The art of serious comedy

The art of serious comedy

just for laughs

The art of serious comedy

“He’s so awesome man...and damn funny!”
“Isn’t he so f *@#ingly witty!”
“She’s amazing, humorous!”
“Hilarious, but also so inspiring, isn’t he?”
“She really talks sense, but is so amusing!”

These are only a few babbles that one often overhears at clubs, bars, meet-ups, hangouts, college classrooms and even while commuting in a metro. The youngsters, after initial high-fiving excitedly, ask: “Arreey, did you watch the latest video from AIB/EIC/....?”

If you don’t have a clue of what we are talking about, then either you are from the red planet Mars, or are on the verge of entering the grey population.

Stand-up comedy acts are the latest craze among the millennials. Stand-up comics are everywhere, be it on the social media — Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — and the neighbourhood performing stages. Their followers lapping them up and happily booking tickets in advance, and shelling out at times double the multiplex movie ticket amount to hear and watch an hour-long performance.

In the last couple of years, the gigs of stand-up comedians overshadow the news of popular Bollywood celebs. A few of the English-speaking current popular stand-up comedians are Vir Das, Papa CJ, Atul Khatri and others. The young brigade comprises Tanmay Bhat, Sapan Verma, Sorab Pant, Abhish Mathew, Kannan Gill, Biswa Rath and others.

Popular Hindi stand-up comedians who have become household names, thanks to TV, are Raju Srivastav, Kapil Sharma, Krushna Abhishek, Bharati Singh and others. In Kannada, we have Narasimha Joshi, Basavraj Mahamani and others. In Marathi, we have Santosh Shinde, Ajeet Koshti, Sunil Holkar etc. Of course, there are stand-up comedians in Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu languages also. In all, at present, the genre of stand-up comedy is giving good competition to television and film shows.

“I think it’s because, in general, more and more people are sick of listening to the same recycled rubbish, and want to see or hear stuff that they haven’t before,” says Mumbai-based Azeem Banatwalla, the engineer-turned-stand-up comedian who has become a hit with collegians and young corporate execs. Azeem, along with Sapan Verma, Sorab Pant, Angad Singh Ranyal, Kunal Rao, Atul Khatri and Sahil Shah are a part of the four-year-old group, East India Comedy, who describe themselves as “Angrez chale gaye aur hume yahan chod gaye (The British went away, but left us behind), to rule this country with laughter.”

Bengaluru-based Kenneth Sebastian aka Kenny, an Art school graduate who operates alone and has so far staged 1,000-plus shows, believes that — “We are a new breed of artistes who are constantly addressing the elephant in the room. Being politically correct is not a high priority with us. Hence the honest nature of stand-up comedy as a performance medium is a refreshing change for the audience who is tired and fed up of watered down and censored entertainment.”

Dwelling on the new-found popularity of this genre of entrainment, Delhi-based postgrad Vasu Primlani, one of the very few women stand-up comedians and a Nari Shakti Puraskar awardee states, “Everyone loves to laugh and unfortunately we adults, busy in our rat race, rarely laugh. Look at a child. S/he laughs more than 200 times a day! India and Indians want to laugh and we stand-up comedians provide clean, funny and thoughtful entertainment.”
Interestingly, not a new phenomenon, it has been around for ages in the avatar of bhand, maskara, jester etc. Perhaps one of the most revered and well-known earliest stand-up was Max Miller (Thomas Henry Sargent 1894-1963), known as ‘The Cheeky Chappie’ of Britain. Next name that comes to mind is that of Bob Hope (1903- 2003) of USA, who became immensely popular during World War II.

The credit for making stand-up comedy acts popular in India goes to Johnny Lever, who made people laugh with his unique style of performances, way back in the 1980s, and later became a film comedian.

There is a very thin line of difference between comedy and stand-up comedy. While Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Johnny Walker and Mehmood were comedians who followed a written script, in stand-up comedy the performer performs in front of a live audience, almost engaging the audience with his act. Usually presented in a monologue format, s/he performs in comedy clubs, bars, nightclubs, colleges, theatre, and of late, are being invited to board rooms of the corporate world, too.

Laughter lines

Also, stand-up comedians talk the lingo of Gen Y. Without talking porno stuff or sexual innuendoes, they talk clean but intersperse it with common slang and cuss words. Many a time, looking at the audience, the English is interspersed with words from local languages. Also, these performers dress very casually. No glaring makeup; simple jeans and T’s is the common attire. If it’s corporate events, the T’s are replaced with shirts, or a simple jacket is thrown over the T-shirt.    

In Mumbai, the popular venues of stand-up comedy acts include Out of the Blue, Canvas Club, Blue Frog, The Little Door, Prithvi Theatre café and a few others. The Little Door, a trendy bar-cum-kitchen in Andheri (Mumbai) too arranges many stand-up comedy shows in order to entertain its diners. Its owner Tanu Narang-Moghe says, “Live performances help our customers relax, enjoy their food and have a good laugh. The shows help us get repeat customers.”

