by Amit Tandon
Stand-up comedy has flourished in India and how! It might look like a sudden explosion but the movement has been going on for a while. The medium and form has been evolving over time. From comedy shows to laughter clubs, from slapstick stage stand ups to stadium shows, from loud & offensive to smart and sarcastic—the Indian Comedy Scene has now built a wide appeal for itself.
It’s not new! Indian culture has always been infused with comedy. Earlier, there were vidooshaks in courts, who were responsible to make the atmosphere lighter. A glimpse of the same is visible in Dastangoi, a lost form of story telling that is getting revived now. In days of Doordarshan, we saw a lot of Hasya Kavis breaking into the scene, while movies in parallel almost always had a comedian.
While comedians were always in supporting roles in movies, Mehmood & Kishore made it mainstream as the lead protagonists, or even over-shadowing the lead with their sheer timing and presence.
The humble beginnings of stand-up comedy in India
Johnny Lever was a pioneer in the Indian stand up scene. He marked the start of a new form of comic expression in India, being the first to start doing solo shows and releasing audio tapes. His success catalysed a plethora of comedy competitions following suit. These comedy competitions produced comic artists like Raju Srivastav, Bharati Singh, Kapil Sharma and many more. The change in structure took comedy to a national scale and brought forward a variety of stand up comedy formats. The challenge remained that your comedy had to still fit within the definition of nationally broadcast program that was for all ages.
Curated for the masses, the content had to be non-offensive and politically correct. It had to accommodate the whims and fancies of the producers at the same time and follow the guidelines set by them. There wasn’t space for individually-drafted comedy that spoke to a niche audience.
Enter Social Media and Live Comedy
This changed with Social Media and the rise of well earning middle class that was looking beyond movies and family television for entertainment. Pubs, lounges, and cafes started opening everywhere. Lots of them had space for live entertainment, which was mostly in the form of live music.
Live comedy hit India with Vir Das and Papa CJ coming back to India after gaining exposure in the global comedy scene. Comedy Store was set up a club in Mumbai. Russel Peters had become super popular when his comedy routine was uploaded by someone on Youtube.
Starting 2010, there was a rise in the live comedy culture as you could laugh at jokes that you couldn’t earlier watch on TV. Comedy Open mics started happening in the metros at multiple venues. Comedy suddenly became more accessible. During this rise it become a passion for many people from different walks of life as they could do their job during the day, and get on stage in the evening to tell jokes. Pubs and ticketed shows were done purely for passion and there was hardly any money in them at that time.
There was also a demand for comedy in the corporate sector for employee offsites, dealer summits etc. Comics then started doing corporate shows, as it was financially beneficial while they did pubs and ticketed shows purely for passion. Comedy clubs also started coming up in the country, these opened new avenues for comics. However, comedy was yet not seen as a full time career. However, in recent years, the mind-set of the society at large underwent a massive change. Open-minded, non-judgmental and more accepting, they are taking comedy ‘seriously’.
Social Media further accelerated the movement. As comedians started uploading their content online, their reach increased many fold. Earlier, only people in metros knew about this. But suddenly Indians across the globe discovered Indian comedy. Through Whatsapp, Youtube and FB, it reached the smallest and remotest towns, alongside the biggest of cities worldwide.
Like so many other careers, social media has opened a plethora of opportunities and avenues for comics. People first started recording comics on stage and then sharing it on YouTube and WhatsApp. This led to a large and loyal digital following. Comics adapted to this trend and started creating a niche for themselves on social media. Posting short sets on YouTube would bring five to ten thousand immediate views. Now, it is common for videos to get views in the millions. The rise in interactions over social media has resulted in comics easily selling out shows for the 100s and having stand-up comedy shows in over 25 countries.
Creating comic content is no joke and the shift of subjects from marriage and lewd jokes to satires on world affairs has made this a full-time job. Going for movies or dancing clubs is now considered too boring. Theme based stand-up shows is the new fad. From urban amusement to national entertainment, stand-up comedy is being appreciated in tier 2 cities like Guwahati, Indore, Visakhapatnam, and Surat as well. The fans are willing to buy tickets for upto Rs.1000 to get the opportunity of being reduced to splits by their favourite performer. The very popular (and cute) faces enjoy global recognition as well!
Comedy in the age of Netflix
In today’s age of Prime and Netflix, comedy has evolved as a different genre all together. Comedians have a flare for writing and now they are channelling this to create and produce their own content, while collaborating with streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime to create exclusive works. This has pushed comedy to an even higher level.
‘Open Mic’ Sessions at every new pub and paid gigs at corporate events, restaurants and sometimes, even weddings, are another opportunity for these upcoming comedians. The wide variety of options and arenas makes it much less intimidating for the upcoming artists to take up comedy as a profession.
Even though it feels like all a comedian does is ‘stand up’, it takes a whole lot of creativity and confidence to take the stage. All that these young stars need to do is capitalise on these changing perceptions, while riding the wave of comedy as it becomes a booming industry.
Amit Tandon is a stand-up comedian, writer and storyteller, and the founder of ‘Grandmasters of Comedy’.
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