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A Brief History of Indian Standup: The Early Years Supercut

By Aditya Mani Jha 25 May 2021

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Growing up in the early 2000s, Indian comedy looked very different from the exciting, rapidly growing, and politically contested space it is today. Our biggest comedy icons had only a tenuous relationship to the live stage. Instead, they mostly plied their art on the big screen, playing the hero’s goofy side-kick or the scriptwriters’ weird punching bag, a role perfected by the likes of Mehmood, Johnny Walker and Johnny Lever. For those who wanted something a little more edgy, you could watch the Jaspal Bhatti sitcoms (instant classics!), or listen to tapes by the likes of Gurpreet Singh Ghuggi and Devang Patel (Patelscope was a rite of comic passage for many young millennials). And if you were really, really lucky, you might get the opportunity to catch them perform their most popular jokes at a Press Club event, or at a corporate show your parents’ friends were able to sneak you into.  

It took only a little over 10 years for “standup comedy” to go from being the setup for a particularly terrible dad joke to a thriving entertainment industry with millions of adoring fans. So, as the comedy scene embarks on another decade of growth, opportunities, and challenges, we thought it would be a good time to look back at the highlights, pitfalls, and lessons learned so far. Building on the debut episode of DeadAnt Huddle, our comedy roundtable series on Youtube which featured a lineup of comedians talking about the evolution of the Indian standup scene, we’ve put together a rough, non-comprehensive first draft of Indian comedy history. Consider this a highlights package or a supercut of some of the eminent highs and lows.

Rohan Joshi, Vir Das and Kathik Kumar all agree that Das’ Weirdass Hamateur Nights, which began in the late 2000s, was a key factor in bringing a lot of future standup stars together for the first time. “Hamateur was the open mic that spoilt all future open mics for you because you saw 300 people standing and laughing and there was that instant validation,” remembered Joshi. 

Das qualified his remarks by pointing out that he was by no means the pioneer of Indian comedy. “There were many, many people before us—Boman Irani, Ash Chandler, Vikram Sathe, Papa CJ, Bharat Dhabholkar, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal. But [standup comedy] was either a shaadi thing, in the UP-Bihar belt, or it was a super-sophisticated Boman Irani/Bharat Dabholkar kind of scene.”   

2010 was the year Indian stand-up comedy began to be professionalised in real earnest. At this point our new, deregulated, primed-for-globalisation economy was less than two decades old. Ergo, the watershed moment was always going to be ushered in by overseas investment (cricket was professionalised after the 1996 World Cup’s record-breaking TV numbers, for example). Here, too, it began with The Comedy Store setting up shop in Mumbai’s Palladium Mall.

2009-2011: First movers

The UK-based comedy firm brought a revolving line-up of international comedians to Mumbai to perform from Thursday to Sunday. At first, The Comedy Store was an imports-only affair, with no Indian comedians on the lineup. When they eventually held their first open audition, a total of 25 people in the age 20-40 bracket participated. It wasn’t exactly the goldmine of latent comic talent they’d hoped for. People turned up to recite lines from Shakespeare or Sholay. But it was a beginning. Sharing a green room with established international pros offered these budding comics a golden opportunity to gain insight and learn the ropes of the trade.

By June 2010, Das was invited to do sets at The Comedy Store on Wednesdays. For much of the year, Das tried out different styles. His Weirdass Outbox shows focused on unconventional styles and themes while his band Alien Chutney experimented with comedy rock. He even asked audiences to come watch the evening news with him; perhaps the first real instance of news comedy in the country. Early mover’s advantage meant that Das could get away with charging Rs 400 for a stand-up comedy ticket in Mumbai circa 2010. His company Weirdass Comedy was also conducting open mics for amateurs by then, seeking to replicate Das’s own comedic education in American comedy clubs. These Weirdass Hamateur Nights were also held in other cities like Bengaluru (a February 2010 tweet from Das urges “Luru amateurs” to “buck up” and “keep writing, keep thinking”).

Joshi, then a writer working for TimesNow, won the 2010 Weirdass Hamateur Nights and went on to open for Das. By the time Varun Thakur did the same in 2011, the Comedy Store and Hamateur Nights had delivered a solid line-up of promising new talent, including Joshi’s future All India Bakchod (AIB) partners Ashish Shakya and Tanmay Bhat. Aditi Mittal, who had started performing at open mics in 2010, and the AIB trio were also part of The Comedy Store’s Local Heroes lineup. Once you made it to this level, you were given 20-minute slots, as opposed to the incremental 5-10 minute slots you’d get after ‘winning’ regular monthly open mics. 

 “I went to the open mic honestly, on a lark,” Joshi said during the Huddle. “And here’s an important step that went into this—a few years before that, through the combination of piracy and Russell Peters, we saw this guy (Peters) doing everything that Seinfeld does, only he was talking about brown parents. So for the first time my generation thought, hey, we can do this.”