As it’s a smaller joint, most of the performers who are trying to find a foothold in the industry are paid anything between Rs 5,000 and Rs 20,000 per act, depending on the duration and also the experience. “We can’t afford the seniors!” she admits. Professional senior performers get paid anything between Rs 1,00,000 and Rs 3,00,000 onwards per show. Once again, the remuneration depends on the popularity of the performer. Almost all of them travel in most of the Metro cities of India, and also in other countries like Dubai, Singapore, UK and USA, wherever the NRIs are more in number.

Deconstructing the genre, Mumbai-based Rohan Joshi of AIB (All India Bakchod) fame says, “Basically, a stand-up comic performance is for a small group of up to 100 people. It’s a cosy group. The audience is honest, they react instantly to the free chat and talk by the performer who speaks honestly with 100% feelings. No artificial elements at all. That is what is liked and appreciated by all.”  

Rohan Joshi is one of the most popular comedians who along with Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba (both founders of AIB) and Asish Shakya became immensely newsy with their Roast show or the AIB Knockout episode which had participating stars like Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor along with, of course, the AIB team. Thanks to the act, there was a huge hungama in the media. Admits Rohan laughingly, “The roast really made me popular!”

The topics chosen for the performance can be something as trivial as schools, colleges, studies, exams, dating, marriage, catching a bus, films, family, father and mother to political, social or environmental issues to any other that one wants to talk about. Basically, the topics have to relate with the audience. Most of them are good writers, so they write their own act.

It’s no laughing matter

“I write about anything that I find funny and have an opinion on. It’s usually social trends that annoy me, or just observations about things I see on a day-to-day basis. I’ve never really felt the need to censor myself (apart from corporate and private events where there’s a given brief),” says Azeem who, after his engineering degree, worked as a travel writer for National Geographic Traveller India.

Kenny, who started making short films at the age of 15 and even acted in them says, “I want every person in the audience to know what I am talking about. I avoid name drops, pop culture references that are too specific and topics that might make some people overthink the subject. I personally try to make my act TV-friendly (try to keep swearing to a minimum, avoid adult jokes and religious references) because my objective is to reach out to as many people as possible.”

Making people happy is the credo of senior stand-up comedian Anand Chulani who started performing way back in 1998 in Los Angeles, when barely 23. Says he, “Comedy comes from truth. We have to relate to the audience and make them happy. In being happy, if they take back some thoughts which help them change their outlook on life, that makes me happier.”

Though based in Mumbai, Chulani travels all over the world and uses his stand-up acts to motivate and inspire people. He has so far conducted workshops as coach and speaker for school children, corporate houses like Reliance, WIPRO, Nestle, Apple and Google to name a few. Earlier, he toured the world as the ‘Gurus of Comedy’ along with Canadian comedian Russell Peters. “Even in tense and serious situations, a small stand-up act helps people relax. I enjoyed it more when I was working with Kings XI Punjab, an IPL team,” he adds.

Even Vasu uses her stand-up comic acts now to spread awareness on social issues. Then there is this young stand-up comedian Daniel Fernandes, an MBA from Pune’s Symbiosis Institute of Management Studies, who left a career in advertising. He now talks on social issues in his acts. 

Vasu says, “I don’t just do comedy. I want to bring about a positive change in the world. The job of a comedian is to hold up a mirror to society.” She goes on to relate an incident following her act. “One elderly Muslim man came up to me after a Delhi show and spoke to me in Urdu. He said, ‘The way you say Delhi men look at women, I confess even I do that. I am a grandfather. I confess I look at women like this, but I promise from tomorrow I won’t.’ That made my day!”

All of them agree that it’s a great platform to get one’s ideas out there and push people to think differently. They want to push the boundaries of the audience, to get them to say, “Oh, I never thought about it that way.” They also admit that many a time what they think is good comedy has fallen flat on the audiences. In such situations, they have to think fast on their feet and rescue their act. Every show is a challenge, for they always need to win the crowd in the first few minutes, get their act right from the word ‘go’.

Training, repetition, refining and attention to detail is how comedy is perfected, believe these young practitioners of laughter therapy. As they say, it’s 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. But though initial training helps, later one is on one’s own. Like acting, filmmaking or any creative field, one learns from one’s mistakes and develops one’s own style. “The best training is being on stage and bombing! That teaches you everything you need to know,” says Azeem.

Can one make a living doing stand-up comedy shows? Kenny’s advice: “It completely depends on the comedian. I feel you can’t make enough money by just being a stand-up comedian. You have to be business-minded and be well-versed with how the industry works and find mediums that can generate revenue from your particular skill.”