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In Conversation With Vaibhav Sethia

May 17, 2020

Vaibhav Sethia, an alum of IIT Roorkee(B.Arch batch of 2011), is a stand-up comedian and a content creator. He has a stand-up special, “Don’t” on Amazon Prime Video along with a number of videos that he has uploaded on his Youtube channel. In a (virtual) chat with WatchOut!, he talks about trying out 5 different fields before discovering stand-up, reminisces about his campus life and gives out advice to budding stand-up comics.

Watch Out!- You’re a Silver Medalist from the Architecture department, got a prize for the best project in your time, and even have your name on your department’s plaque. You were brilliant in your acads, and quite successful. Did you have an inkling in college that you would not end up pursuing Architecture as a career? When and how did the thought of doing Stand-up strike you?

Vaibhav- I was not interested in architecture. It was always in my mind to try something new out-but I was never averse to the idea of architecture because I liked the subject. So after my first job after getting some money into my account- I decided to try out things and find out what I’d like enough to stick around for long. I experimented with a bunch of jobs. I think I worked in almost five different fields. Initially, I was in Schlum for a couple of months. Then I was doing a startup magazine with a friend of mine in IIT Bombay where I was a graphic designer and content creator for them. After this, I practiced architecture for a bit, wrote horror stories for a production house, and tried out the role of an Assistant Director. After this, I finally started doing stand up.

Watch Out!- Did you ever perform on stage, here in IIT Roorkee during your college days? Also, did you ever experience stage fright, give us some tips on how to deal with it.

Vaibhav- I think first of all stage fright is something akin to flesh and bone. Every human being has it. There’s no one who does not have stage fright. There can be degrees of it. But I know for a fact, this is not debatable- that anyone going up on stage will face some fear. I’ve gone on stage more than a couple thousand times now, I think, but I still get it. I have my heartbeat racing up, you know, just feeling like- I hope I do it right. I hope I do it right over there. And if something goes wrong you feel a little panicky. It’s very human to be that way. What does help is, if you go on stage enough times the whole anxiety reduces when and if you eventually screw up. Because that’s inevitable, everyone will screw up at some point. And it’s just that if you get up on stage plenty of times you don’t completely panic at that moment and then somehow learn to handle it much better. As for your first question-No, I never did go on stage to perform stand-up in college. I remember going to the audition for the drama club but I think I was rejected. And then, later on, I found my theatre group in Calcutta which got dissolved but that’s about it. Besides, we weren’t allowed to go into any of the groups. We were boycotted in the first year-Architecture batch of 2006 was banned from any clubs. But I was fortunate- I’m actually one of a couple of people who got selected in a few groups, later on, I got especially fortunate because I was accepted by Watch out!. Along with Basketball they stood up and said they were not gonna go with this nonsense.

Watch Out!- What was the reason behind this boycott?

Vaibhav- Yeah, there was some issue regarding ragging, someone in our class had complained. It wasn’t known who had complained. A lot of seniors lost a lot of discipline marks, because of this, and action was taken against them, which could have caused a lot of damage to their careers later on. Obviously, those marks were later returned and all the drama was solved but that happened maybe five months later, so for the entire first semester, we were boycotted from the entire campus. And most of us did not end up in any group because of that. So yeah, I didn’t get a chance to perform at any of the places.

Watch Out!- Did you ever think about starting a stand-up club or something similar when in college?

Vaibhav- Honestly, I didn’t even know stand-up was an art form throughout campus life. I remember watching Russell Peters - the Uncensored Red, White and Brown specials, those really old ones from back in 2006- when he went viral. And I remember thinking that these are just one act plays where he’s just being funny. I still did not know that stand up as an art form existed. It did not even register at that time, but I guess I got my first hint during my third-year internship in Toronto. There was this ‘Just for Laughs’ festival happening. Russell Peters was performing over there in front of 10,000 people, all of whom could gather for free- it was just like Time Square in New York. And that was my first live show but it still did not register. I think it was only after college- when I saw some Indian comics perform in a bar. I went there and when I saw it, I was just so smitten by it. I was like, I have to try this, this is just insane. I still remember the four people performing- I think it was Khamba, Varun Thakur, Aditi Mittal-doing her famous Mrs. Lutchuke act, and Rajneesh Kapoor. I remember a very significant thing from that night. Tanmay Bhatt was not performing, he was just at the bar in the back of the room. And at some point, some right point- he yelled out ‘That’s what she said’, and I was blown away by that because I did not know it’s a template joke. I was just like, oh my god, what has he done!? But yeah, it was hilarious. That’s how far I was from comedy. So, I never thought about starting a club because obviously, I did not know. But once I understood that people do this for a living my first thought was that I have to do this no matter what. And then later that year after graduation when I came back to Calcutta to have an open mic session, that’s when I did it.

