Naveen Richard: ‘Content is Going to Become Raw Again’
The comedian on how social isolation is going to impact the arts and why he explored the idea of empathy in his latest stand-up special ‘Relatively Relatable’
When comedian Naveen Richard started writing his third Amazon stand-up special, Relatively Relatable, two years ago, the set was only a motley collection of random jokes — until he discovered a documentary on Netflix. Titled The Kindness Diaries (2017), the two-season docuseries hosted by U.K. global adventurer Leon Logothetis “is about this guy who travels across the world relying on the kindness of strangers to take care of himself,” says Richard, adding, “That really touched me and I realized, ‘Holy shit! This is what the world is lacking right now.’”
Going back to the drawing board after a meeting with Logothetis in Mumbai, Richard charted his experiences of kindness. It wasn’t too long before he began to play around with insect metaphors to outline a set that delved into empathy, relatability and political ideology, among other things. After all, what better way to understand folks than to put yourself into the shoes of creatures that incite instant apathy?
But when Richard tested out his set at open mics, he noticed that the audience wasn’t too inclined to agreeable laughter, not as much as they would indulge him in response to trite, gendered jokes and quips. “Generally, I felt like something’s terribly off and I was hoping that if everybody can laugh at the same thing, can’t they get along?” says Richard who, influenced by events at the time, wanted to do something about the division created by current politics. “If friends can split because of their differences in opinion, a whole country and strangers would never even attempt to get along,” he says.
No stranger to emotion and its manifestations, Richard has delivered barely muffled giggles and resounding guffaws through satire, sarcasm and sassy one-liners over his diverse creative oeuvre that spans housefull stand-up gigs, viral sketches and layered comedy-drama series. In the recently released Relatively Relatable, he touches upon the regions of India, the north, the south and so on, to explore the lands that people call home but also the ideas, biases and presumptions that make them find themselves either on the far left or far right. What could possibly unite them — what do they all hold in common? “Almost all of us have a fridge, right?” asks Richard who during his set, uses the most mundane of items — even a mango! — to make this point: even in the midst of differences, you can still empathize.
Although the comedian would’ve liked to dig deeper into the concept, he decided to keep things light, saving the graver stuff for a separate future segment. “When people were watching my special on tour, they seemed to be really enjoying themselves, forgetting about the negativity in the world. So, I didn’t want to make a heavy subject out of it,” he says, noting that while the word ‘empathy’ is used a bunch in Relatively Relatable, no one is going to walk away from the special and go hug their neighbor or anything like that. Richard also reveals that touring turned out to be the make or break factor while crafting this particular one-hour. “I found that I was only able to stitch the themes when I started trying out the material at open mics. You go on tour and everything starts making sense — the beginning, the middle and end. All your callbacks start getting stitched together then. Otherwise you’re only trying out chunks at a time,” he says.
Over the last few years, Richard has had his fair share of flirting with the fourth wall, breaking as well as operating behind it between all the live stand-up sets and Amazon specials (Don’t Make That Face, Go Straight Take Left — with fellow comedian Sumukhi Suresh — and of course, Relatively Relatable) and sketches (as part of comedy collective Them Boxer Shorts) and shows he’s cooked up solo and with collaborators (Star Boyz, Die Trying, Better Life Foundation – BLF, Pushpavalli). He’s learned a thing or two in the process, one being that it pays off to not be a stickler for the rules and two, to experiment till you find the right medium for your craft. “When I started doing YouTube, it was because I wanted to make movies one day. YouTube was just a stepping stone to be able to make television shows. Little did we know that there will be these OTTs that would come along and let us explore our television making dreams of crafting long-format shows,” says Richard whose actual experience with traditional television led to the realization that the medium was too old-fashioned and ingrained in stricture for the stories he thought needed to be told.
While things may have changed for the better from “the good old days” when social mockumentary BLF (2016-2018) and sci-fi comedy Star Boyz (2016) were being binge-watched on YouTube and Hotstar — a time when Richard laughs and tells us that “they gave you a bunch of money, they wouldn’t look at your script and you could make what you wanted” — there’s a lot more investment in series now, even if that comes with the added responsibility of pulling in viewers and getting the numbers. And as the nation goes into lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Richard sees immense possibilities for creators.
“Content is going to become raw again,” he says. Having grown up on YouTube, he thinks once people “get over doing Instagram lives,” in a month or so, creators are going to go DIY again. “You’re going to see a lot more content coming out of them because they have nothing better to do. Stand-up comedians, especially, can’t do live shows and — thank God — they’ll finally resort to trying out something else as well,” he says. Richard has always been curious about what formats comedians might experiment with in a situation that imposes social isolation and he hopes that they get creative, hearkening back to when he first started his YouTube journey in 2013. “We could only afford to shoot in our houses. So, we would write sketches based in, out of and around our house,” he says, offering that creators could use an immediately available space to start putting out their art.
Richard, however, advises to go a step further than the expected. “Don’t take the easy way out and just talk in front of the camera. Even if you have a podcast or whatever, add some layers to it. Make it more interesting so that you stand out. Try your hand at different formats of filmmaking — fiction even — and shoot it in your house. Start at home,” he says, hoping people do not become lazy.
Ask Richard what his plans are for the year ahead and while hopeful, he sees the future in a bit of a disarray. “Let’s see if there is still money left in the coffers of production companies… I’m sure there will be some. But first, let’s survive this seeming apocalypse that we’re headed for. When things get back on track, then maybe the movies, more shows who knows?” he says.