For anyone who might have made three consecutive jokes that elicited laughs at any point of time in their lives, stand-up comedy might seem like a potential career opportunity. For, in India, the performance comedy movement has taken off in recent years, affording celebrity status to the first wave of comics – think Tanmay Bhat, Kanan Gill, Sorabh Pant and Tamil Nadu’s very own Aravind Subramanian (SA). But, for anyone who has tried their hand at stand-up, it is obvious that performing comedy is no joke.
“It took me two-and-a-half years to realise I had enough material for a one-hour show. I took more time to put out the show because I wasn’t sure how many people would buy tickets since I’m not a famous name,” said 24-year-old Sudarshan Ramamurthy, popularly called Soda, whose tryst with stand-up started in 2014. Soda is one of four comics currently at the helm of Chennai Comedy, a producer platform started by stand-up performers to promote and push the comedy ecosystem in the city. “In stand-up, being funny is secondary. It is the dedication to keep trying to make an audience laugh which makes a comic get better on stage,” said Soda.
Despite how easy they make it look, comedy is serious business. It demands discipline to write every day, and perseverance to keep working on a joke and its delivery even when it lands no laughter. The weight of the silence that follows a joke can be crushing for any comic, but it could require months of reliving the same rejection and reworking the same joke to see it reach its true potential. The most effective testing ground for a comic’s content are open mic events – Chennai, currently, hosts six every week. Chennai comedy organises four, and comedy troupe The Pundits and entertainment company Evam host one each.
At these events – largely held in cafes on weekday evenings – the jokes are aplenty, but the laughs, sparse. Open mic performers, however, say that there is nothing that fine tunes their content like relaying their jokes to a disinterested audience. “Open mics are the soul of the comedy movement. They are typically organised in small spaces where the audience is only giving 60 percent of their attention – it’s a weekday, it’s not ticketed; it’s a challenge for the comic to hold their attention. Stand-up is a selling out art form that way – if the audience doesn’t laugh, then the act doesn’t work,” explained Rabhinder Kannan, comedy producer, Evam.
The Mic Is Ready
A flourishing open mic scene is often testament to how seriously a city takes stand-up comedy. It contributes largely to building and connecting the comic circuit. The stand-up scene in Bangalore, for example, was started by Sanjay Manaktala, Sandeep Rao and Praveen Kumar eight years ago, by organising open mic events. “It is not just a place to test content – it also opens up the scene for new comics. That is where Kenny Sebastian started out,” said Praveen.
He added that while he was working on his Tamil stand-up show 36 Vayadhinile, he used to travel to Chennai every alternate week for five months just to test his content at open mics. “I used to come on Wednesday and leave on Thursday – I had to test the jokes in front of a Tamil speaking audience to fine tune it,” said Praveen.
While established comics use open mics as a playground to experiment with new styles, subjects and voices, newbies use it as a testing ground to see if they can perform comedy at all. “For everyone in between who performs consistently, it is a ground to be spotted and picked up by comedy producers,” said Rabhinder.
Evam, an established brand in entertainment, currently has 12 comics – including Anu Menon (Lola Kutty) and Alexander Babu (Alex in Wonderland) – signed to their company. They promote comics, plan their paid shows, and tap into the “Indians are everywhere market” by organising international tours and trying to break into the digital market. To be spotted and signed by such a company would make a comic’s journey much easier. However, lack of producer platforms with such resources and reach in this city, means that the collaborative open mic scene is all most aspiring comics have.
Chennai’s comedy circuit is rife with candidates who claim they are full time stand-up artistes, giving an illusion of plenty. But, “there is only a 5% retention rate,” said Soda. For anyone burdened by the drudgery of a drab day job, or for those who are confused about their careers, or on a break in between jobs, stand-up comedy seems like an easy career option to test, thanks to these open mic nights. “Many who claim they are full time comics are just testing the scene to see if it works for them. There are lots of decisions to be made about time and money before quitting a lucrative career to explore stand-up professionally,” said Rabhinder.