Watch Out!- What advice would you like to give to the newly formed stand up club here?

Vaibhav- There’s not much advice in stand up as such, there’s no crack or tricks. I feel it is pretty much straight forward, you keep getting on stage. And the only feedback you get -you see it right then and there. There’s no advice as such, people just have to keep on going, it’s a very selfish artform. You’re the director, writer, everything is yours. Only you know the downfalls, the uphills, everything. So, it’s a very personal journey. The only golden advice is -just keep getting on stage. If you don’t give up after a point you will figure out what is going wrong and how to fix it. One more advice specifically to people who’re not in Delhi, Bombay, Pune or Bangalore. Apart from these four or five major cities in India including Calcutta, Hyderabad, and Chennai if there’s anyone anywhere, I think whenever you can just go and watch stand-up in other cities, preferably Mumbai because Mumbai has the maximum number of full-time comics. And the variety is just too diverse, there are so many types of stand up comedians. I think two years back someone pointed out that Mumbai was having 25 shows every day of the weekend and this is two years back. After Mumbai, Bangalore probably comes close to that huge number. There is this common fear: people who are doing stand-up in a particular city wonder if their material would work in another city. That nervousness goes away once you do it like two or three times with different sets of audiences. If you want to become a comedian, like seriously, then you should travel. And spend maybe like, two, three days in different cities as much as you can. I used to do that every two months, I used to come down to Mumbai from Calcutta. So I’d advise the same.

Watch Out!- What are your favorite memories associated with the campus? What were your favorite hangout spots?

Vaibhav- Every evening of mine was spent at the basketball court with some of my best friends. Apart from that, Architecture has this culture of families, they’re a very well-knit community. So obviously the architecture canteen is a favorite along with Nescafe- that was my favorite place to go eat. I am a vegetarian and really loved the food at Prakash, especially their Chinese french fries. I must tell you I’ve been looking for it all over after graduating from Roorkee. I haven’t found it yet, so if anyone likes that you should have as much as you can! When I came back to Roorkee in February, I went to Prakash and just had that dish- they’re really very tasty.

Watch Out!- We have heard you don’t listen to music, what are the reasons behind this? Also, tell us about your hobbies and interests.

Vaibhav- Okay, so two parts I guess - like the first is the music thing. It’s a little odd but it’s just that I never got the hang of it, I never started listening to music in the first place. Back in school also I used to just spend all my time playing some sport or the other after school so I never really got down to listening to music as such. All the TV I ever watched was cartoons, never music, and then maybe when I could’ve found sometime later- I ended up spending 2 years in Kota. So that was that. And afterward when I came back to college I just did not have time, like I said all my time apart from the class was with basketball or with people. And I guess, I never really was inclined towards it. I’m not averse to music. Recently another comedian who was intrigued by this told me something interesting. He told me that there’s this thing that 3% of the people of the world just cannot tolerate music. It’s not like I can’t tolerate music. It’s just that I don’t have the patience or the skill to search for good music. I don’t think I’ve discovered a song which I really liked, ever, in my life. I’ve only heard songs which people have played and If I liked it, maybe I replayed it once in a while when there’s someone else and I wanted to fill in the silence. I’ve never played it for leisure. I have no idea why- it’s a puzzle. About my hobbies-most of my time actually goes into chess. It’s been about three and a half years, I’ve just been playing chess a lot. Lots of chess and basketball. Also, I watch a lot of stuff even today after having left college. I have at least five to six hours of screen time every day. I watch a lot of web series, not as many movies, but a lot of web series and also a lot of chess, basketball. Regarding hobbies, well I really don’t get time for that but I enjoy what I do! This is one of the better things about being a comedian or a content creator is that no matter what you like you can make some content out of it. Like right now chess streams are going on. I’m there almost regularly on all the shows. It’s pretty fun just watching and interacting with those people and learning a little bit about the game. Great fun.

