Considering the spurt in the stand-up comedy scene, Appurv Gupta can easily be called vintage. He started out in the pre-AIB era, 10 years ago to be precise. Reliance hadn’t entered the market with cheap data packs, and video on demand/web streaming was a thing of future as far as India was concerned. Engineering done, Appurv had two options — MBA or stand-up comedy. He went for the latter. Today, Appurv, aka ‘Guptaji’, is going strong with close to five lakh followers on YouTube and 25 shows in September alone! And he is just one of the hundreds on the chockablock comedy circuit at present.
If The Comedy Store, the UK-based pioneer of stand-up comedy theatre that came to Mumbai in 2009, was the big boost, giving funny VJs and comic artistes from film, TV and theatre a new platform, Papa CJ is credited with ushering in the stand-up comedy scene in the Delhi-NCR region. Until then, elite Indians were laughing at Russell Peters’ jokes; a niche segment was privy to kavi sammelans; the masses were content with Johnny Lever and Laxmikant Berde on the big screen and a fairly new bunch of comedy shows on TV. A decade on, we have our own comedians and comediennes. We laugh at jokes that have their genesis in our own culture and ethos. Comedy, finally, is serious business. The game-changers have been Internet, followed by cheap data and OTT platforms, particularly during the pandemic, with the home-bound audience willing to pay for the content it wanted to watch.
“There has been a drastic shift in the past 10-15 years. Earlier, comedians were not a respected lot and the acts were used only as fillers, whether it was an awards ceremony, a stage or a TV show,” says the man behind Indian TV’s iconic comedy shows. Bharat Kukreti, head of the creative team of the ‘Kapil Sharma Show’, who has also been part of all three of Kapil’s shows across channels, says, “Comedy has become an integral part of the entertainment business now. Whether it is a dance show or music reality programmes, hosts across genres are using comedy as a base for their scripts.”
Hindi poet Ashok Chakradhar, among the pioneers of ‘stand-up comedy’, as he likes to call his kavi sammelan appearances, traces the genesis of this change to even earlier. “The globalisation of the 1990s brought a western influence not only in our culture but also the mindset. It reflected in our evolving taste for comedy too. Humour shifted from hasya kavi sammelans to comedy shows on TV,” says Chakradhar, a front-row witness and participant of this process for three decades.
If TV was the launch pad, OTT was the game-changer, says Preeti Simoes, who started her career with ‘Comedy Circus’ in 2011, and has been associated with other major comedy shows since, both on TV and OTT. The lockdown only fuelled this growth. While every business suffered, content consumption, particularly humorous, grew exponentially. There was this audience, tethered indoors because of the pandemic, with nothing to do, just TV to watch. OTT took off in a big way, and along with it the comedy shows.
“As the pandemic-induced stress grew, people from all walks found escape in comedy. I have had rickshawallahs coming up to me and saying, ‘We watch your show on YouTube and forget our plight’,” says Ali Asgar aka ‘Dadi’ of ‘The Kapil Sharma Show’.
With the rise in consumption, the OTT format has not only driven the content but also provided an ever-growing space to the relatively young genre of stand-up comedy that’s hardly a decade old in India. Social media platforms, too, have given wings to a rapidly widening talent pool of young artistes.
As Gurugram-based stand-up Jaspreet Singh says, “When I started seven years back, I didn’t know it was called stand-up. I thought I was doing comedy.” Jaspreet, who hails from Amritsar, did his first open mic in March 2015. Two years later, when he started earning more from his shows than his corporate job, he became a full-time stand-up and hasn’t regretted it one bit going by his sold-out shows across metros.
Delhi’s Gaurav Kapoor, another established name, also quit a well-paying corporate job to follow his heart’s calling. He, too, broke ground with his first open mic in 2015. Two years was all it took for him to realise that not only his heart but his future was also in this business of being funny. Stand-up Abhishek Upmanyu, who hails from Chandigarh, started as content writer with ‘On Air with AIB’. Today, he has 3.73m subscribers on YouTube. According to Abhishek, “When Covid-19 cast its shadow, technology came to our rescue. Zoom and online shows got us a new kind of audience.”