Unlike Sorabh Pant and Aravind SA who had first mover advantage, the next wave of comics is more likely to get lost in the crowd. While the former batch had the struggle of setting up the scene at a time when stand-up was not recognised as an art form, the current batch have stiff competition to establish their brand and distinguish it. For, a paying audience is more likely to be lured towards laughter by a name and face they recognise and relish. “Stand-up becomes lucrative when you get private and corporate shows consistently, month after month,” explained Soda, who quit his job a year ago to pursue stand-up full time. With limited opportunities and a growing number of comics, this becomes a decidedly tough task.
The Second Wave
For the second wave of stand-up comics who have decided to explore comedy as a full time career, the challenges are different from those who preceded them. 30-year-old comic Priyanshu Mishra, who is a qualified aerospace engineer, says he is in no hurry to make it big as a stand-up comic, for it is only the first wave of stand-up that has hit the country. “If you want to be a good comic, the voice of a generation, it takes a lot of hard work and time. George Carlin, for example, took the stage at a time of opulence and discontent in America. People were experiencing a lot of existential angst and he was able to bring that to the fore. He managed to tap into the voice of a generation and find the humour in that,” said Priyanshu.
Chennai’s budding open mic performers are struggling to find their own footing in comedy, let alone tap into the collective consciousness of people. It is easier to resort to predictable humour to land laughs than to discuss politics, society and the nuances of deeply personal issues which would also urge an audience to think and have a more wholesome experience of comedy. And in our country, where people are just waiting to take offence, this is not an easy venture. “We are one bad, insensitive comic away from shutting down stand-up in the country,” chuckled Priyanshu. “Stand-up will only grow in this country if people chill out. Our politicians say absurdly obscene things and no one says anything. But everyone gets into a furore over something a comic said. People need to stop looking at stand-up as a place for opinions, but rather of levity.”
Stand-up, which is meant to be a space for irreverence, feels restrictive when censured. While comedians need to be sensitive while discussing stigmatised issues like sexual assault, mental health, trauma and abuse, they do not find space to boldly comment on issues like local politics, which easily lends itself to laughter. “Audiences are still in their infancy in terms of accepting the boundaries of comedy. They are still growing,” said Priyanshu.
Yet, from a time when stand-up comedy was mistaken for mimicry, to now when audiences accept and expect eclectic form and content in performance, we have come a long way. Stand-up comedy is now considered a mainstream source of live entertainment: artistes are able to demand anywhere from Rs 10,000 to Rs 2,00,000 for a 25-minute slot.
“Stand-up is a popular format for people to understand comedy now,” said 23-year-old comic Rahul Sridhar. While he wants to work within the comedy space, he sees stand-up as just one of the formats to pursue. “Maybe one day I could have my own talk show on YouTube or host a funny debate series. But now, if I want to write a TV show, there is no ready avenue – one needs investment, technicians, equipment, etc. With stand-up, there are available avenues – so people try and hone their skills (in writing scripts, stage presence, audience interaction, joke delivery). Comedy actors like Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith started out doing stand-up,” said Rahul.
When the worth of a joke is only the paper it is written on, and there are multiple open mic events to test these jokes, many creative artistes try their hand at stand-up and brand out into acting, digital media, writing and other similar professions. Stand-up comedy, in that sense, becomes a launch pad for young artistes to build their brand. In turn, comics also experiment with different formats – funny award shows, duo shows, improv, vernacular comedy – and offer audiences new forms and formats of live entertainment. “With limited performance slots and writing gigs, for someone who wants to pursue comedy full time, it’s also about diversifying your sources of income,” said Priyanshu.
Comedy might be serious business, but it is definitely not a lucrative one in today’s market. Yet, thanks to the open mic events in the city, it is a springboard for artistes to experiment, collaborate and paint it with performance arts.
Picture credits: Chennai Comedy