Watch Out!- Sir, you told us you were a part of Watch Out? Which cell did you work in, and how was your experience?

Vaibhav- Yeah, I was in the design cell. There were like only three-four people back then in the design cell and just two of us from my batch. I and Pratap Singh- he used to play basketball too. So we were great buddies. But I remember like he was so proactive with everyone from WONA, whereas I, well I was left behind in Cautley while the others were all grouped in nearby bhawans. Also, there’s this one really memorable incident that had happened- primarily because our bhawan was so far off from the Archi department. I remember on the day we had to give a thesis presentation one of the guys had to carry his model, but it started raining so we called the ambulance from the IITR hospital. Literally told them there’s this fellow on the verge of dying, when the ambulance arrived we pleaded to him to help us take the model. In Watch Out! 90% 95% of people used to be in either Ravindra, Govind, Jawahar, or Azad. Cautley was sadly far away so I did not hang out as much with the people, and wasn’t very active. I was good friends with all of them, used to keep bumping into them and go to all the meetings, basically, I did hang out and chill with them quite a lot. But man, I genuinely liked and enjoyed WONA, all the people there were really fun. So I was really glad to be a part of Watch Out!.

Watch Out!- You worked as a writer in Kolkata and even assisted a director, how did this happen? Why did you not continue with the same?

Vaibhav- It was completely out of nepotism. My uncle knew this guy who owned a production house in Calcutta and he was making Bengali movies. I was doing Architecture in Calcutta for a couple of months and, as I said, I haven’t worked in any place for more than 2 months. I had to leave this job because of medical issues, I had an issue with my lower back. So, after that, I figured that I don’t want a job where I have to sit all the time. I thought I’d give this a shot and then decide whether to go back to Architecture or not. So I went to the production house and my uncle introduced me to him and I told him that “I don’t want money, I don’t want anything. I just want to see if I like doing this. Give me as much work as you can, whatever it may be”, and that’s why he gave me the task of writing horror stories for a show that he was made for TV. After that, he told me that he was making a movie and asked me if I’d like to be an Assistant Director of the movie. Although it requires a lot of responsibility, I was given the title of an AD but I never actually contributed like an AD. It wasn’t anything related to direction. It was mostly clearing people away, teaching the side characters a little, etcetera, whatever was needed at that moment. I wanted to be an actor, so I was also acting in the same movie. I played the brother of the lead actress and we shot a sequence that took an entire day in which we had to hit the hero. I had like only 5-7 minutes of screen time in the entire movie but it was super fun. The experience was really nice. It was super fun to do it. I got it only because the producer was good friends with my uncle, it was 2 - 3 months long, one month in Calcutta and one month in Pathankot, I gave it everything I had and I had this brief break during the shoot and I found stand-up at that time, and I realized that I found something really amazing. So I just gave that up and that’s how this happened.

Watch Out!- Can you tell us a little about Comedified and its inception?

Vaibhav- In hindsight what we were doing was really silly because we didn’t know what we were doing, but, when we tried stand up for the first time in Calcutta there was this one guy who was hosting shows and he used to get big acts every 2 months and he’d give 2-3 people a chance, people who were really looking forward to doing stand up, we used to be the opening act. So the first show was with Andy Zaltzman, a UK comic, and then Papa CJ, Cyrus Brocha, Vir Das. I think my third show was the opening act for Virr Das, which I don’t think anyone would get easily. So, we were doing these shows and it was incredible, but there was no exposure for us. After you’d do a show, you would have nothing to do for 2 months, no open mics, nothing. And it was difficult to deal with the guy who was hosting these shows. So the rest of us were really inclined to do more shows regularly because I kept going to Mumbai and I used to spend a lot on airfare, travel, housing, etcetera and I was running out of money. So I figured that we have to start a culture in Calcutta if we want to survive and do this seriously. We saw people uploading videos and it became a thing, that unless you put out your work you aren’t going to get exposure. So, we uploaded the first show that I did, it was 15 minutes long, it’s private now and I’m not going to reveal that in this lifetime. It’s the worst piece of stand up that I have ever seen. Very cringey. So, we started comedified because we needed some online presence so that people would start coming to our shows. We did not have the money to bring the A-listers of the comedy scene then. But we wanted to keep doing shows and wanted people to attend, so we started comedified so that we could do open mics and we were doing like 5 open mics a week. These were small venues, basically 5-7 people in a cafe. We started making an ecosystem where people could develop the art form and that’s the reason why we started comedified. We gave it a name only and only after we made a video that we wanted to release it. And we were like, “No one knows Anirban Das Gupta, Vaibhav Sethia or Sourav Gosh”, so we should just name ourselves and came up with ‘comedified’.

