Manspeak

Funny Guy

As told to Sudha Menon
Photograph: Punya Arora

“Being a comedian has helped me discover who I am and given me a lot of self-worth”

Stand up comedian Sundeep Rao is partially blind but has made a living out of laughing at the challenges that life has thrown at him

My journey of self-discovery began on an eventful evening in January 2013 at the imposing Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore. I had been there many times; attending musical evenings and plays but this was different. I was going on stage with a couple of my friends, with Full Circle, a standup comedy act, which could make or break me. I was going in with everything that was unconventional, including the name of my group: ‘The Polished Bottoms’ and yet, we had sold 700 out of the 1,000 seats and that in itself, put the fear of God into me. If this show fell on its face, there would be no place for me to hide. I walked on stage for the closing act, my knees trembling and heartbeat roaring in my ears. When it ended, the applause from the audience was sweet music to my ears, it was like a cherished dream had come true. When I walked off stage I had tears in my eyes. I was a happy man. You might not think so, but laughter is serious business and for me it had been a rocky road, with lots of ups and downs. Ever heard of a blind stand-up comedian? That was me and I had never thought my life would take such a twist! Not that I was ever deterred by my situation from trying out anything new.’

Settling down
‘I started gradually losing my vision due to juvenile macular degeneration at the age of eight, a condition that normally affects an aging population. I was very angry with life and I took out all of that rage on my parents, blaming them for my misfortune. My mom was my scapegoat because she was the one who was always around and she would take it all. But eventually that rage settled and I went back to being the active child that I was. Mom pushed me to do things, such as playing the piano and today, it is one of the things that I turn to when I am stressed or when I want to relax. Tennis, cricket, volleyball, basketball… I did all of that, sometimes getting hit on the face with the ball but nothing deterred me. For five years I learnt golf and at the age of 14, I thought I was good enough in the game and even signed up for a golfing contest.  No one was surprised when I came last in the contest but I got the most applause because they appreciated my courage to be there on that golf course despite my impaired vision.’

Reality Bites
‘Things happen in our life that impact us deeply, change our worldview and remain with us for a long time. At the age of 16, when I was in the tenth grade, I won a toughly-fought election to become the Games Captain in my school. My euphoria over the fact that every single vote had been cast in my favour was short-lived when the teacher announced that I could not be the sports captain because I was blind. It was a terrible disappointment. That’s also the time I realized there’s no point in competing in any mainstream activity because however eligible I was, someone would point out my disability and say I was not capable of doing it. ‘Maybe, this was what nudged me in the direction of a more unconventional vocation. But I have great memories too, of the kindness that I was surrounded by when my world seemed to be fading away, bit by bit. In those days my life was an endless round of hospital visits, CT scans, opinions, second opinions and with all manner of interns pushing and poking in my eyes to figure out what was wrong.’

Gelos’ meltdown
‘The year I turned 18, I had my first meltdown. That was the time my friends were starting to drive, buying cars and motorcycles and I realized I would never get to drive at all. That was the first time I broke down, bemoaning my misfortune and cursing my blindness. That was the point my dad offered to buy me a go-kart. In fact, he called up a manufacturer and asked if he could buy a go-kart for his visually impaired son. Of course, we never bought one but the fact that he wanted to do it was enough for me and I love him for it. The good thing is that today I don’t remember the days when my eyesight was good. In fact, I have made my peace with it and can talk about my blindness and poke fun at myself, like I do in my solo act, Out Of Sight. The story of that act itself started a couple of years ago, during a time when I was utterly bored with life, thanks to successive job assignments that did little for either my morale or bank balance. I had worked in an advertising agency writing jingles, had joined an internet radio station where I had thought I’d get to do my own show but ended up doing terrible radio ads on air and I worked in the internal communications department of an IT firm. None of them appealed to me.’

Turning point
‘Around this time a friend of mine told me about comedian Vir Das and his ‘Hamateur Nights’. Anybody could go in and put up an act in a two-minute slot. “Why don’t you do a two-minute spot?” he asked me because I used to be the group clown. I used to watch a lot of shows; George Carlin, Mitch Hedberg and Eddie Izzard and when I saw this opportunity, I thought I would give it a try. Not knowing this would be my career and my passion in the years to come. My first shot at comedy was more like a nightmare. I had written a two-minute skit with great enthusiasm and delivered it with all my heart. Sadly, nobody in the audience saw the humor. Ditto the second and the third time. Nobody understood the stuff I was referring to in my act. I walked onto the stage for the fourth time and spoke about the state of Bangalore’s roads and cracked lame jokes about drunk people and suddenly people in the audience were nodding their heads, laughing and clapping. I had cracked it! All the fear in my mind disappeared and I realized I loved the attention and that I wanted to be on stage more than ever.’

