Crossing Times Square on perhaps the coldest, windiest night of the year to see an Indian comedian, I wished I was in Delhi. Ears frozen, I arrived not knowing what to expect. Billed as the 'Chris Rock of India,' I anticipated a somewhat raunchy show with a South Asian edge. What I was not expecting was an actual story - a deeply personal narrative that was so appropriately entitled Naked. I experienced the phenomenal Broadway debut of Papa CJ.
Papa CJ defies Indian stereotypes. He is a world-class global comedian whose material can be related to by any audience in the world, regardless of age, ethnicity or background - definitely not an 'Indian stand-up comedian.' He is an actor, a comedian, of South Asian decent. His wit is universal.
Papa CJ is a spellbinding storyteller and his performance is so much more than comedy. On Broadway, Papa CJ bared not only his body, but his soul.
Receiving two standing ovations in the single show, Papa CJ delivered a powerhouse performance that left many men in the audience including myself in tears. The audience, consisting of multiple nationalities, was extremely receptive to both his humor and his tales of hurt and pain. Carolines on Broadway has not seen many shows like this.
South Asian men are more reluctant to share their feelings than American guys. In his show, Papa CJ speaks of the searing pain in his life - in a hysterical manner. As he takes off his mask, he also takes off his clothing. Many of my friends were in the audience including the head of the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC), Aroon Shivdasani. All joined me in falling out of our seats.
As he shares with the audience his painful existence, he slowly reveals his psyche as well as his soul. Naked is a tale, which through the vehicle of his life describes various facets, emotions, trials and tribulations of the human, universal experience.
I had met CJ at the Light of Indian Awards at the Waldorf years ago and written about him here - and I was wondering how time had treated him. He had been funny then - was he even funnier today?, I wondered. (The answer to that question is 'yes' in case you're wondering.)
Papa CJ performs Naked at Lyric Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Photo: Papa CJ.
The idea behind Naked is that as human beings we build metaphorical walls around ourselves that protect us from the outside world and sometimes even from ourselves. These walls hide our deepest hopes and fears. In this show, one brick at a time he removes these walls, exposing himself with all his vulnerabilities and all his pain. This is clearly both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. At the end of it, when he is completely naked, he has nothing to hide or hide behind and therefore becomes completely free.
I spoke with Papa CJ after the show and he told me:
Naked is a show that comes to you when you are ready for it. It is not something you can wake up one morning and decide to create. I could not have performed this show five years ago because I doubt I would have had the skills or emotional ability to do justice to a show like Naked five years ago.
It is a show that at times involves talking about deeply intense and personal topics and yet as a performer requires you to be entertaining, interesting and funny without trivializing the issues or misrepresenting the depth of emotions - that is a very, very fine line.
The boundary that we comedians are slow to cross are the boundaries that exist within our own minds i.e. talking about things that make us uncomfortable. That is what I'm enjoying doing with Naked.
Looking inwards and delving deep into chapters of my own life has allowed me to create a show that makes my audience emotionally connect with me in a way that I've never witnessed before. I'm really enjoying that connection. Audiences personally identify with the narrative of Naked and while all of them laugh, some of them cry and a few even walk out looking at their own lives with fresh eyes.
Naked is very different to anything I have done before. While comedy forms the bulk of the show, I prefer to call it a multi-genre theatrical production. Unlike the stand-up I've done in the past, Naked has a narrative. Drama, poetry, storytelling, music, dancing, comedy, tragedy and hope are some of the elements that comprise this show.
Unlike my usual stand-up where I am susceptible to getting carried away with audience interaction for ages, in Naked I have to curb that natural instinct a little because I have a story that I'm there to tell. I still chat with the audience of course, but not with reckless abandon!
Papa CJ has performed over 2,000 shows in 19 countries. He was the winner of both Asia's Best Stand-up Comedian Award and India's Best Comedian Award, as well as a finalist on America's Last Comic Standing. Forbes has called him "the global face of Indian stand-up," and Toastmaster International dubbed him "one of the most influential comedians around the world."
CJ is big with corporate clients as well. He has performed for the likes of Audi, Adidas, Citibank, CISCO, Coca-Cola, Google, Lufthansa, Nokia, Oracle, Unilever, Vespa and Volkswagen.
Papa CJ is more than a comic. With an MBA degree from Oxford University,
he is extremely talented - a true thought leader and global citizen.
Photo: Papa CJ/Pravin Talan.
Papa CJ is so much more than a comic. With an MBA degree from Oxford University, he is indeed extremely talented - a true thought leader and global citizen. He frequently works with companies and educational institutions as a motivational speaker and executive coach as well. Last month he was invited to speak at Harvard Business School. In addition to working with executives on public speaking skills and speech writing, he also talks about what management and marketing can learn from stand-up comedy.
The author and the comedian. Photo: Papa CJ.
Papa CJ, Stand-up Comedian | www.papacj.com
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