Watch Out!- You were a good student and you would have had a successful career. You had spent so much time,five years of your degree, and two years before that preparing for it so how difficult is it to go into something which is so starkly different from what you were doing? And how did your parents react to this?

Vaibhav- Surprise surprise! about 70% of the people who graduate from campus don’t actually practice what they study. So, it’s not that different. I wouldn’t say I was a very good student, I was a decent one. I had 3 backs in the 2 - 1, because of my attendance. 3 backs in one semester were pretty big. I wasn’t that good, I was a decent student, I never used to be the absolute last. I was fortunate because although my parents didn’t understand stand-up, they weren’t hellbent on telling me that I wasn’t allowed to do something. They were never controlling. And I am the kind of guy who does what he wants to do, no matter what. The first difficulty that I faced when making them understand was the fact that I didn’t know anything about stand-up and it’s not just me, no one did. There was no mentor as such in India at that time. Back then, like 2009, 2010, 2011, no one knew anything about stand-up. No one knew where their careers were headed and in fact, even today, after live shows, people don’t know what else they can do with stand-up. In the West, stand-up comedians have branched out into writers and they do a lot, but that’s yet to happen in India. So it was very difficult to make them understand as to where I was headed with my career because honestly, I didn’t know and I told them that I don’t know, but I like doing this so I’m going to continue doing it. Fortunately, even though they were a little pushy they never forced me to do something else. And I’m just glad that the patience paid off. The first 3 years were a little difficult because I had run out of all my savings, that’s when I started loaning money from my parents. I started paying rent to my parents because of my pride, the fact that I haven’t done anything for 3 years. I told them that this isn’t rent or anything, I’m just going to give you this although they didn’t ask me for it. I just wanted to feel more responsible and independent. Once I moved to Bombay and became financially stable they still didn’t understand stand-up but they were okay with it. Honestly, at that time I had quit about 6 jobs, so they figured they would just wait for this one out.

Watch Out!- Being an IITian, do the people associated with your work view you differently? Do you feel the experiences in college helped you?

Vaibhav- The IIT tag matters only till you want a job in the field you’ve applied for, I didn’t experience a lot of perks because of it but I’m pretty sure it does affect people. If you’re from an IIT and apply for a job, the people hiring you have already made some preconceived notions about you. And why not? You’ve worked hard to achieve your goals and if you can crack IIT, you can do wonders at something else as well. I remember applying for a couple of architecture jobs and maybe being an IITian did help there. I was rarely ever rejected, I almost got every job I ever applied for and I have a feeling the IIT tag had something to do with it. Apart from architecture, it didn’t help me anywhere else, especially not in standup. A lot of people don’t even know I’m from IIT Roorkee. So overall, I don’t think it makes much of a difference.

Watch Out!- When you started doing stand-up, where did you learn the intricacies of the field? Who were your early influences?

Vaibhav- There are a few comics who, like me, don’t watch a lot of standup. During my initial years, poverty and debt were my main inspirations laughs. I just wanted to earn some money. All I knew was I had to work hard. There was no way to learn the art of standup comedy apart from getting on stage and performing. This I had figured out early on in my career because I could see that the more I go on stage the better I feel. I was fortunate enough to have a friend Anirban who was equally passionate, had he not been there it would have made matters much worse. The first open mic we did was in a 600 seater auditorium with a 1 lakh rupees cash prize and still only three people came to participate and one of them was Anirban. The third person won. Anirban and I supported each other, we were sharing almost everything we had. During my initial years, I didn’t have any fixed role models, I used to see Indian comics perform and was always awestruck by them. They used to look so invincible up there and the whole atmosphere of the show was magical for me. So it was the setting, the atmosphere I was in love with, I didn’t know a lot of comics back then, I still don’t.

