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Afterhours: Stand-up comedian Neville Shah

From his three-minute first performance in America to a 57-minute special for Amazon Prime Video, Neville Shah has come a long way in his stand-up comedy journey. Shah talks to us about where he draws his inspiration from, his favourite comedians and the one time he got goose bumps watching a performance

Neville Shah

(This is a weekly series on advertising professionals who have enriched their own lives and their audiences as performing musicians, artists, painters, actors, singers, mime artists. We will bring a new adman-performer every Thursday.)

Neville Shah, Executive Creative Director, Ogilvy & Mather, still remembers his first stand-up gig and how he was booed off the stage. In fact, Shah accepts that the fate of his first few performances weren’t any different. But today, Shah is comfortable with what he believes is his ‘space’ and is one of the 14 comedians Amazon has signed up for its stand-up comedy specials.

“Comedy started for me when I was in the States. I was there on a project and one of the tasks was to get on stage and do a three-minute stand-up piece. I did that and from there on it seemed like fun.”

When Shah came back to India, he saw that India too was developing a stand-up comedy scene.

“When I came back to India, I moved to Delhi as I had landed a gig as a Creative Director (CD) in Mudra Delhi. I moved back to Mumbai and by then I had already done a couple of shows for the Comedy Store.”

Speaking about how he got his first gig with Comedy Store, Shah said, “There were about eight of us who started together at the Comedy Store. Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi, Kunal Rao, Sorabh Pant, we sort of started at the same time. So, at the Comedy Store they would get three foreigner comedians to come every weekend. Then when it started getting expensive, their strategy was to bring an Indian host. I was very comfortable talking to people and when I spoke to Rohan, he told me the only way I could get a gig at Comedy Store was if I took up hosting. I took up the hosting gig and from then on I started loving hosting.”

But even then Shah did not have a set to perform. According to him, it was only two years ago that he really started to understand what his ‘space’ is.

“I can’t do observational humour. My observational humour when I started off, was pedantic, which is what most comedians start with. For me, the real story started to come when I started to tell my own narrative. Whether it was my boarding school stories or my travel stories. Seeing stupidity through my lens and it frustrating me is really my space.”

George Carlin, Louis C K and Bill Cosby are his favourite comedians.

“These are my holy trinity. I want to have Carlin’s bite, I want to have Louis C K’s ability to turn personal and dark things into a joke but I want to tell it in the way that Cosby does.”

Shah, a Bombay boy, believes that since he was from Mumbai he missed out on seeing any ‘hasya kavis’.

“I started watching stand-up in English. Unfortunately I did not get the chance to see stand-up in Hindi. I never had the chance to see Johnny Lever do stand-up comedy. It was only recently, after I became a stand-up comedian, that I got the chance to see him perform live and it was phenomenal.”

Being one of the 14 artists that Amazon Prime Video has partnered with for its stand-up comedy specials, Shah believes that the 57-minute set is some of his best work so far.

“I had written an entire different set for this special but due to some personal problems I couldn’t do that and so I had to do a lot of repeat jokes and I got a lot of hate for it too. But I still think it is a good special because the first 20 minutes of that set is some of my best material yet. It is about my mother’s death and dealing with it, religion and therapy. So, for me it is some of my best work so far.”

Speaking about the two moments that really stands out for him in this journey of his, Shah said, “I was watching Brij Bhakta do a set about his mother getting cancer and I had goose bumps.  I remember that the last joke he did, I had tears in my eyes but he had made me laugh for 27 minutes. The second moment was when I was on stage doing the set on my mother’s death for the first time during an open mic. I almost teared up on stage while doing the set and all the comedians who were present there for the open mic came up and told me that it was a brilliant piece. That was a great moment.”

Stand-up comedy for Shah is therapeutic.

“Internationally, stand-up comedy started off as an anti-establishment thing. I mean Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks went to jail just for telling jokes. I believe that all of these people have really toiled to get stand-up comedy where it is today. But I don’t think I understand politics enough to be able to do the same. For me, I think stand-up comedy is more therapeutic and I believe it is so for the audience too. I think it is a chance to shift the needle a little bit, conversationally and socially.”

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