Abish Mathew: The Funny Man’s Journey from Singing into a Mic to Cracking Jokes With it
The Mumbai-based comedian opens up about his early years of being a vocalist before a comic and why he’s featuring independent artists on his talk show ‘Son Of Abish’
When we catch up with Mumbai-based comedian Abish Mathew at his Bandra apartment, he comes across as an instantly likeable figure and immediately sets the mood by picking up the voice recorder and says, “Abish is the worst guy ever.”
Over the last five years, Mathew has become one of the most recognized comics in the country in an industry that has grown into a juggernaut. Some of his accomplishments you ask? He has been part of the All India Bakchod Knockout (the notorious Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor roast), the host of stand-up competition Comicstaan on Amazon Prime Video, his talk show Son Of Abish and most recently Whoop – his stand-up special which premiered on Amazon.
While we might know Mathew for his comedic excellence, he tells us that comedy happened for him much later in his life. Growing up in New Delhi, his first dabble with any art form was actually music. Mathew was involved in a number of bands while studying at Fr. Agnel School – most notably a group called Lithium X in which he was the lead vocalist. He says, “There was something called the Pepsi Storm which was the flagship [event] at our time. We used to rehearse day in and day out and perform and win most of the time because we had a really strong instrumental backing.” While he tells us that his band members were heavily influenced by American hard rock band Van Halen, he confesses with a laugh, “I’m coming from a family who never used to listen to music except for Jim Reeves during Christmas. My musical taste was later defined by my band members.”
In the early noughties, after being inspired by bands such as Bengaluru rockers Thermal and a Quarter, New Delhi rock outfit Parikrama, pop group Euphoria and Mumbai erstwhile rock bands Zero and Helga’s Fun Castle, Mathew felt that even he could form a successful band. “We were like, ‘These guys are doing it so we can do it,’” he says.
His last tryst with music was with a folk band that he can’t remember the name of, and for good reason. Mathew says of the band, “They were talented musicians, they just weren’t professional.” He’s blocked the group out of his mind because he played his worst ever gig in his life (comedy or otherwise) at a competition in New Delhi with them. He recalls, “The song starts and the guitar is not tuned and the audience knows something is fucked up. People started screaming ‘Get off stage!’ I wasn’t crying or angry [after the set]. I got on to my bike and rode off.” He adds, “I’m so happy that happened.”
What is stand-up?
Although Mathew did a few shows as a solo singer, he came to the understanding that music wasn’t going to cut it for him. He also took up to debating and even started working at Hit 95 FM as an RJ in New Delhi. With the help of the internet, Mathew came across late American actor and comedian Robin Williams’ stand-up set as well as the Jumanji star’s inspiration Jonathan Winters. “This actor [Williams], he was doing a one-man play. I didn’t know what it [stand-up] was called, but I told myself this is what I want to do,” says Mathew. After noticing Canadian comedian Russell Peters also doing stand-up, Mathew went on to Google and researched on what exactly is stand-up. He says, “I understood the theory of comedy before I knew comedy. I was watching comedy in a way like, ‘How do I repurpose this thought?’”
His love for this performance art grew even more when he began attending open mics in New Delhi and would also use his radio show to try out a few jokes. He explains, “If a Katy Perry song is playing I’d get so much information about her that I’ll make a joke. Most of these jokes would be puns.” Mathew would even leave his radio show on automation for the last hour of his shift and leave to go do an open mic spot. He left for way further than the nearby stand-up slot, flying to Mumbai for an open mic spot at The Comedy Store.
After working the open mic scene for a while, Mathew flew to Scotland to check out the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to imbibe more knowledge for what he wanted to do. Soon after, in 2011 he booked his first comedy special at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi called Abish and Friends. Although Mathew recorded this special and uploaded three clips on his YouTube channel, he has since taken them down as he felt it was too old. He says in jest, “Kanan ‘Motherfuckin’ Gill has gone and downloaded it and he uploaded it with another channel’s name.”
