn’t really consider stand-up a real profession or an art form, but then you see someone like George Carlin, and I realized that what these people are doing is incredible. They’re taking ordinary, daily experiences and making them into something extraordinary. Some of Louis C.K.’s best jokes are just him talking about playing monopoly with his daughter, and everyday things like that.”
His family life growing up also helped cultivate his sense of humour.
“I come from a household where we casually roast each other every chance we get, which kept me grounded and from taking myself too seriously.”
As for Abhi’s personal comedy writing strategy, he pays attention to his funniest thoughts and notes them down in his phone.
“I just go through my day, doing ordinary stuff, and then the thought hits me, and I start chuckling. If anyone at that point was watching me they’d think okay clearly this man has gone insane. There was nothing funny about opening the fridge, he’s clearly lost it. It’s the most inside joke you can ever make, because it’s just with you.”
“My favourite thing is when you have all these lines and when you start expanding it you see ‘oh this kind of links with the other one’, and when you start connecting them, that’s where some of the best bits come from. People really like when you tell them a story that’s easy to follow, not several one-liners in different contexts.”
Abhi doesn’t shy away from dicey jokes, either - partly out of principle.
“I really respect comedians making these edgy jokes about people in powerful places. By saying you can make fun of anything but not my leader or the one actor I like, it’s censorship. The moment you’re above criticism, it’s dangerous.”
As Abhi says in one of his stand-up shows, “You can make any joke, it just depends on the delivery. Except abortion jokes, because then there is no delivery.”
Keep an eye out for upcoming comedy shows in Leuven to catch Abhi in his element.