When Ludhiana’s Rahul Dua entered the stand-up comedy scene six years back, it wasn’t something he had planned. A stand-up event this investment banker attended, however, made him rethink his career. “When I first started doing comedy, selling tickets was a problem as I wasn’t well-known. Like most beginners, I started by doing small 5-7 minutes’ spots at open mics,” recalls Dua, who was the first runners-up in ‘Comicstan Season 1’. The series gave his career the much-needed fillip.
Banker-turned-entrepreneur Pritish Narula, an upcoming name in the stand-up circuit, on the other hand, hasn’t let go of his safety net yet. This, despite the fact that he has already done shows with the likes of Anubhav Singh Bassi and Harsh Gujral. Does the teeming competition make him hesitate? “I have been on the circuit for just three years. Any stand-up worth his salt needs at least 1.5-year open mic experience to establish himself. I know a few who have been doing it for five years now.”
In this scenario swarming with mostly male stand-ups, women are making their absence felt by their relatively miniscule numbers. OML (Only Much Louder) Entertainment, an artiste management company, has only 14 women stand-ups among its 53-strong squad of comedy artistes. Rishabh Nahar, vice-president, creator management, OML, doesn’t see it like that. He says their effort is to proactively look for talent, gender being no consideration. At the same time, he says, several women artistes are doing well. “Aishwarya Mohanraj’s audience has grown by almost 370 per cent in a year. Her last two videos on YouTube garnered 21m+ views. Sumukhi Suresh has created a tentpole show on Amazon Prime called ‘Pushpavalli’, which has had two seasons already and won multiple awards,” he adds.
Chandigarh-based Gurleen Pannu (23), an upcoming stand-up, feels the scene is going to take an about-turn soon. “There was a big rise in the number of stand-ups during the lockdown and women formed a major chunk,” adds Pannu. Starting just three years ago, this youngster has opened for many a big name in the business, including Amit Tandon, Anubhav Singh Bassi, Harsh Gujral, Jeeveshu Ahluwalia, etc. “Opportunities are not gender-specific but depend on an artiste’s popularity, and, of course, talent,” says the young artiste, who’s part of the writers’ team of ‘Chalo Koi Baat Nahi’, a comedy show streaming on SonyLiv, created by Gursimran Khamba and Amit Tandon. While it is a level-playing field, based on an artiste’s skill and popularity, “the only time women stand-ups are in great demand, especially for corporate shows, is on the International Women’s Day”, says Pannu.
As comedy becomes big business, artiste management has become big too, with OML foraying from music (NH7 Weekender being their flagship IP) to comedy. Goa-based LVC (Las Viegas Comedy) manages stand-up comedians like Abhishek Upmanyu, Anubhav Singh Bassi, Jaspreet Singh and Karunesh Talwar. CEO Warren Viegas says big money is involved now. “The biggest comedians in India make crores from ticket sales, brand work and specials. Some are said to be doing comedy specials in North India for even more. As the comedy scene continues to get established, these numbers are sure to increase in future,” adds Warren. And what does promoting this talent entail? Everything — from curating open mics, programming arena tours to producing big-budget comedy specials. “Clients with large followings can draw brand work for their social media channels for as high as Rs8 lakh for a single reel. Getting sponsors for a live tour is way more easy if the artiste can fill up arenas,” Warren says.
As stand-up comedy finds its way to most Tier-I and some Tier-II cities and unregulated OTT shows stream into our homes, content has been a major talking point. While stereotyping of middle class is a common grouse, sexual overtones bordering on vulgarity is something that doesn’t evoke frowns anymore. Roasting, even if it is humour at its most crude, is a much-loved genre, cuss words an ice-breaker. Where to draw the line is decided as per the audience in front of you. Gaurav Kapoor says at corporate shows, the content and language is clean. “For shows at clubs or bars, particularly in IT hubs such as Bengaluru and Gurugram, the audience is more open-minded and accepting,” he adds. Ali Asgar, who also performs at weddings, as “Dadi”, says both the language and content can be a little naughty but within limits.
