In Bandra, the hippest of the Mumbai suburbs, there used to be a place called Zenzi, a kind of maverick hybrid of bar, lounge, and nightclub. It was the sort of place you could go to in chappals and dance to dhik-chik music inside, while losers discussed art history in the outside area. It was always filled with pretty people, and was a bit expensive, though not prohibitively so. I remember landing up there one odd midweek evening in 2011 to catch an event of some sort. Some people who called themselves “standup comedians” were doing something they called “bits” and “routines”. We’d all grown up with Seinfeld, George Carlin and all those big-shot American jokesters. Closer home, there was Russell Peters, who was—regardless of nationality or accent—one of ours. And Papa CJ and Vir Das, whose existence I knew of. Who were these new clowns though?
I wasn’t expecting the art-form to translate to pub audiences in the way that independent music, for example, had at the time. I was all excited for a trainwreck, practising my booing voice and that uncomfortable throat-clearing sound you make when a joke bombs. But things didn’t go according to plan. The show was actually quite entertaining in a charming, inconsequential sort of way. From that lineup, I remember a young Aditi Mittal, whose set was followed by her friend Dr. Lutchuke’s. There was also, I think, a guy from the now-defunct and then-not-even-formed All India Bakchod (AIB). These comics were cursing in Hindi, like my friends or I would. They were ridiculing people who lived in Andheri—I lived in Andheri.
It was fun. Like having a friend who happens to be witty and needy for attention and always has the best stories (that, if you were there, you’d know didn’t quite happen exactly the way they tell them). The jokes may have been primitive, but the general tone had that quality of, in the words of Einstein, “relatability”. And it wasn’t predictable. Anything they threw at me had an air of freshness. Even when the comic on stage pointed at me and my friends and said, “look at those ch**tiyas,” we cracked up.
On it went for a few years. Standup comedy largely sustained itself on the dedication of a small group of artists, and some much-needed novelty. Sure, it was unsophisticated and often crude. The constant barrage of clichés and regional and local jokes—South Delhi laundas, Andaz Apna Apna, Punjabis, Salman Khan, Malad, Gujaratis, “middle-class life” and such—evoked empty laughter in the moment but didn’t do much to further the art form in any way. But because it was all new, all weird and unexpected, a certain leeway was given to the content.
As with most things, it was the stamp of Bollywood that did the trick. By association, standup comedy became something to be looked at more keenly.
There was space for the airheaded solipsism that the scene sometimes descended into. Venues came and went, comedians tried open-mics, got laughed out of the place, never to reappear. YouTube views became a fun little metric that the comics were trying to capitalise on. Something was going on; it was all very slapdash and chaotic, but it felt like the prelude to bigger things. Maybe not arrest-big, but big nonetheless.
At some point in 2015, there was a strange eruption of panic and excitement, on the internet and in real life. The AIB Knockout, the infamous roast comedy show, had come out and everyone was talking about it. “What the hell was that?!” It was a pivotal moment for English/bilingual standup comedy, where it made the leap from quirky, privileged urban subculture to pop culture nuisance. The jokes were awful—not even the writers of said jokes would bother disagreeing—but the roast had become a cultural moment. Comedy had been knocking on the mainstream’s door for a bit, but this was the point everything exploded. As with most things, it was the stamp of Bollywood that did the trick. By association, standup comedy became something to be looked at more keenly. The press was all over it; there was political attention; religious and cultural institutions were taking notice; even the cops got involved. It was no longer just a thing; now, it was a thing.
Today, at a live show, audiences understand the rhythmic pulses of joke delivery, bracing themselves for punchlines. In the case of the cult-like following of Zakir Khan, the crowd literally shouts out all his punchlines before he can. Audiences can predict callbacks (thus pretty much ruining the concept), and they understand what role they’re playing if they’re at a show that’s being taped for an online special. The form is a legitimate part of off-mainstream pop culture.
It’s also big business. Over time, the one-to-one connection has faded somewhat and, in its place, we have a far more evolved ‘product’—slick, polished, fancy, meticulously work-shopped. A cottage industry of artists, managers, event and management companies, agencies, venues, corporate honchos, ‘personalities’, brands, an anti-comedy lobby, and fans (duh). Comedians, taking a leap from their western counterparts, have branched out into all sorts of comedy-adjacent spaces. Instagram skits, web series, Indian Idol-for-comedy competitions, those godforsaken podcasts (please stop, we have enough), YouTube experiments, talk shows, travel series. The list goes on.
