Stand-up comics unlock their humour business online

Priya Kanungo | Updated on July 31, 2020 Published on July 31, 2020

House call: Comic-actor Vir Das says his online shows give him a peek into his audience’s homes and their daily lives, setting the tone for a chatty interaction

Denied a live audience by the pandemic, stand-up comics have stepped up to the virtual podium to keep the laughs — and their earnings — coming

Humour is serious business, difficult in the best of times. And it is harder still for those seeking to find laughter in trying times. Just ask India’s pantheon of comic stand-ups.

When Covid-19 first bared its fangs, leading to a lockdown that closed public venues, performers had to abandon the stage. Incarcerated at home, many stand-ups regularly put out YouTube chat capsules for free, largely to keep their funny bone exercised. No one thought then that online shows would sell.

Four months on, most have found ways of spreading laughter.

The laptop or the phone screen is the new stage, of course. And though not every artiste is happy with the virtual podium, they are finding innovative ways to gather eyeballs.

“Stand-up comedy is a bit like having sex. It is best performed live. Otherwise, it’s like watching a porn show when you bring it online,” says Delhi-based comic Papa CJ, a regular on the international comedy circuit. And keeping the laughs coming is challenging, indeed. “I do a lot of customisation, because my client needs to know why he should switch off Netflix to watch CJ,” says the comic known for his riotous appearances on Comedy Central, BBC, NBC and The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, among other platforms.

His solution is to connect with 25 faces on his screen on Zoom — pretty much like he would with the first two rows in an auditorium. “The rest of the online viewers, whether they are 100 or 400, don’t matter. Just like those beyond the first two rows in a theatre don’t matter, because I can’t see them,” he says.

Some find humour in the online presentations. Goa-based comic-actor Vir Das says he is cashing in on the digital world even as it opens to him the homes of his audience. “I often see them eating daal-chawal, picking their nose, or scratching themselves. This setting lends itself to a more conversational style. I talk about what I/they did that day, about the lockdown, overeating, spouses getting on nerves, exercising, bosses, etc.”

Das is also deploying his wit to do a good turn — he says he has done “34 online charity shows for 34 NGOs” in the last three months. But ask him which of his lines have worked best during the pandemic, and he retorts: “My jokes cost money”.

If Das is proprietary about his jokes on Covid-19, comedian and talent scout Raghav Mandava is rueful: “Every joke you think of, someone has already thought of. Some Instagrammer has memed it and it’s gone viral.” For someone who had entered this profession before it became a profession, Delhi-based Mandava was in a state of denial that the ‘terra firma’ stage would not be available for a while. He says he is still not at ease with the digital medium but is learning, and is also “doing silly things such as exercising”.

Mandava is confident he’ll get past this slump in business, like he did his handicap with language. “People have heckled me for speaking in English. But I was raised in a country called South Delhi, so South Delhi jokes tend to go down well with my audience. A crowd can detect non-authentic behaviour. As soon as I acknowledge I’ve been raised not speaking Hindi, they buy it,” he says.

Not getting to hear the laughs can be yet another spoiler for an online performance. Danish Sait, Bengaluru-based actor, comedian and content creator, has a solution — imagining he is back on one of his radio gigs.

“You’re talking, but you don’t know who you’re talking to. In the last 10 years, I have, kind of, found a voice. There should be no fear of failure. Say the silliest things, but say them with conviction. Be a good storyteller,” he stresses. He should know, given the huge following he’s garnered for his one-minute sketches of life under lockdown; hilarious takes by an ensemble cast of characters, all played by him.

Techie-turned-comic Appurv Gupta, who realised early on that humour and not coding was his cuppa, looks at the happy side of virtual acts.

Before his 2019 tour of the US, Canada and Australia, he recalls having to sweat it out over travel plans and visa documents. “The whole process took a gruelling six months. With comedy shows going online, all I need to bother about now is matching time (zones).”

Likewise, Neeti Palta, used to standing on stage like a true-blue stand-up, doesn’t mind work-from-home shows. Known for her solo show Almost Sanskari on Amazon Prime (where she regales you with stories of a childhood spent in an army household) and Handas on Holidays (a wicked take on an Indian joint family at the airport), Palta has worked out a neat little stage for herself.

She arranged two peg tables one on top of the other, placing a step ladder on top of this, and perching her laptop on the ladder. Her wooden cupboards made for the best backdrop possible under pandemic pressures, and Palta was ready to roll. But, of course, only at 50 per cent of her usual takings, what with clients cribbing: “Come on, this is only online”. On the plus side, the number of shows has been steadily increasing, after the initial cancellations. Steering clear of political and religious jokes, Gurugram-based Palta, who comes from a writing-advertising background, says a line that has resonated with her audience is: “I’m so bored because of the lockdown, I joined my family WhatsApp group.”