But for the humour to become ‘intelligent’ might still take some time, says Jaspreet Singh. “Most understand and prefer straight jokes, sarcasm,” says he, who, despite being a Punjabi, has “never” done Punjabi stereotypes. Slapstick comedy, too, doesn’t work any more, says Kukreti. “People reject such stuff and tell you when they don’t find something funny.” The safest bet is to strike a personal chord, and comics do that by cracking a joke on themselves. “Many make jokes about their own class, caste, body type, etc,” adds Kukreti.
This unabashedness doesn’t seem to go down well with many old-timers. Savita Bhatti, who had been organising the Jaspal Bhatti Humour Festival in the pre-pandemic times as an ode to her late satirist husband, is awed by the tremendous variety on offer, not just in terms of platforms but in terms of artistes as well. “Seems like there is food for every palate,” she says, but rues that there is a downfall in the quality. “Today, comics have to take refuge in cuss words. Great comics like Ali Asgar and Sunil Grover have been reduced to caricatures. I feel that wherever commerce is involved, this downfall happens.”
Agrees Jamie Lever, whose surname brings with itself the weight of a legacy of two decades that marked the illustrious career of her father, the ace comedian Johnny Lever. Over the past few years, her oeuvre has come to include mimicry, stand-up comedy, TV and films. She says there is an audience for everything, including below-the-belt comedy, insult comedy and one that involves profanities. “The youth have exposure to international content and enjoys it. If our comedians are capturing that segment, so be it,” says Jamie, adding that it’s an easy way to get the laughs. And this is the path that she and her father have decided not to take.
There’s another track many are not willing to trek — political satire. Barring a handful of comedians such as Varun Grover and Kunal Kamra, there are not many who are including political content in their acts, says Savita. “The others refer to it very briefly. Maybe I am biased because that was our forte when Jaspal Bhatti was around. It was different in the 1980s and ’90s. We were raising fingers at the government, on a channel run by the state, but no one was gagging us. Perhaps, it is the rising intolerance that stops them from going all out,” she says.
The fears aren’t unfounded. The year opened with the arrest of comic Munawar Faruqui on the accusation of hurting religious sentiments. An artiste manager with a talent management company says no one wants to get into controversy in these times and most avoid such content. But there are exceptions. Shyam Rangeela, who shot to fame with his mimicry of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the ‘Great Indian Laughter Challenge’ in 2017, does not mind taking on the powers-that-be. Using Modi’s voice to point out the PM’s follies is fraught with challenges. He has been threatened and cases have been slapped. Is he scared? “Not at all. But my family is. They fear for my safety.” How does he deal with it? “I trust my well-wishers to point out whenever I cross the line,” he says. Another fallout of his political jokes is he isn’t getting brand promotions. “I am also not part of group acts as I am supposedly a misfit.” A mirror of the times, perhaps.
Savita feels Jaspal Bhatti, too, wouldn’t have given in to such pressures. Nor would have Umar Sharif, the late Pakistani stand-up comedian. “When he recently died, someone said Umar Sharif made a troubled nation laugh. The same was true of Jaspal Bhatti.”
The big jump
An artiste and music management company, OML, aka Only Much Louder, started veering towards comedy in the years following its successful Russell Peters’ tour of India in 2013. Their artiste list includes names like Kanan Gill, Tanmay Bhatt and Sorabh Pant. Now into production, ‘Comcistaan’ on Amazon Prime Video and ‘Comedy Premium League’ on Netflix are among their flagship comedy shows on OTT. Rishabh Nahar, vice-president, creator management, OML Entertainment, says up until 2014-2015, there was very limited infrastructure available, along with limited audience awareness. “The AIB Roast gave the boost that no one knew the comedy scene in India needed,” he says, adding that easy access to YouTube and inexpensive fast Internet helped bridge the discovery gap between comedians and fans. On the other, in the West, comedians have built their audiences through traditional means — by touring extensively, podcasts and as guest performers on TV shows. With the pace at which comedy is growing, regional comedy is just round the corner, he says. “We now manage talent that has a pan-India presence but also a strong regional presence. Some of them include Anu Menon, S Aravind, Praveen Kumar to name a few from down South and Manan Desai from Gujarat.” OML has also produced the Tamil version of Comicstaan.
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