Move to Mumbai and love for Late Night
With a comedy special under his belt – Mathew moved to Mumbai from New Delhi in 2011 and started bunking with Helga’s Fun Castle/Ghalat Family bassist Johan Pais. He says, “My intention was very simple, I want to come to Bombay because I want to do more stage time.” Mathew started learning how to edit videos and started a series on YouTube called Pun Liners. “That confidence of ‘if I want I can learn any skill’ – that superpower I have,” he says. His only objective was to host The Tonight Show or a version of it. He says with the utmost confidence, “I was like whatever I am training for now is for The Tonight Show on NBC.”
Before Mathew introduced the late night talk show format with Son Of Abish in 2014, the only representation of a chat show outside of news channels in India was either Rendezvous with Simi Garewal or Koffee with Karan. For his first episode of Son Of Abish – the title of which comes from his father’s recurring joke about his name – the comedian booked Mumbai-based independent musician Sidd Coutto as his guest at Mumbai’s Canvas Laughter Club. “Initially Son Of Abish was a multi variety comedy show,” he says. Mathew adds, “I only uploaded it online so people come and buy the live tickets, there was more gratitude in live than for digital.”
Ask Mathew who some of his favorite late night hosts are and he instantly name-drops Craig Ferguson and Conan O’Brien. He mentions that (twice) former Tonight Show host Jay Leno made him fall in love with the format of late night but not in love with Leno. We even bring up the Late Night Wars best depicted in the 1996 film The Late Shift about Leno and David Letterman’s tussle to take over The Tonight Show after legendary host Johnny Carson. Mathew says, “Whenever suits control anything it is always about numbers. I know tomorrow if Son Of Abish starts getting less views, no one will be interested in it.”
The fifth and recently wrapped up season of Son Of Abish has featured, in addition to Mathew at the top of his humor game, plenty of independent musicians. From Mumbai singer-songwriters Saachi and Raghav Meattle, pop groups Toycatcher and Easy Wanderlings, rapper Enkore and New Delhi acoustic artist Dhruv Visvanath. At first, the comedian was hesitant and felt musicians would not appear on his show. He says, “I love listening to music so when we were planning on doing it I said I want to add musicians.” He further says, “The property is growing because the artists are saying yes. I have a decent social media following so I want to push the fuck out of it. The least you can do is give a shout out.” Mathew also has plans to create a playlist on Spotify or Apple Music to further promote the artists that appear on his show. For season six of Son Of Abish, Mathew wants to make the music segment of his show even better and bigger.
Ask Mathew if the comedy scene has overtaken music in India and he says, “In a popularity way, yes.” He explains, “For music it was how many tickets are you selling and how many people are coming to your gigs. It wasn’t how many streams are you getting. Comedy came in with how many views you are getting.” He also tells us that animosity in the stand-up comedy circles is also building up, much like we sometimes see in the music scene. Mathew says, “Bitching has already started and there are misunderstandings.”
But he’s happy to have a good relationship with the Indian stand-up community. He says of Mumbai-based funny man José Covaco, “He gave me the confidence that I can also be on T.V. by just being funny and being myself.” He explains that when he started there was no comedy industry and no standard and that everyone doing it grew together from All India Bakchod to Schitzengiggles to East India Comedy. He says, “Every year there was one iconic person or collective that worked well.”
With Mathew now off to the U.S. and Canada, he wants to start a monthly live gig series when he returns. “This will be a curated list of three artists or one artist. We do a proper sit down and talk to them – we play their track, come back and talk about the song,” he says. Mathew states that he wants all the money generated from this series to go to the artist but wants to make sure that the property becomes big and remains a good platform to have for musicians. At the end of our conversation we asked Mathew how all this success happened for him and he says with a laugh, “Comedy happened because failure in theater, music, hosting, love and in physical appearance.”