Canadian comic Russell Peters had skyrocketed to fame years ago, in the mid-2000s, on the back of something that would become a staple of the trade—the 3-5 minute comedy clip. In 2004, his performance on a Canadian TV show was chopped up into individual segments by YouTube users (each segment addressed one cultural group Peters made fun of) and the resulting clips went viral. History then repeated itself with his 2006 show Outsourced, which also featured some Gandhi jokes—the clips went viral in India, especially over peer-to-peer file-sharing networks across college campuses. As a result, when Peters finally performed in the country in 2008, his show Red, White, Brown was an instant success, selling out high capacity venues like the Siri Fort Auditorium (Delhi) and Shanmukhananda Hall (Mumbai). This was perhaps the first time the Internet made a decisive contribution to standup comedy in India.

Around the same time Das and co. started doing Hamateur in Mumbai, Tamil actor and stand-up comedian Karthik Kumar added standup comedy as a new vertical to their theatre company Evam. Speaking about Evam’s early days Kumar said, “Around 2008, we were going broke doing theatre because of venue costs. The larger venues were expensive and needed more lights which again meant more money. That’s when we started doing our own scripts, our own sketches. We made a one-actor, one-light, no-auditorium play. We booked a buffet hall. We had to write it as a solo comedy.”

Evam had lost a lot of money on a stage production of Chetan Bhagat’s bestselling novel Five Point Someone—future stand-up comedian Naveen Richard was the lead in that play and he later joined Evam Standup Tamasha’s new stand-up comedy open mics. “When we saw Tanmay and [Gursimran] Khamba and Rohan for the first time onstage,” Karthik recalled. “We immediately said, ‘This is what we’ve been doing in Chennai!’” 

He also added that since the first generation of South Indian comics all came from the theatre or cinematic circles, they tended to have an exaggeratedly physical comedy style. “We had to do the bandar-dance first, in order to get people’s attention, because we were performing in rooms where nobody was paying us attention,” said Kumar. “We saw it as theatre for the longest time.”   

Zakir Khan, Sapan Verma, Karunesh Talwar and many other future professionals also began to perform during this golden 2010-11 run. In Delhi, Raghav Mandava started monthly comedy nights at existing venues under Cheese Monkey Mafia to make space for new voices. This grew quickly to two-three shows a week by 2011-2014, and saw the likes of Zakir Khan, Amit Tandon, Neeti Palta, Abhishek Upmanyu and Sandeep Sharma taking stage. Radhika Vaz, who had been doing improv since 2001, performed her show Unladylike (she later published a memoir of the same name) in 2010. Around 2012, Anirban Dasgupta, Sourav Ghosh and Vaibhav Sethia–who had so far been opening for bigger acts like Vir Das and getting stage time only once a month–started their own weekly open mics under ‘Comedified’ in Kolkata. By 2015, they were running nine shows a week, which was unheard of in the city at the time.

As these aspiring comics ran into each other at every event, alliances began to be formed. The newly minted comedians realised that they didn’t have the brand value of a Das or a Papa CJ (who had already been performing shows and organising open mics of his own by 2010; albeit mostly for corporate and expat-heavy shows). It made economic sense (for both comedians and venues) to band together and offer venues a roster of 3-4 comedians who would perform a total of 90-odd minutes. The comedy collective was born. 

Talwar and Thakur formed Schitzengiggles Comedy (SnG), Pant and Rao formed East India Comedy (EIC), while Bhat and Gursimran Khamba formed All India Bakchod (AIB), all within months of each other in 2012. These rosters would soon expand, as Sapan Verma, Sahil Shah, Atul Khatri and Azeem Banatwala joined EIC, while Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya aligned with AIB. 

In the initial days, these alliances were extensions of the hijinks they got up to on Twitter—it’s where the cool kids cracked jokes back in the day, before the platform exploded and became a battleground for paid trends and mouth-frothing trolls.

Less than a decade later, AIB and SnG have disbanded, Das has come full circle to experimental mode (like his crowd work Netflix special Inside Out) and Twitter pushed the first domino that led to Indian standup’s mini-implosion in the 2018-19 season. Oh, and The Comedy Store folks ended up suing their Indian promoters for breach of contract, leading to the arrest of engineer-turned-comedy club owner Amar Agrawal in 2019. Siri, play the Scam 1992 theme tune. 

But to make sense of that story, it’s worth poring over everything that happened to Indian stand-up comedy between 2012 and 2018—and the years immediately preceding The Comedy Store’s arrival in 2010.

2004-2008, 2012-2014: Brand-building, prime time ventures

There had been other pioneering efforts in Indian comedy previously—the 2010-11 period was simply when the standup scene started to self-organise in a structured, if still rudimentary, manner. Back in the 1980s, Johnny Lever, who would go on to dominate 90s Bollywood with his goggle-eyed antics, began performing standup comedy in Mumbai. Lever would stand with a flashlight against his face; all the better to see those impossible-looking facial contortions with. The mid-2000s also saw three major comedy shows on Indian television: The Great Indian Comedy Show (2004-2006), Comedy Circus (2007-present) and The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (2005-2008).

