Baradwaj Rangan chats with consummate entertainer Ash Chandler just before a performance in Chennai
Ash Chandler brings a myriad of influences — a Punjabi father, a Tamil mother, an American childhood, theatre training in the Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg techniques, a twelve-year-and-continuing stint in India — to bear upon his stand-up comedy. Chandler's recent gigs include ‘Ash... and You Shall Receive' — where he does triple duty as a Cuban, an Arab and a black preacher, and which he likens to “a Vegas show” — and he will soon be seen in the film “Love, Wrinkle-free”.
The piece that you're listening to now — Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat major — is that your way of unwinding before this evening's performance?
This is going to sound weird, but it helps me recognise balance.
I told you it would sound weird. Balance is something that's fleeting. Mozart achieves an incredible balance between feeling and intellect, between emotions and logic. That's what every creative person tries to achieve.
Did you always know you were creative or was it something you discovered later in life?
Oh I always knew, and I have my parents to thank for that. I grew up in a house where the big thing wasn't having guests over but waiting for them to leave so that I could launch into my imitations of them. I was always the class clown.
So there was never a “Mom, I think I want to be a stand-up comedian” moment. It was a given.
Yeah. I am a performer first and foremost. Every aspect of my social being is wired to perform. Being a stand-up comedian is an offshoot of that. I've been doing stand-up comedy for 23 years, 12 of those in India, after I moved here from the U.S.
Did you relocate because the stand-up tradition in English was practically non-existent here and you thought you'd have a niche?
Actually, I moved because I got myself a record deal — to make a music album — while I was vacationing here. Stand-up just happened after that. I remember a show where a lady came up to me and said, “You were really good but why didn't the performer come on?”
She didn't realise that you were the performer.
Yeah. I'd come into a situation where people did not know that the spoken word could be performance. So sometimes I'd throw in a few songs. It's not something new. Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin did this in the 1960s. And it becomes a variety act. It's been a slow climb...
But it's become better.
Oh yes. Earlier, it was mainly corporate shows. Today there are spaces where people can buy tickets to see stand-up comedy.
Even today, along with your name we just hear the names of a couple of others — the usual suspects of stand-up comedy in India. There hasn't really been an explosion.
For an explosion you need critical mass. Enough people should think that something is universally funny. The essence of stand-up comedy is showing a mirror to society and we in India don't like looking at ourselves in the mirror. We prefer the escapism of the film industry. Stand-up is the opposite of escapism.
Are you saying we are incapable of laughing at ourselves?
We think Gujjus are funny. We think Sardars are funny. We think Mallus are funny. We don't think ‘Indians are funny'. Andy Warhol said something great. He said the President of the United States, the bum on the street, Elizabeth Taylor and he could all get the same Coca Cola for twenty-five cents. That shared frame of reference does not exist here.
So do you tailor your act, your shtick to suit each city, each venue?
My quest, my crusade is to not reinforce stereotypes and to find the things that unite us — the fact, for instance, that Indians hate to stand in line.
Rehearsing those gags apart, how do you prepare before a show?
There's no routine — just the usual things like salt-water gargling or honey and warm water. When I was younger, I used to have a drink to calm my nerves — but not any more. Nerves are everything. You've got to use them, especially in comedy.