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DA Report Card: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly of Standup Comedy In 2023

By DA Staff 13 December 2023 10 mins read

A lot happened in the world of comedy this year. From big wins for Indian comedians on the global stage to bidding farewell to some of our favourites, here are the big highlights of 2023.

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2023 was the year Indian comedy said “Yes we can!”

It was a big year for comedy at home and abroad with some real highs along the way, as comedians pushed the envelope and dared to go against the grain. There was also paradigm shift in how specials are put out, with comedians forgoing the traditional TV/streamer deals and self-releasing instead. Indian comedians won top international honours this year, and performed at some of the most iconic venues around the world. But there were some speed-bumps along the way too, including the usual backlash for politically charged comedy and controversies both big and small (like the time a laywer tried to sue Anubhav Singh Bassi for “humiliating the lawyer community“, and was smacked down by the Supreme Court).

We cover all of it in our annual report card for the scene. Get out your merit and demerit stars, and let’s go!

The Ws

1. Vir Das Wins An International Emmy

Arguably the country’s busiest comedian, Vir Das picked up an International Emmy for his Netflix special Vir Das: Landing, sharing honours in the Best Comedy category with award-winning British show Derry Girls. That makes him the first ever Indian to win the coveted award. “Winning an Emmy for Vir Das: Landing in the ‘Comedy Category’ is not just a milestone for me but for Indian comedy as a whole,” Das said in a statement released by Netflix India. This was the second time Das was nominated for the award, the previous one being for his 2021 show Vir Das: For India. The win came in the middle of his ongoing Mind Fool tour, spanning 33 countries across six continents, which will see Das perform at some of the world’s most prestigious venues, including Carnegie Hall in New York, The Chicago Theatre, and The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. (where he performed his much debated monologue about Two Indias). 

2. Indian Comedy Goes Global

Yahan kaise perform karte hai?” Zakir Khan inquired when he visited the Royal Albert Hall in London earlier this year in March. He was told that it was a tough task to get a show at the legendary performance venue. Six months later, Khan took to the stage at the 5000+ seater Royal Albert Hall and performed to a sold-out audience, making history as the first Asian comedian to perform a solo show at the venue. To top it off, he also received a 20-minute standing ovation. “I only got to know about the 20-minute standing ovation when other people started telling me about it, because mujhe laga 2-3 minute hi huye the,” he said at the time. 

Khan also ticked off another iconic venue from his bucket list in August, performing to a sold-out crowd at the 2,769 seater Sydney Opera House. It looks like he’s keen on making it to our list of highlights next year as well, with a performance at Madison Square Garden (a 19,500-seat venue, known as “the world’s most famous arena”) on the calendar for 17 March, 2024. 

And it wasn’t just a handful of big names getting all the attention. There were plenty of other comedians who pulled off successful tours across the globe, selling out clubs and venues in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East and Australia, including a sizeable Indian contingent at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Praveen Kumar even made it all the way to the Ivory Coast to perform a show!

In another first for Indian comedy, Urooj Ashfaq bagged the ‘Best Newcomer’ award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year for her show Oh No! (which also earned her compliments from international comedy heavyweights Daniel Sloss and Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Previous winners of the award include Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Tim Minchin, Sarah Millican and Alex Edelman. Another massive win for Indian comedy on the global stage! 

3. The Nights Of The Laughing Dead

This was also a big year for us at DeadAnt! We started 2023 with the kickass two-day festival Laughing Dead (celebrating our fourth birthday), which saw performances by over 35 of India’s top comedians across four sold-out marquee shows, as well as a killer headlining set by global comedy star Daniel Sloss, opened by Kai Humphries. The Scottish comedian performed his latest hour Can’t to 1,100 adoring fans—who bought out the ticket allotment in 10 minutes flat—at the iconic Mehboob Studio in Mumbai. He enjoyed it so much, he even took off his shirt at some point, earning adulatory wolf-whistles from a certain section of the audience.

Apart from the big ticket shows, Laughing Dead also introduced a discovery stage featuring a mixed lineup of pro and amateur artists with unique voices in a show called Guts & Glory—with the aim to provide a platform for up-and-coming comedy talents to introduce themselves to the comedy scene at large. In between sets, comedy fans could be found stretched out in the lawns, digging into special menus from some of Mumbai’s most popular restaurants and getting their drinks in from the 20-foot long bar, while trying not to gawk at their favourite comedians popping in and out of the venue. It was a big moment for us, but also for the Indian comedy scene, with so many of its brightest stars assembled under one roof. We promise that next year is going to be bigger and better!