Vasu Primlani, whose lampooning of the current dispensation’s demonetisation move and its habit of renaming places resonated with many, is using her housebound time in Delhi to teach comedy online. She is pleased by the results, and flaunts a one-liner from a student as proof: “With Covid, I’m not a teen. I’m a quarantine.”

With a Wi-Fi connection acting as the umbilical cord to the audience, performers are learning to work with technological mood swings and other downsides. Kunal Rao, a pioneer of Indian stand up, whose show Done released on Amazon Prime in 2019, describes online performance as “a different beast”. Given that the audience’s attention span is short, performers must be quick on their feet, the co-founder of the comic collective East India Comedy (EIC) says. “Also, technology often comes in the way with dropped internet connections and missed punch lines.”

During the lockdown, he has been experimenting with an online quiz format that pits multiple comedians against each other, with the hope that the banter among them will be the glue holding audience attention.

Sorabh Pant is making the best of the pandemic, too. About 70 per cent of the jokes in his brand-new online ticketed show Rant of the Pant 2020 are on Covid-19. Apart from two shows on Amazon Prime Video, the Mumbai-based artiste has been hosting a daily live chat show on his YouTube channel for the last few days, and describes the experience as “crazy and exhausting, but fun”. His online shows are for a private audience group such as corporate executives or college students. And, oh, he is also using the time away from auditoriums to work on his fourth book.

Writing is something that many comedians are investing their time on these days, whether it’s a script for their next act or even a book or two. Das is busy writing his next movie script and a stand-up show, for which he is working with 18 writers.

“It’s only in a pandemic that you can get to speak with 18 writers on the same day. So efficiency has gone up,” he jokes. That also means he has time to fit in an hour of workout, to make room for a sinful cheesecake at dinner.

If Das scribbles in his diary “weird, random thoughts and stuff seen in documentaries”, to later build on them, Aravind SA prefers to “sit on a Zoom call from 8 to 11am with another comedian and, at the end of it, share ideas. Even if they are two lines”.

A year ago, Aravind — who describes himself as a “stand-up comedian by profession and Madrasi by default” — started a comedy club in Chennai with his friends to create a performance space and encourage local talent. “My audience is usually very young,” he observes.

Not sanguine about the club making money, Aravind says, only partly in jest, “I have no hope that people like my mom and dad will pay for comedy. They are working class, who believe in hard work and savings. I am enjoying the benefits of their savings.”

Realising that the stay-at-home reality is here to stay for a while, artist management firm Only Much Louder (OML) moved online with ticketing partner Insider. Beginning with an audience of 40-50, they priced the ticket at ₹300 per head. Three months after a shaky start, they now have audiences numbering nearly 500, with a solo ticket at ₹500, couple tickets at ₹750, and family-of-four ticket at ₹1,000.

Mithil Khandare, vice-president, creator management, says: “We are managing 70-plus comedians, who do about 60-plus live digital shows a month.” On July 25, the firm launched the third edition — digital only — of its comedy festival The Circuit, which will have newer formats such as ‘The Big Bong Theory’, featuring Anirban Dasgupta, Vaibhav Setia and Saurav Mehta, who will bring in humour from Bengal; and ‘The Rahul & Varun Show (Corporate Edition)’, fashioned to show the funny side of daily corporate life.

Delhi-headquartered artist management agency Big Bad Wolf Entertainment pushed the envelope further. Since June-end, they have been live-streaming shows that also have 10 people physically present at a venue. According to Abhishek Sharma, head of comedy, tickets are usually priced ₹499, but have been reduced to ₹399 for live audiences and ₹299 for online audiences.

“These shows were held, after taking precautions for social distancing and sanitisation, at three venues in Delhi — Café Delhi Heights (RK Puram), Bean Sahab Café (Saket and Safdarjung). The crowd was primarily couples under 30,” Sharma says.

Rajat Bhandari, a graphic designer and comedy show enthusiast, says he came to know of these events from the company’s Instagram handle. He and his wife have already attended two shows. “At every table there was just one person, which seemed strange, but I guess it was done for our safety,” he says.

A few other entertainment companies are toying with the idea of balcony shows in high-rise apartments, with residents watching the act on a giant screen from their own balconies. Drive-in theatres, with viewers ensconced in their cars to maintain social distancing, are another alternative.

Meanwhile, corporates are being encouraged to de-stress with comedy shows. Latika Thakur, HR head of advertising agency The Womb Communications, says her company organised an hour-long Zoom show for its 38-strong team, “to help them escape into the world of laughter”.

Let’s log on, then: We have nothing to lose but our frowns.


Priya Kanungo is an independent journalist and singer, and teaches at OP Jindal Global University

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Published on July 31, 2020
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