The trouble when you become an early success in life is, people think it comes easy to you. That you were born gifted, that you had to do nothing, but grow up and take that gift and live happily ever after. Wrong, wrong, and wrong, Kenny Sebastian will tell you. Kenny or Kenneth’s date of birth is on the Internet. December 31 1990. He has just turned 25. Only so old and he has been a success story for years now.
No, he was not this wonder kid who became Doogie Howser at 16. Kenny, like most others, grew up without much idea of what he was going to become. And he had to really work his way up to become what he did in the end — one of the most popular stand-up comedians in the country.
It is easy to form a picture of what his life has been from all that’s on the Internet — his college days learning visual arts, his love for music and movie making, and of course his popular stand-up acts. But then you dig further, and from somewhere, pick out a Kerala connection.
Kenny Sebastian is a Malayali, born to Pala parents, and grew up in different parts of the country. “My dad was in the Navy so we travelled the whole country before he retired. It is in the summers that I visited Kerala.
That was my only Kerala connection, that and going for the Malayalam Mass every Sunday,” he says in a call from Mumbai. That’s where he is now, giving directions in Hindi to a driver as we speak. Languages — Hindi, English and Malayalam — come easy to him. To his mom, he speaks in Malayalam, and to his dad, it is English. His shows are in English, with a tad of Hindi thrown in here and there.
In Kochi, when he had a show in March, the opening music had been from old Prem Nazir movies, which his dad used to play every morning at home, and the opening joke, about his Malayali uncles and grandfathers. But what he says on the stage depend on the audience. Kenny looks at the people waiting to hear his jokes, and makes quick decisions on what to use, what not to. People can be sensitive and India is a place where nearly everything is censored.
Long ago, he had decided not to crack sex jokes or use cuss words. Not that he is scared, but he likes people to enjoy his shows with their parents. His friends had told him how they watch it with families. That kind of thing could make him uncomfortable. He recounts a time he did an improve standup in Mumbai and was making slightly inappropriate jokes. “Suddenly I heard a three-year-old girl in the audience. The parents were fine. But it threw me off. I had just visited my little niece and nephew two days ago.”
Not that it’s always been a comfortable place, to be up on a stage cracking jokes, and expecting — waiting — for laughs every three seconds. “In school, I had very bad stage fear. I consciously made an effort to get over it, by putting myself on stage, volunteering to make speeches.” Once that was set he found his love for the camera. “It was in my 11th grade when I got a friend’s handycam. I instantly fell in love with it and wanted to do films.” His dad, obviously, asked him to finish his studies.
So four years later, Kenny had a degree of visual arts with him. But even in college he discovered his taste for stand-up. “It was at the Mood Indigo festival at IIT. There was a stand-up comedy competition, which I took part and won. The whole feeling of watching people laughing and enjoying, I never felt like that before.” He went on Facebook, found more kindred souls who were sweet to take him along for shows. There was also filmmaking on the side. But once college ended, he was sure which way to go.
Even now he paints, plays music — but all of that to help with his comedy. On stage he sometimes picks a guitar and makes impromptu songs. “I do improv shows, it is a big part of my act.” Kenny has now teamed up with comedian Naveen Richards to write and direct a web series on three South Indian guys in space, called Star Boyz which is being released on YouTube.
It’s been a long six years since he began and Kenny has travelled through the US, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Dubai with his comedy. Even now, he practises a joke 50 times before going on stage. It takes a lot of work to develop and fine tune the jokes and make them perfect. “My biggest fear still is about audiences not laughing.” But after a thousand stages one can safely say, oh they’ll laugh, Kenny, they’ll laugh.