Learning to speak comedy is difficult in itself. Add in performing it in your second language and without the support of family and old friends, and you have the complications endured by this week’s interview subject, Anjan Biswas.
A comedian and show promoter, Biswas navigated his way through the Boston comedy scene one joke at a time. Working tirelessly to find stage time for himself, as well as for local and nationally touring comedians including Roastmaster Jeff Ross, he’s helped to create CitySide Comedy, one of the best-known and successful independent weekly shows in Boston.
Get to know Biswas before he locks an audience in a small room and records the whole thing.
You came to this country for school. Was that a daunting life experience moving to a new place, speaking a different language, with no family or friends?
I grew up speaking English and watching American and British TV shows, so language wasn’t a huge transition for me. East Asian humor is, however, a lot more brash, brazen, and insensitive than the stuff people in first-world cities indulge in. The things we’d say to each other on the playground were brutal but meaningless at the same time. There’s this massive separation between what you say and what you do. You could say literally anything. That’s not so much the case here. Words have distinct value. I made a lot of faux pas. I still make faux pas. Learning is both fun and painful.
You had some high exposure early in your comedy career when you were a contestant on a contest for Comedy Central Asia. What was the process of getting into that?
At some point in 2013, the comedy boom was reaching Asia and Viacom had opened its Comedy Central Asia branch. A Viacom executive saw me have a good set at this club, Comedy Masala in Singapore, and approached me with a business card. I was sure I was about to get a special. But I got two minutes on a comedy competition called “Make Me Laugh” instead. “American-Idol”-style, buzzer-judges. The judges were comic friends of mine, so as you can expect, I got buzzed.
You’ve been fortunate enough to perform internationally. What are some of the differences you’ve experienced between comedy in the USA and other countries?
Comedy on the American coasts is very self-conscious. It constantly checks and re-checks itself. It’s that way in other countries too, but I think the industry here has much higher standards for what is and isn’t okay to say. Sometimes I’ll chat to audience members from the UK, and they’re very proud of how British audiences are much more open to the idea that an ostensibly offensive bit is intended to be ironic or satirical. I hate to agree with Brits on anything, but that is sort of true.
I do think American audiences and the industry will eventually relax and enjoy a bit of raunchy satire when the country makes like the British and finally accepts itself as an empire in decline. Oh the art we’ll see then!
American comedy writing, on the other hand, is a lot more incisive and clinical than anywhere else I’ve performed. In Asia, you can get away with a lot of affected flair and hackery and still have a great career. You can’t do that here.
The parents of a lot of immigrant comedians are appalled when they learn their child wants to become a performer. Did your parents react similarly, or were they supportive?
Honestly, I didn’t tell them. It was enough of an issue that I wasn’t majoring in computer science or [studying to be a doctor]. We still haven’t spoken about it, but I think they know by now. They’ve calmed down on a lot of their standards for me as they get older, and more used to me disappointing them. That’s my best advice to immigrant kids—keep disappointing your parents. Eventually they’ll get used to it.
You’ve held a lot of jobs over the years to support your comedy career. What makes cluemaster at an escape room different from the rest?
At this point in my life, I’ve done a bit of everything, and it’s the first genuinely interesting job I’ve had. People who come to the escape room are always trying to peek behind the control room’s Wizard of Oz-esque curtains to see what goes on during their games. It’s all very mysterious. On the flip, as a cluemaster, I can see and hear everything they’re doing and saying while they try to solve puzzles. I see and hear a lot of nutty stuff.
Have you found parallels between doing standup and being a cluemaster?
Both require you to be an engaging public speaker, but that’s about it. Being a cluemaster has a lot more in common with theater, preserving the front-stage while running around frantically backstage trying to make sure the production doesn’t fall apart. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to work against the clock fixing a puzzle in one room while a team is in the room next door actively trying to solve a puzzle that would get them into the room I’m in.
Who works at an escape room?
The people are who run escape rooms are incredibly quirky and have a ton of fun. Some of it is at your expense. A large chunk of escape room clientele is corporate team building, so every day I meet people my age with mortgages and 401Ks while my coworkers and I bonk each other on the head with plastic swords and talk about weird online sex communities.
Working at an escape room has also been the least heteronormative job environment I’ve ever worked. Very few straights. Someone made a joke the other day they’d been trapped in the closet by straight people for so long that now they spend their life professionally trapping straight people in slightly-larger closets. It’s a funny sort of power.
ANJAN BISWAS’S ONE-MAN SHOW, CLUEMASTER: STORIES FROM THE ESCAPE ROOM. FRI-SAT, APRIL 19 – 20 AT MOOYAH BURGERS, 140 TREMONT STREET, BOSTON. OR SEE HIM EVERY MONDAY WITH CO-HOST SAM IKE AT CITYSIDE COMEDY IN CLEVELAND CIRCLE.