4. Global Comedy Stars Beat A Path To Indian Comedy Stages

Daniel Sloss’s March visit—which also included sets in Delhi and Bengaluru—was the first of many, as more and more international comedians added India to their touring calendar. Also touring India this year was New Zealand comedian and America’s Got Talent finalist Sam Willis—who performs as Tape Face. In April, British-Russian comedian Olga Koch performed a mashup of four of her acclaimed shows exclusively for the audiences in Mumbai. Tech-focused comedy collective Socially Inept brought their popular Tech Roast Show to India for a four-city tour in September and October. And last but definitely not the least, Trevor Noah flew down to India for a three-city tour. We all know it had its snags (more on that later) but the key takeaway is that India is now a destination on the international comedy touring map. Jimmy Carr is all set to visit in January, and who knows who might headline the nefixt edition of Laughing Dead? wink emoji 

5. Comedians and Content Creators Take Their Talents To The Big Screen

In 2023, the trickle of Indian comedians flexing their acting muscles on the silver screen turned into a flood. Anubhav Singh Bassi starred in Ranbir Kapoor-Shraddha Kapoor starrer Tu Jhoothi Main Makkar.

Dolly Singh, Kusha Kapila and Shibani Bedi showed off their acting chops on sex-comedy film Thank You For Coming, which also included Prashasti Singh as a co-writer on the project. Kapila picked up another acting credit for the role of Meher Chhibber in the comedy drama Sukhee, starring Shilpa Shetty Kundra. Srishti Dixit played Vicky Kaushal’s sister in The Great Indian Family.

And finally, Viraj Ghelani bagged a small cameo in Shah Rukh Khan’s megahit Jawan. On the other side of the globe, Niharika NM landed a guest appearance on Netflix’s adult animated show Big Mouth and Kanan Gill starred in Norwegian rom-com Christmas As Usual.

The comedy takeover of Indian reality television also continued apace—Aakash Mehta won first place (!) on Netflix’s Social Currency, while Munawar Faruqui has gone straight from the Lock Upp! to the Bigg Boss house. That’s a lot of Ws for Indian comedians!

6. Comedians Embraced Innovation Across The Board

Comedians are no longer happy to just get up on the stage, tell jokes for an hour, and then count their money. In 2023, comics at home and abroad continued to innovate, both on the stage and off it. For the first time in Netflix’s 25-year history, the platform live-streamed a comedy special. As Chris Rock performed his special Selective Outrage to the audience in Hippodrome Theatre, Baltimore, patrons from across the globe could tune in to get a taste of the live event. It’s also a year where the comedy industry tentatively embraced AI, from Jimmy Kimmel using ChatGPT material on his show in February to AI-prompted improv shows and even AI vs Human roasts.

Closer home, comedian Daniel Fernandes set his sights on the record for the longest-running show at a single venue, previously held by Dave Chappelle and Dane Cook, who performed for 6.12 hours and 7.34 hours respectively at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. Fernandes—who already tried the Iron Man routine earlier—held a marathon seven-hour performance at Mumbai’s The Habitat, and is gunning for an even longer eight-hour set in Bengaluru on 17 December.

And finally, Rahul Subramanian became the first Indian comedian with a crowd work comedy special on a streaming platform. The comedian employed an innovative approach, shooting multiple shows across the country and mashing them up into one hilarious interactive hour.

In addition to finding fresh approaches to keep the audience engaged, comedians also took matters into their own hands to self-release comedy specials in a world where streaming platforms are leaning more towards the drama and crime genres. With streaming services rethinking their comedy strategies, comics bet on themselves instead of waiting around, passing on lucrative deals and self-releasing their specials on YouTube. Case in point—Abishek Upmanyu raking in 10 million views in the first week of making his special Jealous of Sabziwala available for free. The comedian had initially put up half the special, making the full hour available only to members of his YouTube channel for INR 299.

Amit Tandon too went with his gut and released his special Masala Sandwich for free on YouTube. The special’s exclusive Mumbai screening had Indian comedy legend Johny Lever in the audience. Prashasti Singh (Door Khadi Sharmaaye), Daniel Fernandes (Alive & Vaccinated) and Aakash Mehta (No Smoking and Nasty) also circumvented the hassle of dealing with platform execs and dropped their specials free of charge.

7. More Voices Cropped Up From The Margins

2023 also saw some much-needed diversity on the Indian comedy stage, which has long been dominated by the urban, upper class savarna. Arguably the biggest win in the department was bagged by comedian Navin Noronha, who released the country’s first-ever queer comedy special, titled The Good Child. Self-released on YouTube, Noronha’s hour focuses on his stories about growing up in a Mumbai chawl, coming out to his family and the challenges that the queer community faces in our country. That wasn’t all. Noronha’s all-queer lineup show Queer Rated Comedy also reached new heights this year, booking out venues across the country. Ritushree Panigrahi also deserves a mention here for coming out as the country’s first transgender comedian and speaking about their journey during a standup set that they released on YouTube.

Dalit voices were also amplified this year with Blue Material, an all-Dalit lineup show, pulling off a smashing 11-city tour. Featuring comedians Manaal Patil, Mayur Kamble, Ankur Tangade and Ravi Gaikwad amongst others, the show focuses on highlighting Dalit issues and exploring anti-caste ideas through humour. Manjeet Sarkar also took his solo show Untouchable on the road and earned an invitation from the United Nations to perform at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, due to be held in Bangkok this December. Here’s to more such wins in 2024!

