‘Comics Used to Get Offended By the Audience’: An Interview with Comedian Paul Chowdhry

Ahead of his show at the Portsmouth Guildhall, record-breaking stand-up comic Paul Chowdhry talks to Lucy Nother about cancel culture, racism and the liveliness of Portsmouth comedy crowds.

Given what’s happened over the past couple of years, we’re all in dire need of a good laugh. Paul Chowdhry is the man to deliver just that. You might recognise him from comedy shows such as 8 Out of Ten Cats and Live at The Apollo, but his success is not limited to television; he was the first British-Asian comedian to sell out Wembley Arena, and won multiple awards for his Amazon Prime special stand up, Live, Innit. Following on from these triumphs, Paul is touring the UK this autumn, stopping in at the Guildhall this Friday.

Lucy Nother: How was returning to a live audience after the pandemic?

Paul Chowdhry: Obviously, live entertainment was one of the last industries to open up, so I wasn’t even sure if I could tour this year. You shouldn’t really take it for granted anymore because it can quite easily be taken away. This is the first time in my lifetime – and even post-World War II – that the theatres have been closed. I’ve been doing this since 1998 and I never thought of it as something that could be taken away.

How did the pandemic affect your writing process?

I carried on writing. It was a difficult time for everyone. I made a lot of online content, did a few live videos and such that a lot of comics were doing, but it’s not the same as performing on a stage. Stage performance is a very specific craft. Lots of people can become YouTube stars now, but there is only a handful of people that can perform well live. It’s almost like acting in a soap opera in comparison to performing Shakespeare on stage. There’s a craft to joke writing.

You’ve done some acting yourself.

I did theatre earlier on and more recently I’ve done TV and film. I did Cruella with Emma Stone and The Cleaner with Greg Davies and Helena Bonham Carter. I took a break from comedy to be a regular in Devils, which we’ve just wrapped on season 2 with Patrick Dempsey. It was a great experience, very different to doing live stand-up.

Have you noticed a difference in the crowd’s energy since the last pre-pandemic tour you did?

I’ve noticed quite a difference in sensibilities of audience members. This show is called the ‘Family Friendly Comedian’ tour, which plays upon cancel culture, the do’s and don’ts within the realms of acceptability of material. I personally don’t put politics within my comedy. I don’t think it’s a comic’s place to be political. I tend to stay in the middle where I make jokes from both sides; I’m not there to put a political agenda across. Certain comedians – I’m not going to name names – have changed their style because it’s not fashionable anymore to be considered controversial. I’m not going to pull out my most contentious piece of material on Twitter, for example, because you’re not going to see the nuance, the delivery or style of how I’m saying it. I save that for the performance on stage. The audience is a lot more sensitive now. I’m not saying that’s wrong – when I was growing up, I’d see comedians such as Bernard Manning use the P-word or N-word on the television, for the sake of a so-called joke. I don’t go spewing racial hatred towards the audience.

How has the scene changed over the years?

When I started there was no diversity in the entertainment industry. Now, the BBC has diversity quotas they have to fill. For example, Ghostbusters wouldn’t have had an all-female remake in 2003. Also, audiences seem to be more polite nowadays. Comics used to get offended by the audience. Now the audience gets offended by the comics.

And that’s played a part in your material as well.

It’s an attack on racists. I talk about race because it’s an area I think should be broken down and understood; it’s important to understand each other. The more people understand each other’s cultures and backgrounds and what we’re saying, the less discrimination there’ll be in life. Unfortunately, politicians don’t tend to talk about different racial or cultural backgrounds because they’re nervous about it.

You host your own podcast – did that come about during the pandemic, or was it something you had wanted to do for a while?

I wrote it when I was living in Rome for six months shooting Devils. I came up with an idea about life-changing experiences. I’d wanted to do it a while ago, but I just didn’t have time, so the pandemic seemed like the right moment. It was called ‘Life Changing’, but coincidentally another podcast named ‘Life Changing’ was released a week before ours was, so that’s how it got renamed to ‘Paul Chowdhry’s Pudcast’.

Is there a difference between live stand up shows and comedy for television?

Comedy shouldn’t really be on TV. It’s like watching a live music concert on TV – it isn’t quite the same. It’s nice to watch, and these shows a good for [the comedian’s] exposure, but the real comedy is in the room, [the audience] sat there for an hour and a half, having that experience of the of the live event. These TV shows have been cut down. They’re filmed for three and a half, four hours and then cut down to 27 minutes.

How about new comedians? How is the scene for them?

Well back in the day, entertainers would play theatres and the crowds, and end up with a TV show that way. It doesn’t work like that anymore. Comedians are scouted from 10 minutes of good material then put on a panel show. Then they’ll be told to go out on the road, but they won’t have the material yet. Which is unfortunate because you tend to burn out those acts that could potentially be amazing in a couple of years, but you’ve already burned up all the material because you wanted them for a TV show.

Will you have any free time in Portsmouth to see the city?

I’m quite familiar with Portsmouth. I’ve been coming since the early 2000s, playing a lot of the comedy clubs down there. I always seemed to play when the crowds had been drinking. I remember the last time I played in Portsmouth my hour and a half set took me two hours to complete because of the hecklers.

Are you expecting that this time?

I hope not! But I’m not the kind of act to ignore it. I tend to play up to it and go in quite strong. The Guildhall is an incredible venue. I know there’s not much else in the area of that size, so we’ll probably have crowds from Portsmouth and Southampton. That’s the only thing I’m afraid of – you mention Southampton, and everyone starts booing. This time they’ll all be in the same room.

I hope they behave themselves for you.

Yeah, I hope so too. I’m really looking forward to the show, especially because of my years playing Portsmouth in the past. I like going to back to places because you build up a following over the years. If I performed to a room of 200 people one night, and five come back to see me again, they tend to stick with me – that’s how I built my fanbase, just being on the road for so many years. But I’m excited for the challenge. I think they’ll be a very lively audience.

Catch Paul live at the Portsmouth Guildhall on Friday 12th of November. Tickets available from Ticketmaster.com. You can also find ‘Paul Chowdhry’s Pudcast on Spotify and other major streaming services.

Image courtesy of Avalon.