Before his recent video about the farmers’ protests in India blew up on the internet, Karan Menon had already christened himself “new woke TikTok king” in his TikTok bio. But the 20-year-old from New Jersey, currently living in California, had a real taste of celebrity after he explained the Indian government’s controversial farm laws in under 60 seconds recently—days after his fellow American, the pop star Rihanna, incurred the wrath of a section of Indians for tweeting her solidarity with the farmers. (Although TikTok is officially banned in India, Menon’s clip became viral on Twitter. There’s a longer version on Instagram as well, garnering views even as you read this.)
“My videos have roughly 60,000 views on an average, but this one has nearly hit two million on Instagram,” Menon says on a Zoom call. “I guess that’s just because of the sheer number of Indian people there are in the world.” Even though he makes light of it, this could be the turning point of his career as a comedian.
Menon was born to Indian parents—his father is from Kerala and mother from Hyderabad—who emigrated to the US in the 1980s and 90s. Enrolled at the University of Southern California, he wanted to go to film school but opted for neuroscience to placate his parents. Now, fortified by the buzz generated by his nascent comedy career, he is inching towards the humanities. On a gap year at the moment because of the pandemic, he is trying his hand at writing for a web series. It’s been a dream run so far, despite the bleakness of covid-19 all around.
Menon has the unique gift of distilling complex legal conundrums (be it police immunity in the US or farm laws in India) and polarizing political movements (Black Lives Matter or allegations of voter fraud during the recent presidential elections in the US) into bite-sized videos. Mostly a one-man act (who clones himself into two or three characters), his videos sometimes feature his 18-year-old brother, aptly named Arjun, who usually plays the bad guy. He is racism in one video featuring fratboys; a grandpa flailing his arms desperately to simulate a heart attack in a scathing take on the moronic All Lives Matter movement; or standing in for private buyers in the one on the farmers’ protests. All these are invariably non-speaking parts, but Arjun more than makes up for the silence with his priceless facial expressions and body language.
“I never thought of myself as a particularly ‘political’ person,” Menon says. “It all changed, though, with the death of George Floyd in the police atrocity last summer.” As Black Lives Matter rallies took over the streets of American cities, he began to attend the protests. It was not the time for conventional comedy, slapstick jokes were unlikely fly with anyone, but it was also a time rich with possibilities.
Ridiculous laws, such as the one offering qualified immunity to the American police—in other words, practically allowing them to get away with murder—needed to be called out. The All Lives Matter racket, opposing the Black Lives Matter protests, had to be shushed. And Menon proved himself more than equal to these tasks.
“In high school I was into being a funny guy and was making comic videos,” he says. “After I got to college, I knew I wanted to try out a more professional version of these acts.” In his freshman year, Menon did skits and stand-ups for his college Sketch Comedy Group. He enjoyed performing for live audiences.
“I could see what kind of jokes hit the mark,” he says. “I started figuring out the trick to structuring an act.” But then came covid-19 and the universities shut down. Menon was back home with his folks in New Jersey, creating one-minute videos for TikTok, the next best thing to live performances.
All Lives Matter people still out here thinking they're ending segregation lmao pic.twitter.com/RrVxEwwCKI— Karan Menon (@TheKaranMenon) July 2, 2020
The breakthrough came with the first video on police immunity. In it, Menon plays three characters—two students and a teacher. Student A slaps Student B, but doesn’t get into trouble. When the teacher is called, he pronounces it isn’t an offence, since there’s no precedence of Student A getting into trouble for doing such a thing earlier. There's the twisted logic of police immunity, neatly summed up in 60 seconds.
The second video on the same subject, created in collaboration with The National Police Accountability Project of the National Lawyers Guild, moves a step further. A prosecutor frames an innocent civilian, who isn’t allowed to sue against such injustice. In a swift few seconds, Menon shows up, once again, the shockingly wobbly foundations of the justice system. It’s public service at its slickest, made for the age of social media.
“Most people of my age, including me, don’t have a long attention span to read the news and get to the bottom of an issue,” he says. “So, I thought I might put in the time other people won’t, do the research, and explain it all in 60 second vertical videos.” It’s okay if people disagree—"that’s kind of the point of it,” Menon says—but he’s also clear that he isn’t a journalist and his audience shouldn’t come to his videos expecting the depths and nuances their own googling may produce.
Even so, it takes Menon several hours, sometimes stretching into days, to read and distill the essence of a crisis into a script that spans under a minute. The one on the farmers’ protests, for instance, took considerably longer because it was uncharted terrain for him. “People kept asking me on DMs for days to do a video on the protests—but I had to first read up enough on it to be confident I wasn’t missing anything important,” he says.
End qualified immunity, hold cops accountable. It’s a ridiculous doctrine that holds govt officials to a crazy standard and there’s a bill in Congress to get rid of it and everyone should make sure that bill passes. #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/wyboHnaAbI— Karan Menon (@TheKaranMenon) June 8, 2020
The end result was never going to please everyone, he already knew. Expectedly, alongside all the love pouring into his feed, there was the formidable tribe of the offended, tracking every positive comment and posting a shouty reply to it.
Menon is cool to admit, though, that his video is only about those farmers who are protesting—before anyone can say Not All Farmers—and that he has also paraphrased the gist of the conflict into an easily digestible format. If he faces flak from his American viewers, it's usually in the form of disagreement, which can be rebutted. But whatever you may think of the US, they still have the first amendment there and, unlike in India, comedians there are not sent to jail to preempt them from saying objectionable things.
Menon plans to get back to college next year but also hopes by that time his “TikTok channel may lead to a real comedy-writing job.” He certainly isn’t the only one harbouring such a wish.