Not too long ago, before he had tasted stardom, Kapil Sharma performed at intimate social gatherings and parties to earn a living. On one occasion, he was invited by a Tamilian businessman to regale his guests at a ceremony where his teen daughter was made to wear her first-ever half-sari. At the time, Sharma had just emerged victorious in The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (2009), one of nine reality television shows he has won. The hall rented for the function was fitted with two elevated platforms facing each other. The religious customs were performed on one, while the other was reserved for the entertainers. In his trademark style, which the nation has now come to adore, Sharma belted out his “Punjabi-flavoured jokes”. Sadly, they fell flat. The largely NRI audience was not tickled by his humour. “Not a single person was listening to me. I was sweating with nervousness. I was sure my employers would refuse to pay me for doing such a bad job. But then Sunidhi Chauhan went on to perform after me and she got an even worse response. There was also a magician from Moscow. Somehow people liked him. I think he managed to impress the girl’s chacha,” he says wistfully.

He is relieved to have put such incidents behind him. “Once people start liking you, they listen to everything you say,” says Sharma. After this rather hurtful experience, he is chuffed about garnering a robust fan following in south India. “My show in Hyderabad was a super-duper hit. Even Sania Mirza’s family couldn’t get tickets easily. And in Bangalore, I performed on the same day as the Sunburn festival. Still, there was such a crowd that they moved the show from a stadium to an open-air venue and even printed more tickets. But I did not get any extra money for that,” he says.

The boss

It’s close to 9pm. Sharma has just started his day. He sprints into his office in his grey hooded sweatshirt, track pants and a black cap that covers most of his face. His office is a duplex apartment in suburban Mumbai that has been converted into a workspace. In the living room, a team of young writers animatedly discuss the script for the next episode of Comedy Nights with Kapil, currently the most watched non-fiction show on television. In the third week of February, Comedy Nights (with 8.4 TVM) was the fourth most watched show on Indian television, ahead of India has Got Talent 5. A young assistant peers into her laptop, announcing embarrassing facts about the actors coming on the next day’s show, while someone jots these down on a large white board. The meeting is interrupted by Sharma’s arrival. They queue up to hug him in turns, even though it has been only a couple of hours since they last met. “I just got up from sleep. I usually shoot through the night and sleep during the day,” he says, as he enters a room with ‘Boss’ carved in bold letters on its door.

Inside, three visitors are comfortably sprawled across a leather couch. “Please meet my college friends from Amritsar,” he tells me, adding, “I have always had the same set of friends, right from childhood.”

The last nine months have played out like an action-packed movie for the 32-year-old. He struck gold with his weekend comedy show that debuted in June on Colors, then watched his entire set burn to the ground after a short-circuit, and fell out with one of his actors Sunil Grover, aka Gutthi, who went on to star in Mad in India on Star Plus. Despite the turbulence, the viewer ratings of his show have remained largely unaffected. The initial popularity of the show made it a twice weekly, but with films in the offing and given Sharma’s busy schedule it might soon be a weekly.

The concept of Comedy Nights, which is produced by Sharma’s company K9 Productions, is partly borrowed from the British show The Kumars at Number 42. A celebrity is invited for an interview and Sharma’s oddball Punjabi family smooches, mocks and flirts with the star till they go red with embarrassment. And yet, star after star clamours to be on his show — some have even invited themselves. It’s not often that you see Deepika Padukone beg for tissues to stanch joyful tears or Salman Khan slide off a sofa from laughter. Veteran comic Johny Lever believes Sharma’s biggest strength lies in his ability to read his guests well. “Sunny Deol is an extremely shy man. He hates giving interviews. But when he came on Kapil’s show, he completely let his hair down and opened up. You have to give Kapil credit for that,” says Lever.

People watching

So what makes Sharma so funny? “You see, there’s a market near Ville Parle station, from where I buy…” he begins. He lifts his cap and giggles like a child as I call him out on a joke he’s often repeated on the show. “No really, in Amritsar I had a lot of time to observe people. When the sun comes out in Punjab, we spend hours just staring at it. It’s not like Mumbai where the sunlight doesn’t reach your apartment and people end up taking vitamin pills,” says Sharma, whose father was a police officer and mother a housewife. His observations, especially those made while he worked at a local PCO to earn some extra cash, came handy at college festivals where he had to play five characters in a single act without changing his costume. Later, on the show Hasde Hasande Ravo on MH1, a Punjabi channel, he used the same characters he had invented for these competitions.

