“What’s your favourite vada pav place in Mumbai?” asked Russian-British comedian Olga Koch during her visit to India. We met the London-based stand-up comedian a day before her sophomore show in the Maximum City in her room at Soho House. Meeting Koch was like meeting an enthusiastic sibling who has come to India after many years. Overlooking the initial awkwardness, Koch was welcoming and talkative. “Do you want coffee or a free cookie?” she asked, gushing about her room and the amenities that came as a Soho House member.
Koch to an extent, was like an outsider to the city, but after her debut show in Mumbai last year, she felt a little closer to being an insider. “I realised that everyone here has a different favourite spot for vada pav,” she said in amusement. I gave her a recommendation she nodded, as if making a mental note to add it to her list of things to do. She told us she had almost four walking tours planned and was excited about them. After coming to Mumbai last year, she had a sense of confidence and knowingness towards the city. “Last time we went to Café Leopold. This time we will go to Mondegar, and even Jimmy Boy!” she told us and we chatted about that.
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Like last year, Koch’s return to India is part of Soho Theatre’s Cultural exchange. Unlike last time, her 2024 tour included two shows in Mumbai and one in Bengaluru. The crowd at Koch’s latest stand-up show—Prawn Cocktail—on Friday night at Habitat in Khar was not the usual kind of comedy crowd you see. There were foreigners, NRIs and an audience that preferred an English stand-up. Actor and stand-up comedian Sumukhi Suresh opened the set for the 30-year-old London-based comedian.
While some jokes did not receive the expected response after a punch line, many others were a hit among the audience. What we loved about Koch’s latest show was the strategic use of her previously recorded audio notes, as if it were a flashback in a movie. She was energetic and knew how to grip her audience. Prawn Cocktail almost made you feel sad, reflect inwards, and sympathise with her only, to be partly proven wrong.
TLM caught up with Koch before her show to understand how she manages to make Indian laugh and her love for Mumbai.
After your debut tour in India, what made you come so soon?
I loved India and Mumbai. I loved the audience and comedy scene where I felt invigorated as a creative to get my ass up and start writing again because I feel like the comics here are so hungry and so excited about comedy. I’m not going to lie, the food is superior to anywhere else in the world so in many ways I was simply hungry [laughs].
I think it [my love for food] all started with having my first ever Pani Puri with a sip of Jal Jeera, and I truly felt like time stopped. I’ve never tasted anything like that before. This was the first time my tongue has ever experienced flavour and I just never wanted it to stop because it was a huge flavour bomb.
In the UK or US you are aware but never fully realise the multiculturalism until you’re here. Multiple languages, and people from different groups living together; that’s the fabric of your daily life. I remember sitting in the back row of a comedy gig by Biswa [Kalyan Rath] and watching him switch languages as he performed stand-up. I thought that was one of the most incredible skills because I can’t even fathom doing stand-up in anything other than English, even though I speak three to four languages. I was laughing at jokes that I couldn’t understand but the cadence, the physicality, and the melody of it were funny to me. I think it made me see comedy in a completely different way.
Did you speak with any Indian stand-up comedians?
Before I came here, I was aware of Indian comics such as Vir Das and Aditi Mittal. Then I also got to know Urooj Ashfaq and Sapan Verma were opening for me so I looked at all their stuff and I was like ‘oh my god they’re so cool.’
You have studied computer science so how did comedy come to you?
I was always the class clown in school and I always valued being funny. I had to study computer science because my parents were like ‘We’re not going to pay for university if you don’t study something that you can make money off’ so I think people here [in India] also understand that. It’s a very Soviet mindset. There was no world in which I was like what if I do perform in arts they [my parents] would just simply disown me. First, I wanted to study math, and then I discovered computer science. I preferred this because it’s so clean and so logical. There was a sort of a formula approach to writing jokes; like obviously the best jokes are the ones that just come to you in the shower or randomly happen to you in real life. But when it becomes your job, you can’t just expect inspiration. There are formulas that you look at and I think when it comes to comedy where you have nothing to write about, there are formulas of jokes that you can always come back to and sort of force to write. That to me, the logic, that neatness, is very similar to computer science. Sometimes I will come up with the shape of a joke and I don’t know what the words are but I know the relationship that I want the words to have and that feels very similar to writing code on some level.
What is Prawn Cocktail about?[The name of this show comes from Koch’s love for seafood and prawn cocktails. To commemorate this love, she also got a tattoo on her leg. Koch turns 30 and besides getting a master’s degree, things happen. This show tries to encapsulate that.]
I didn’t have the time nor the intention to write a new show but then sometimes life happens. I went to a wedding in New Zealand and met a man at this wedding and we got along well. The twist in the story? He lives in New Zealand and I live in the UK so we decided to meet again after three months in Tokyo.[For the rest of the story, she urges people to watch her show and we loved the attention to detail and how this is something that could happen to anyone.]
How do you make your content seem more relatable to the audience here?
I think you need to maintain the right kind of balance. I do a few local jokes because I think that’s respectful to the audience and it’s also something I’m excited to talk about as a comic. I love the fact that there are a couple of jokes that I can only tell in Mumbai and they won’t work in London or any other city. [Koch started her set with a Blue Lays joke—a relatable amongst the audience].
Last time I was overly eager to make it [the set] local and lost sight of why would someone want to come to see me because when someone from New York or Mumbai comes to London I am excited for an outsider’s perspective. I don’t necessarily want to see an hour of a New York comic talk about London. I can find a London comic talk about London for an hour and they’re probably doing a better job because they know it better so I think I need to be aware of the fact that my value is an outside perspective and so even it will be fun and I will do jokes about Mumbai but I think that’s not necessarily why people are going come to see me.
Many stand-up comedians often rely sharing their personal life on stage as jokes; others keep their lives strictly personal. Where do you draw the line?
I simply don’t [share my personal life]. I don’t recommend it, I think it’s a terrible idea but in many ways, psychologically, I would recommend it as a strategy. I think partially Prawn Cocktail is a show that sort of deals with not being able to draw that line. There’s something about taking something sad or upsetting that happened to you and then turning it into jokes that on one hand is very empowering and you’re like I took something bad to happen to me and I took the power away from it and I made it into a good and powerful thing. But another part of it is like well maybe you should process it instead maybe you should deal with it instead of immediately turning everything into entertainment.
I think once you’re making self-deprecating jokes, you’re okay with the thing at that time. I think when you start, you will be making jokes about yourself and I think a lot of the time comedians who become comedians may have been bullied in school. So the instinct is that they make fun of themselves in an empowering and cool way before someone else does it. I don’t know if this is healthy.
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What was your impression of India and will you be using any material from here for your future sets?
Mumbai is truly the greatest city in the world and my favourite. Before coming here, there are many clichés people talk about like it is the city that never sleeps, a city of contrast and such and I always thought this is something people say about almost all cities. But for the first time in my 30 years of life, I ever felt these clichés to be true. Ever since I landed in Mumbai last year, it truly is the city that never sleeps and a city of great contrast. I want to do material about performing in India and Mumbai for my international audience. I want to perform in more cities and see more of India so I plan on coming often, if possible. Also because nothing tastes good after leaving India [laughs].