Everything is on YouTube, every joke is inspected, dissected, outraged over. Audiences have grown up and matured and they demand better. YouTube and paid streaming services have made standup comedy so much more available. For instance, I remember as a kid downloading torrents of famous comedy specials, and in turn feeling quite cool about my secret art stash. There are no such delusions today—everyone has roughly equal access. And so expectations have become greater, and across a broader, more diverse demographic of people.
Kunal Kamra vs. the Supreme Court of India is only, like, the 17th weirdest thing to have happened in Indian comedy in the last two years.
No one understands this better than the artists themselves. While the beginning of the decade saw a small and similar group of people experimenting with comedy, the space has now expanded, with comparatively diverse voices and styles and no one clear identity under which it can all be classified. Given the sociocultural dynamics of India, representation in spaces hogged by the privileged elite is always a challenge. But things are far better today—the big metro concentration has given way to voices from smaller towns and cities, and comedians like, say, Prashasti Singh or Zakir Khan bring a perspective of life in India that didn’t get enough attention in the past. The regional focus of comedy remains, but there are more regions to choose from now.
Money, too, has changed the game. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have become an assembly line for material created by comedians—not just those two actually; there’s like a hundred different streaming services here, each of them trying to get in on the action. International tours are common, thanks to the global diaspora. Corporate shows. Advertisers jumping in. And, of course, the fans who’ll happily shell out for live (or Zoom) gigs.
You could get away with a lot earlier—questionable opinions, below par material, “inspired” jokes (à la Anu Malik)—when the audience was limited, and of a homogenised nature. That’s just how it works with most young-and-broke scenes. The first few years of standup comedy were about the movement finding its feet and figuring out what works and what doesn’t, free from the burdens of excessive eyeballs. I remember a comedian from a few years ago at an open-mic at Delhi’s Summer House Café whose set existed entirely of the kind of vicious (and vapid) dark humour that Anthony Jeselnik is known for—he had a series of one-liners about eating his own family, I think.
Those privileges are no longer afforded to comedians, who are constantly and often unfairly and cruelly scrutinised for their words, even the ones unsaid, as recent events have shown. The line between necessary critique and coordinated attacks is blurring. In 2021, the training wheels have come off. Not to get too dramatic, but we’re at a crossroads.
The lost year of the pandemic has been many things: a way for comedians to expand their craft and find innovative ways to reach their fans in the digital space without the supply line of live performance (chess and comedy works, who knew?). Audiences fatigued by the never-ending misery of the news cycle turned to comedians for comfort and commentary—thus explaining the success of Danish Sait’s flamboyant takes on current affairs. (Personally, anytime anything happens anywhere, I seek out Jose Covaco’s absurdist spin to properly understand how bizarre things have gotten.)
It’s also been a moment of pause and reflection for all that’s gone before: the early days of comedy, and the way it’s grown into something bigger and more meaningful. And, sadly, it’s been a period of intense political attention directed at standup comedy. No longer will a funny-sounding sequence of words be enough to disarm crowds. Many have understandably wilted and offered apologies under intense pressure, others have doubled down—Kunal Kamra vs. the Supreme Court of India is only, like, the 17th weirdest thing to have happened in Indian comedy in the last two years. Either way, standup comedy, for little fault of its own, has become a battlefield of ideologies in a polarised society.
Naturally, then, things are changing. The old tricks are still around—you can never fully erase cheesy stereotype humour, nor should you—but it’s exciting to see what comes next. Artists have been trying to step out of their comfort zones over the past couple of years, breaking out of the self-limiting nature of hyper-local comedy, of being interchangeable with each other. There’s an obvious focus on being more aware, having a voice with something valuable and unique to say, as a way to expand their audiences. Sometimes the jokes won’t and don’t land. But now the cost of that happening is a little higher than a silent room. It seems like Indian standup comedy is at a precipice. I’m left wondering what the next stage of the evolution of this often infuriating, just as often electric young scene will be. Wherever it goes, I can’t wait to get back to sitting in the crowd, prepping my throat-clearing grumbles for the next awkward silence.