An Interview with HK’s Funniest Person: Vivek Mahbubani

By on October 20, 2013

Stemming from the roots of India, and finding his home in Asia’s World City, popular comedian Vivek Mahbubani emulates the personality of a true HK Yanto Yan. Commonly known as Hong Kong’s funniest person, he has enthralled his Chinese and English-speaking audiences to no end, while also balancing his left-brained investments of developing and designing websites. Read on as we catch up with one of the rising stars of our generation…

Vivek Mahbubani

How did you get into the profession of comedy?

In Aug/Sept 2007, I saw an article in the local newspaper South China Morning Post that there was a stand up comedy competition and I’d always wanted to give stand up comedy a try so I figured this was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. I joined the competition, loved the feeling of making people laugh and then just kept at it.

Who is your inspirational role model?

I grew up watching people like Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and lots of other comedy legends. I was always fascinated when someone could simply hold a microphone and captivate an audience with nothing but funny stories.

What is your greatest challenge when performing comedy?

Understanding what type of an audience we’re dealing with so I can work out my routine that fits the audience. After all, comedy’s all about relating to the audience and taking them on a journey with your words.

How do you prepare & motivate yourself for performing?

I usually like watching the crowd once the show starts to have a better idea of the diversity of the audience (age, gender, ethnicity, etc.), it allows me to better understand them. Then I like to go over my material and see which bits I think would best suit the show and prepare my opening bit and let the comedy Gods lead me to whatever is funny once I’m on stage. Before getting on stage, it’s important to me to just let go of everything else I have and make sure I focus my attention and energy to nothing but the show and my performance, it’s like psyching myself into a mental state where my brain is tuned to everything funny.

How do you calm your nerves before performing?

Nerves are a good thing, it reminds me that I still care and gets me excited and ready to go on stage. However, I always remind myself that all that matters is that both the audience and myself have fun. I recall all the good shows I’ve had and just go for it. It’s like bungee jumping, the hardest part is hopping off the edge but usually the best way to deal with it is to take it out of your head and just go for it, once you’re off the cliff, nerves are the least of your worries.

What’s your biggest dream (as a comedian)?

I guess it would be a dream come true if I could be amongst the comedians I grew up watching and admiring. To be able to perform alongside people like Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Burr, Kevin Hart and then have a beer after the show. That would do it for me.

How much of comedy is scripted / impromptu?

It’s hard to say because I very much enjoy improvising with the crowd and the key isn’t about having a fixed balance but reading the crowd properly to see what they are enjoying more. Some crowds want crowd work more than material and you have to listen to them and go with it. I’ve had shows where my full set was 99% material and 1% improvised because the audience was expecting to watch a performance, yet at some parties, the crowd wants to be played with. I definitely try to incorporate some improvised stuff to keep things unique to each show and keep it fresh for myself as well.

Vivek Mahbubani

What is your favorite, or most popular, joke (by you)?

I asked my chain-smoking vegetarian Uncle why he didn’t eat meat, he puffed his cigarette twice and said “For health reasons”

How important is audience reaction(s)?

That is key for a comedian. An audience that isn’t responsive breeds a low energy comedian because it’s a give-and-take show. When the audience is having a good time, it creates a certain momentum to the show and once the ball of laughter is rolling, the whole show benefits.

How does comedy differ in English & Cantonese – both, as a performer, and as an audience? & How easy is it to make the transition?

As a performer, you have to learn to manipulate the languages because there are cultural differences in the way they work. For example, sarcasm doesn’t translate very well in Cantonese, so you have to adjust yourself. The audience also differs because of cultural differences. For example, A local Chinese audience is used to being a bit more passive where the performer does the show and the audience watches, so crowd work takes more effort to get started, whereas heckling is highly unlikely because it’s not a common thing to have. It’s not so much a transition, it’s more like a mental switch, kind of like comparing blues music to metal music. There is a lot of overlap from a musical point of view, but you have to learn to craft your melodies to fit that genre.

You have investments and businesses in other industries, like maintaining & designing websites – how easy, or challenging, is the process of balancing multiple roles?

I consider them refreshing swaps. My life as a web designer/developer allows me to wear a more logical hat where things are bit more black-and-white and my biggest worries are deadlines. Whereas with comedy, everything is a grey area and the most important time is the short period you have on stage. When I’m working on websites, it’s like I’m playing to a computer and it responds exactly the same way each time whereas with comedy, the same material may kill tonight and totally bomb tomorrow. It keeps things fresh so I’m never stuck with one hat and mindset only.

If ever you were to choose between them, which would you pick?

That’s a very hard choice because they fulfill two different parts of my life. Kind of like having two kids with different personalities. Too much of either one isn’t good, but they balance each other out. So I don’t see myself giving up either one because it keeps me sane in many ways.

How’s it like to be your own boss?

It sucks. I lose out on a lot of fun gossip and it’s tough disciplining yourself all the time. As much as it’s annoying at times, I enjoy the ability to be in control of my life as my own boss. So every action I make has a direct reaction to my future. Work hard today and reap the rewards later. It keeps me motivated to keep going, but I sure could use a bit of gossip to keep things fun.

What does it take to become a successful comedian?

The ability to observe your world in an interesting way and see things many people may miss and find a funny angle to present it. A great comic also knows how to listen to the crowd because ultimately that’s what matters. If an audience is roaring with laughter, the last thing you want to do is try to talk over them, whereas if an audience is quiet, you have to supplement that with higher energy to keep the momentum of the show strong.

What’s the best advice you’ve given, or gotten, for aspiring comedians & performers?

Steve Martin’s quote: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

For more information on Vivek, check out:

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Suraj Samtani

Born and brought up in Hong Kong, Suraj explores the depth of his Indianised experiences of Hong Kong through his writing. As an awarded poet and published academic writer, he looks forward to turning a new page with his innings at HKYantoYan.

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