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The Ls

1. Comedy Is Still Not Legal 

It wasn’t all a smooth ride to the top though. Comedians all over the world continue to face public backlash, threats of violence and state repression, all for the crime of telling jokes. In May, Sri Lankan comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya faced public ire for allegedly insulting religions—including Buddhism and Christianity—during a standup comedy show in Colombo. She was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department on 30 May, and was granted bail after spending 39 days in the Colombo Remand Prison, Welikada. 

Similarly, comedian Li Haoshi got into trouble at a show in Beijing when he used a Chinese military slogan associated with President Xi Jinping to praise his pet dogs. He was accused of insulting the People’s Liberation Army. Haoshi and the company that represented him—Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media—were indefinitely barred from putting up further live shows in Beijing and Shanghai, and faced fines upwards of USD 2 million.

Last, but not least, India continued to be a dangerous place for edgy comedy. In April, Yash Rathi was booked by the Dehradun Police on charges of “promoting enmity between different groups” for allegedly making an “objectionable” remark on Lord Ram during a comedy event. Munawar Faruqui continues to fight a court case that stems from a performance in Indore in 2021. And social media mobs continue to roam the Indian internet, looking for comedians to lynch over an errant punchline or subversive joke setup.

2. Trevor Noah’s Bengaluru Debacle

Trevor Noah flew down to India to perform three shows in Delhi and two each in Mumbai and Bengaluru. The Mumbai and Delhi shows went off with minor hitches, but Bengaluru ended up being an absolute disaster. We’ll let the man tell the story in his own words: “We pull up to what I guess was the ‘venue’. You think a venue is a place where people come together […] What we got was an open piece of land, with no parking and no signs. And a tent.” Noah recounted the whole ordeal—including a backstage encounter with “barking dogs in cages”—at his Mumbai show. Not the sort of India story you’d want to see become a regular part of his set. The titanic cock-up reflects poorly on the standards of professionalism in the Indian live entertainment industry, and might make other global comedians wary of adding India to their next tour. But the silver lining is that Noah has promised to come back to perform in the country’s technology hub. 

3. Hasan Minhaj’s Emotional Truths

On 15 September, The New Yorker posted an exposé on Hasan Minhaj in which the comedian had admitted to fabricating stories in his comedy special The King’s Jester. The comedian called them his “emotional truths.” which opened a whole can of worms, with people fighting on the internet about how far comedians can stretch the truth for the sake of the craft. A little over a month after the The New Yorker piece was published, Minhaj dropped a 20-minute video calling the article “needlessly misleading”, displaying email exchanges and playing voice recordings of his conversations with the writer. In the video, Minhaj accuses the writer of “cherry-pick[ing]” stories and splicing quotes in misleading ways. In the aftermath of this entire incident, one thing is for certain—every time a comedian bares their soul on stage, the audience will be thinking, “Is this an emotional truth or a truthy truth?” 

4. Comedians Continued To Be Problematic

One would imagine that working with a comedian would be a delight, quips flying around the office all day, non-stop laughter etcetera etcetera. Those fantasies were shattered in September, when Rolling Stone magazine published a report in which two current and 14 former employees claimed that the set of Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon “has been a toxic workplace for years due to Fallon’s ‘erratic behaviour’.” Since the report was published, Fallon addressed his crew in a brief Zoom meeting and apologised for fostering a “toxic” workplace environment, reported CNN.

In even more infuriating news, comedian Russell Brand was accused by several women of rape, sexual assault and abusive, predatory behaviour between 2006-2013, in a joint investigative report by The Sunday Times, The Times and Channel 4 Dispatches. Brand put out a video across all his social media platforms a day prior to the report’s release denying the “serious criminal allegations” that were about to go public and said his relationships have been “always consensual”.

Infamous comedian Bill Cosby was also accused of sexual assault by nine more women. In a lawsuit filed in Nevada, America, the women allege that Cosby “used his enormous power, fame, and prestige” to drug and assault them in encounters spanning 1979 and 1992. Since 2005, when the first lawsuit of sexual assault was made against Cosby, more than 60 women have come out with allegations. Some of the women involved in this case have made public accusations against him in the past. It turns out comedians can be right arseholes too, who woulda thunk it?

5. Bidding Farewell To Matthew Perry, Satish Kaushik, Andre Braugher, Norman Lear

The hardest part of every year is saying goodbye to some of our favourite performers, as they make their way to the great open-mic in the sky. Among the comedians we mourned in 2023 was Satish Kaushik, the legendary Indian comedian, actor, screenwriter and director, beloved for his star-making role as Calendar in 1987 superhero classic Mr. India. We also wished a fond adieu to Matthew Perry, Paul Reubens, Barry Humphries, Norman Lear and Andre Braugher. May their souls rest in peace.

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DA Staff

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