Watch Out!- How do you write a set, do you base them on the experiences you have had?

Vaibhav- Initially I used to write the entire script and learn every word, I didn’t even miss the “the”s or “a”s anywhere. I used to rehearse everything. Now, after 7 years in comedy, I can repeat sentences without any mistakes. For the past 3-4 years, I haven’t written anything or made any scripts, it’s all memory-based. I do have the video recordings for safety. Everyone has their tricks and methods to produce materials for their set, for me, it’s like when I’m in the middle of a conversation and I say something generic, sometimes I flip the thought and present it in different angles. I talk about that thought or idea nonstop, I tell my wife, friends and I test it out a few times. It took around 4 months for me to write a joke I was proud of and that was the smallest time I took to write a joke. I was working on a joke once and it wasn’t working and three years later it revives into a huge bit. It’s usually just reacting to everyday stuff, some new, interesting response to something mundane.

Watch Out!- A majority of your audience is obviously from India, and in India, there are a number of religions and different types of people. So it is highly likely that any joke that you crack, someone will be there who will take offense? How do you manage this? Are there some topics that you know that you will never touch?

Vaibhav- I don’t do jokes on Bollywood or politics, the biggest reason being I don’t know enough about them. Religion is another thing that I don’t touch, no matter how much I learn about religion if it’s not my own I’ll just end up sounding ignorant and what I say may be annoying to people, they’ll feel like I’m belittling something important to them and that is not the purpose of standup in my opinion. If someone finds a way to do it right then great. I used to do a joke on religion then I stopped after I got in some trouble. I knew I was belittling the religion but this particular joke used to get a lot of response, people loved it, but then I figured it’s not worth it. It didn’t feel nice to say those things and it had repercussions, so there was no point in doing that joke anymore. Offending people is not the purpose of standup comedy, so if something is majorly offensive, it shouldn’t be said. The fear of falling into trouble is not the reason why I don’t make jokes about religion, rather it is because I feel that offending someone is not the purpose of doing comedy. Figuring out what offends people is a confusing task but there are some basic areas which you should stay away from. I do believe in absolute freedom of speech and stand for the thought that anyone who wishes to express a particular feeling should do so. Based on the current situation people believe that anyone who speaks on a mic speaks the absolute truth. Having this responsibility of influencing others, one has to be careful.

Watch Out!- What have you been up to during this quarantine and how will your shows be affected after the lockdown period as people have to maintain social distancing?

Vaibhav- I spend most of my time cleaning and cooking along with my wife. I also do play a lot of quiz games with my friends. Talking about how my shows will be affected, after having a discussion with the people in the same industry, I have understood that standup may not resume properly until around November. The main reason for this being that the government may not allow mass gatherings for the purpose of entertainment. It has definitely been a blow for comedians like me who thrive on live shows rather than posting content on the internet. Not being able to perform live on shows may even result in some nervousness to kick in the next time I go on stage and may even take a month for things to go back normal for everyone.

Watch Out!- Tell us about your future projects and tell us what you intend to do when the quarantine ends.

Vaibhav- I am planning on releasing a video, a standup, some editing has to be done before its release. A new podcast will be released within a week, it’s around an hour and a half. I am planning on writing a story for a web series or a movie soon. Even though I worked on the first season of ‘Laakhon mein ek’ with Biswa, I lack the experience needed in this field. I will be performing a 1-hour special as soon as the lockdown ends which will be named ‘Apple is red’.

Watch Out!- A few words of advice for people reading this?

Vaibhav- I am not a very nostalgic person and I am not in touch with most of my old peers but I did love my time on campus. All the students at IIT R are very fortunate to be there. Something that I regret not doing much during my stay at Roorkee is to not visit the hill stations nearby. This is something that I would suggest the students on campus do.