It's 2007 and a crowd has filled a college auditorium in the huge, teeming city of Mumbai, India. They're there to see a young stand-up comedian from Edinburgh---a man who's never been to India and is the first English-speaking comedian to have ever performed in the country. The pressure is high: The audience doesn't know what to expect. The comedian, Danny Bhoy (not his real name), says that he didn't know, either. Despite the fact that he was a 10-year stand-up veteran who had performed at festivals all over the world, this was unfamiliar terrain. The potential to crash and burn was huge.
"It was the hardest test for me in a long time," recalls Bhoy. "These people spoke English but had never been to a comedy show before. It was exciting but terrifying."
The comedian stepped onto the stage and performed his routine of upbeat, observational humour---albeit with all swearing, sexual and religious references removed. The crowd loved it and gave him a standing ovation. Elated, Bhoy bounded backstage, waited a few beats, and came back out for what he thought would be a rousing encore. Instead, he was confronted by the sight of 800 people literally climbing over each other in their haste to reach the back exits.
"Someone told me later that no one does encores in India," Bhoy says. "He told me that the traffic is so terrible that at the end of any performance, people immediately get up and start running for their cars. It doesn't matter how good you are---they'll all leave. It was a very educational experience."
Bhoy hopes Canadian audiences will stay put during his stint with the Just for Laughs Comedy Tour, which travels coast to coast and stops in Halifax Saturday. Having faced audiences in Montreal and Vancouver on previous tours, Bhoy says Canadian audiences are more accepting of his half Scottish/half Indian background.
"I finished a show once in LA and a man came up to me and said, 'You're really funny, but you've got to drop the Scottish accent, because it doesn't work,'" Bhoy says. "It was surprising to him that this Indian guy could have an accent from Edinburgh."
Bhoy says every tour requires him to adjust his routine. In Australia many of his jokes about Scottish history were met with polite laughter, as opposed to real guffaws.
"You're just constantly changing as a comedian, seeing what's funny and what isn't," he says. Like many comedians, Bhoy has a good story about his first open-mic performance, at a pub in Edinburgh 10 years ago after seeing another guy drown onstage. "I must have left the bar seven times before I went on, just walking in and out," he says. "I was so nervous. But then it was a huge rush. Of course, I look back now and laugh at the material I was talking about----I think I spoke about World Cup soccer, animal testing, that kind of thing."
Bhoy says one of the hardest audiences to win over were his parents. "For awhile, didn't know what I was doing, which suited me fine," he says. "It was strange. My father would often tell people I was in theatre as opposed to stand-up, because he couldn't bring himself to say I was a budding comedian. For him, it was impossible to say this was a profession." Things have changed, and Bhoy's parents now go to see him perform when he's in Edinburgh.
Just for Laughs marks the first time in awhile that Bhoy has toured with a group of comedians, which includes SNL's Finesse Mitchell and Irish comedian David O' Doherty. Although many of us think a group of travelling comedians amounts to a good time, Bhoy says that sometimes it's hell.
"It's been a long time since I've waited backstage in a green room with other comedians," he says. "Everyone is looking to be the best and get the most laughs. It's an unhealthy attitude towards comedy."
Bhoy has eased the tension by piling comedy festivals onto his resume and travelling across the world at a breakneck pace. Although he dreams of "taking a month off some day," he knows it won't happen. "It's like what Ronnie Wood said about touring," he says. "The worst bit is when it stops."