Writer and future stand-up comedian Varun Grover was part of the writing team on The Great Indian Comedy Show, which featured a mixture of sketches and straight stand-up routines. The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, featuring Shekhar Suman and the human megaphone Navjot Singh Sidhu as judges, pitted standup acts from different parts of the country (and later, Pakistan as well) against each other (Kapil Sharma was first marked as a future star after winning the third season). Comedy Circus was the intermediate approach—the first season paired TV actors with standup comedians in sketches.

All of this, however, didn’t quite add up to a ‘scene’. Building a ‘scene’—which is to say a viable ecosystem—requires persistence, scale and consequently, capital. The seeds for that were being sown by Vir Das and Papa CJ. The mid-2000s were formative years for both. Having finished his MBA at Oxford, CJ was working in London when he attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2004. Inspired to quit his corporate job and start doing comedy full-time, CJ returned to Delhi in 2008 and began performing in the city. Das had already begun performing in India for a few years by then, since his return to the country in 2003. Not just shows, mind you, but also workshops with aspiring practitioners.

Because of these standalone developments, the post-Comedy Store era was primed to scale up in a big way come 2012, with dozens of young, viable new practitioners raring to go. The TV channel Comedy Central also became available as a pay channel in January 2012. Later that year, the then-25-year-old Zakir Khan won a talent show on Comedy Central and was adjudged “India’s Best Standup Comedian” (while that was an overstatement in 2012, Khan is certainly one of the most successful comedians in the country now). With the newly formed AIB, EIC, Evam and SnG collectives churning out new work across media and doing regular live shows, we finally had a ‘scene’ to call our own.

EIC dubbed themselves “the busiest comedy company in the country” after performing in 130 shows across India in 2013. Some of their sketches, like Sex Education in India were also widely shared on social media. Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya started AIB’s YouTube channel in the same year (in September, their It’s Your Fault, Ladies sketch featuring Kalki Koechlin went viral) while Kapil Sharma got his own TV show, Comedy Nights With Kapil, on Colors.

Around the same time, Aditi Mittal performed her first solo show, Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say, at the Canvas Laugh Factory, Mumbai. 2013 also saw her travelling to London as part of BBC’s 100 Women Conference. Another future star performed his first show in November 2013—this was former ad executive Kunal Kamra, who received his first solo billing after a scheduling cock-up at Delhi’s Blue Frog.

The Canvas Laugh Factory, incidentally, was what The Comedy Store re-branded itself as in Mumbai. In a 2013 interview with Charlotte Ward, the director of Comedy Store India, she mentions that this was due to “financial irregularities I am not allowed to talk about”, in retrospect a very revelatory comment indeed. Shady dealings aside, this shift opened up the stage to a lot more Indian comedians. The fact that they were selling out shows with tickets priced between Rs 500-750 also signaled to other promoters and brands that Indian comedy had an audience, and one that was willing to pay. 

Other venues had also popped up to cater to the growing audience for live comedy. The Cuckoo Club in Mumbai, That Comedy Club in Bangalore and spaces like the Habitat Centre in Delhi were soon hosting regular comedy nights. 

The ‘scene’ was becoming more professional (read: corporate) by the minute. Brothers Vijay and Ajay Nair had established OML (Only Much Louder) in 2006 as a protean, allsorts event management company that had, at various points in time, functioned as a digital publication, booking agency, record label and a bunch of other things. They were best known for producing NH7 Weekender and being the (business face of Indian independent music. Now, OML placed a big bet on Indian standup comedy, producing the Weirdass Pajama Festival alongside Vir Das. Together they curated a lineup of 69 artists (nice!). In an imaginative move designed to beat the entry barrier of Mumbai’s infamous traffic, they divvied up the city into four zones and dispatched a set of artists in each zone. “No matter where you live, comedy comes to you,” was the motto.

Meanwhile, improv was carving out its own little space, with Comedy Central’s The Living Room (2014), the first-ever comedy show focusing on improvisational comedy. Kenny Sebastian and Kaneez Surka were the two comedians most invested in this tricky form, which is deceptively difficult to pull off. Other comedians like Kanan Gill, Abish Matthew, Naveen Richard et al joined Surka and Sebastian frequently on the show, which ran on the 8pm slot from Monday to Friday.

Comedians like Atul Khatri and Papa CJ, meanwhile, were consolidating their clean comedy-based audiences internationally. Khatri became the first Indian artist to perform at the Hong Kong International Comedy Festival in 2014, while CJ was adjudged ‘Asia’s Best Stand-Up Comedian’ at the 2nd Top Asian Corporate Ball (2014) in Kuala Lumpur.

The momentum had been well and truly built. The stand-up scene was very close to being an indisputable part of mainstream pop culture in India—the decisive push was to come towards the end of 2014, when AIB decided to ‘roast’ Bollywood actors Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh.

Don’t worry, we won’t leave you with a cliff-hanger. You can read Part II of the series here.

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