Snap! You’ve got mic
‘My opportunity arrived in 2010 when the owner of a restaurant I used to frequent asked me if I would like to put up a show. I was terrified at the thought because all I had done until then were small slots. Coincidentally, I ran into Sanjay Manaktala, a friend of mine who had moved from the US on a project with his company. We met at a restaurant where there was an open mic happening and we realized that both of us were interested in doing snap comedy. The result of that meeting was our first ever twosome, Snap Night, in which I performed for 23 very long minutes at Bacchus. We took everything seriously for this debut – got ourselves a funny name, put up posters, summoned friends and family and made sure the place was full and that we looked like really cool comedians. It was a small beginning but somehow the success of that night gave me confidence. That was over six years ago. When I look back it seems almost unreal that I pulled it off for the longest time without ever letting my audience know that I was partially blind. I did not want to be pitied or stereotyped as the blind guy who does comedy. I knew I could be funny, despite my blindness. For the longest time, I did every kind of joke, but nothing that was related to my vision.’

A new ground
‘For almost a year I’d rehearse to the point where I knew every word in my act. I would know exactly how many steps to take to get to the centre of the stage, where my props were kept and how many men and women were seated on the front row. It was scary because so many things could go wrong. I managed nevertheless, but the flipside was that my act sounded too scripted, and irrespective of who the audience was, I wouldn’t change the jokes. But as I got more confident on stage, I realized that sometimes you need to adapt, take a chance, and try something new in style of delivery or body language. It was a risk worth taking and today I am more confident of getting into an act without everything scripted in advance. Four years ago, I realized that I was ready to talk to my audiences about my blindness. My solo, ‘Out Of Sight’ took a long time to come but this act is a coming of age for me and it is all about my personal trials and tribulations as a blind person in our country. In a way, talking about my blindness is liberating. Almost therapeutic. I can talk about anything at all, including the dangers of a blind man going out on a date. I end up with the wrong person—sometimes even a longhaired man instead of a woman with raven locks! Humour is the easiest thing to diffuse any situation.’

Laughter the best respect
‘In the past, I have been aggressive, got into fights when malicious comments were made about my condition but now I know that comedy is a lot easier. If you crack a joke, even if it is a bad joke, no one gets hurt at the end of it. Before stand-up comedy, alcohol was my retreat from uncomfortable situations. I was drinking and then getting up on some random stage, taking the mic and making a clown of myself till one day I realized how disrespectful I was being to myself. I wanted to be on stage but not as a drunken clown. That was when standup comedy became a life-saver. Today, I’m actually being respected for what I’m saying. When I go up on stage, the audience laughs at the jokes, but they also identify with them.’

Finding the truth
‘We all come to a turning point in life when things change. For me, there were two things. One was going abroad for my studies. It was one of the most exciting phases of my life. I don’t know how much sociology I studied in the US, but away from the protective care of my family, I learnt to fend for myself. It was tough initially to present what I had studied, rationally explain it and defend my position from what I had understood about the subject. It made me independent. One of the other things that changed my life is my discovery of audiobooks. I was gifted a couple of audio books a few years ago and I was hooked, not just because I got to know about some fine stories but because I was fascinated by the way the narrators used their voice to convey so many things, changing their pitch, inflection or intonation. It taught me a lot that I now use in my comedy acts. I became an ardent follower of audiobooks in my early 20s and eight years later, I am at a stage when I go through at least four books a month. If I ever get my sight back, my dream job is to be a narrator for audio books.’

An inspired life
‘Today, more than anything, I have come to a point when I find my own life inspiring. There are times when I get disheartened looking at other people who are more successful, other comedians getting more shows and recognition, but then I ask myself: “Where were you all those years back when you came back from the US? You were drinking too much, being obnoxious. You were getting on stage for the first time and were petrified of doing a two -minute slot. Today you are doing your own solo act, talking about your life for an entire hour and opening up to strangers about your flaws and your experiences as a disabled person.” I am very different today from the person I used to be. My parents used to think that I was just fooling around when I initially started but one evening they came in for a show and realized I’m actually not a bad stand-up comic at all. Today they are among my biggest supporters.’

A journey of rediscovery
‘There are times when I wake up and don’t feel funny. Some days I have a really terrible show and don’t get a single laugh, and wonder if I made a wrong decision in following the path of comedy. But within the deepest corner of my heart, I know that comedy is what helped me find myself. I always wanted to please people, because I thought I’d done something wrong by going blind, I ended up being a perpetually apologetic person, saying: “Oh, I’m so sorry,” even if I tripped on someone’s foot. If the same thing were to happen today, I’m more likely to say: “Excuse me, your leg is in the way and I am the blind person around here!” I’m less apologetic, less keen to please people. I’m more of myself now. Being a stand-up comedian has really helped me discover who I am.’

On my own
‘Now, I have an opinion of my own and a lot of self-worth. I am at peace with the fact that some people might like me, others might not. I don’t have to always be the comedian in the group anymore because I am not starved of attention. I get a lot of that on stage. I get recognized for being a person who has a valid and funny opinion on things. But more than the comedy aspect of it, my blindness has made me a better person. Angry, maybe frustrated sometimes, unreasonable sometimes but also someone who has learned to be humble and sensitive. Marriage has changed me in many ways, given me more reason to find things to be happy. Each day that I see Nivi and the bond that she has forged with my parents, I thank my stars that we got together. I am in a great place right now. I don’t have the kind of money that other comedians might be making but I am enjoying life like never before. We have traveled to 12 countries in the 18 months that we have been married and I can see a lot more of traveling happening. I am performing on international platforms and having fun while making the world laugh.’ What more can a guy ask for?

    

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