In the most recent comedy special that I watched on Netflix, Kanan Gill’s Yours Sincerely, the comedian narrates a story about a childhood crush. He says: “I really liked this girl, let’s call her ‘Neha’… because that was her name.” I let out an exasperated harrumph at the punchline. I’ve heard Indian comics make this same exact joke a hundred (thousand) times before. Yet the audience laughed audibly. Is it because I have higher standards, I wondered. That can’t possibly be true; I’m the sort of person who laughs hysterically at fart jokes.
No. A simpler explanation is that it was just one of those “you had to be there” moments. I wasn’t; I was watching the taping of the show at home, going slightly mad because no one’s allowed to go anywhere anymore. We’re inside an interminable pandemic with no endgame in sight, so the future of live comedy, for now, looks bleak. The most popular thing in Indian comedy at this point is that guy who keeps shouting Bangalore-isms into imaginary cell-phones, documenting his increasingly tenuous relationship with reality. Times are dire.
The only standup comedy option available to us right now, for the next few months at least, is watching specials and clips on screens at home. These range from taped specials —which are performed, recorded and edited keeping the home viewer in mind— to badly cut phone videos from an older live show uploaded onto Instagram with a #MissTheStage caption. In the lockdown world, there’s also a new format that’s emerged, where comedians are coming together (virtually, of course) and doing live Zoom gigs.
Fun as all this may be, comedy on a screen at home is a very different experience from actually going out to a gig. The content might be the same, but jokes rely on context, on collective reactions, on mood and setting and environment, on the chemistry in the room. So while five-minute bits on YouTube might be a good-faith approximation, the experience is spectacularly different. The energy levels will never quite be the same.
For starters, there’s the general air of encouragement and community that you feel at a live show, surrounded by people cheering on the comic at hand. If I’ve gone through the hassle of making a plan and actually paying money to enter a comedy gig, then I’m damn well going to have a good time and get my money’s worth. It’s not just the outlay of dough though; there’s a human element to it. Like the time I was at an open mic gig at a pub in Delhi. Most of the comics on stage sucked—crude puns were the pinnacle, sorry punnacle, of their attempts at humour—but they all seemed like nice people trying their best. They were bombing, and I felt bad for them. So I asked my friend, sitting next to me, to laugh out loud in support so that they didn’t get nervous, while I clapped. At home, on the other hand, I’m cussing out the comedians, their parents, and their entire family tree if they ever stumble or mess up a joke.
The dynamic energy of a live gig environment can even get you laughing—unironically—at stale Andheri and “SoBo” and Dadar station jokes, or bits about traffic in Bengaluru; even at jokes about how your fellow Delhi citizens are forever hulking out at each other in broken accents. These low-hanging fruits become caviar and champagne in the right setting. The expectation, really, isn’t to have some profound intellectual epiphany through the comedian’s set; no one’s trying to become a better person during a comedy gig, no one’s really required to go home ready to change the world. The comedian is not our saviour or spokesperson; she’s an entertainer first and foremost.
Those things do happen, of course; good comedy has that inimitable quality where it can present uncomfortable truths offhandedly and make people reconsider their outlook. But all that comes later. The primary reason (almost) anyone ever goes for a gig is to laugh and have a good time. When you’re out—remember outside?—with people you like, around an eager crowd, when you’ve paid a cover charge and are cruising on a two-beer buzz, it’s a lot easier to let your guard down and submit to the art being presented, regardless of the quality. It’s fun even when it’s not funny. Someone will have a goofy laugh so you’ll join in. There’ll be a hilarious drunk guy heckling the comic. Maybe a running joke that the comedian builds through her set with members of the crowd. It all adds up.
Live comedy, in essence, relies on the human element, on an immediate and visceral connection between the comic and the people present—it’s built on an illusion of spontaneity.
These rules don’t quite apply at home. Here, it’s just me, the TV, and a packet of chips. Everything is a lot more focussed and so, naturally, the artist is subject to far more scrutiny. I’m processing the material in real time, forming judgements that aren’t influenced by the guffaws around me. It can’t merely be funny; it must be unique, and smart, and progressive, and clever, and stylish, and well-produced, and “tight”. And it must have that indescribable quality that all great art has but no one can articulate.
The paradox of choice comes into play here: why am I watching this comedy special when there are literally thousands of other, potentially better things I can watch instead? Or eat. Or take a nap. Or play a video game. Or get on the ’gram and scroll endlessly. Maybe just go old school and call up a friend on the phone.
Live comedy, in essence, relies on the human element, on an immediate and visceral connection between the comic and the people present—it’s built on an illusion of spontaneity. Take that away, and what you’re left with is a whole different form of art. It raises the question of whether the Netflix experience —or indeed, the Zoom virtual gig experience— is merely a facsimile, or if it’s actually authentic. Does it measure up? We have the whole of 2020 to find out, if not longer.