The only other star student from his alma mater, Hindu College in Amritsar, he says is prime minister Manmohan Singh. “Par college ko pata hi nahi tha main bhi waha se hoon. Sirf PM sahib ka pata tha (the college didn’t realise that I was also there, they only knew about the PM),” he says.

All are invited

His small-town roots, clumsy English and early financial troubles underline most of his gags. But he aspires for a more inclusive audience. If the turnout at his show is anything to go by, he has already achieved that. Urban college students, an 80-plus couple who want to bless him, a farmer from Bihar who wants to shake a leg with the celebrity guest and a cancer survivor crediting Sharma for her recovery, are some of the attendees on his show.

Outside his studio at Mumbai’s Film City, enthusiastic teenage girls try to sneak past security to take close-ups of Sharma on their smartphones. An elderly lady using her grandson’s shoulder as a crutch, says every minute of the four-hour shoot she attended was worth the pain in her knees. Guests willingly stay holed up in the studio overnight as the shoot spills into the wee hours of the morning. “Everybody is becoming famous and earning a lot of money. But I have people’s blessings. That’s what makes the difference,” says Sharma. His buddies reveal that his village bumpkin act is just a ruse to elicit more laughter — he is an avid reader, especially of books by Khushwant Singh, and keeps abreast of current affairs. “I’ll never play an astronaut. I always show a rickshawallah who is tired or a housewife cribbing about the chai patti getting over. I talk about the problems that 70 per cent of the country can relate to. But at the same time, I should also reach out to those who roam around in BMWs,” he says.

Lever remembers Sharma visiting his house some years ago to discuss a show he was planning to launch. Frustrated with jumping from one reality show to another, he wanted to start his own company. “I was tired of being graded on every episode. It is odd to get 10 points for a performance. How does one judge if the audience laughed more or less. I just wanted to get out of that rut,” says Sharma. The initial plan was to stick to pure stand-up acts. Later, he included skits and gags so that he could showcase his acting and singing talent as well. “The format is fresh. Kapil definitely has an edge over others because he can sing, act and has very good comic timing. He is extremely talented but one can’t deny he’s very lucky as well,” says Lever.

Members of his crew say that Sharma micro-manages every aspect of the show himself. Despite having a team of writers, he monitors the script, constantly making improvisations between shots. Actress Sumona Chakravarti, who plays his wife on the show, says the team doesn’t rehearse as much as they did earlier, but his faultless comic timing helps gloss over any goof-ups. “There are times I’ve gone fully blank on stage. It happens with last-minute scripts and 10-page long dialogues. But he effortlessly fills in the gaps,” says Chakavarti who met Sharma two years ago on the reality show Kahaani Comedy Circus Ki where she partnered with him. The only challenge she can predict is maintaining the show’s appeal. “It could be a problem for us. Most shows take a while to do well, but we were a hit right from the start. That rarely happens. Now one has to try and maintain that,” she adds.

Sharma couldn’t agree more. Even if there’s a minor slip, his viewers don’t waste a minute in expressing their disappointment on his Twitter and Facebook page. At times he finds the attention too much to take. “Nobody asks Sachin to hit a six for them. But I’m asked to crack jokes all the time. I have so much on my mind. I’m actually quite a serious guy,” he says, failing in his attempt to control a smile as his friends crack up. Then, with a grim expression and wide eyes, he adds, “I get more irritated when people don’t say anything at all. Instead, they come really close and just stare at my face.”

With the three-film deal he recently clinched with Yashraj Films, Sharma is set to strike off another dream from his checklist. He will start shooting Bank-Chor next month, where he plays the lead. Lever suggests he should hold on to every minute of this hard-earned success. “I feel so proud of him. He’s brought so much respect for comics. Thanks to him the status of the entire community has gone up,” he says.