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[Decade of Comedy] From Being Broke To Making Money, The Evolution Of The Indian Open Micer

By Raghav Mandava 2 February 2021

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If you’re reading this, I assume you’re either an open micer, comedian and/or comedy nerd. It’s wild to think that 10 years ago, I would have just addressed ‘comedians’. Because there were certainly no comedy nerds here at the time, and there was no such thing as an ‘open micer’.

When it all began, there were such few people who even wanted to try comedy that an open mic lineup was truly open. To give the audience a full show, we had to fill the room with musicians, poets and even people from the audience who said “mein bhi kuch karega”. You could tally a typical lineup as 3 musicians, 2 poets and 5 comics.

What about the unfunny ones? Well, they were just called bad comics, but comics nonetheless.

When we started out, it would be an overstatement to even call comedians a fraternity, because that has professional implications. We were a community, at best, because there was little to no money involved at the time and everyone kind of knew each other. You could count the number of comedians in each major city on your fingers back then; just a thumb was enough for some cities. In the first few years all you had to do to become a ‘comedian’ was be funny for eight minutes, and your pay was measured in stage time. Those who could do 20 minutes or more were the crème de le crème.

At first, comedy was seen as the hot new thing in town. Looking at the current scenario, it’s hard to believe that open mic nights used to have an average attendance of 50 people in the first few years. Perhaps the audience thought of open mics as proper comedy shows—because if there are almost no professionals, who are the amateurs?

I genuinely believe that anyone true to the craft will always go to open mics. Take all you want from the industry, but you must give back to the community.

Slowly, we started to get hired for shows. The first influx of money came when corporate companies started hiring homegrown comedians for their off-sites (corporate off-sites are basically school trips with alcohol and no lines, because the adults truly act like children). Rich people started hiring us to perform at birthday parties and weddings; the really rich ones hired us to perform for… Saturday night dinner. For real, I’ve done shows for people because they literally just had a friend visiting and that was the occasion.

Then YouTube happened, then came the brand deals, then the streaming platform deals—which meant some comics started making lots of money, lots of comics started making some money, and even more comics made no money. That last category bears the designation of ‘open micer’. Since comedy is not just an art from any more, but also a full-fledged industry, ‘open micer’ has become industry term for comedians who are starting out or make little to no money. I’m sorry, it is what it is… and this is the biggest shift I have seen, the quantifiable separation of professionals and non-professionals.

One of the things that blows my mind about the current scenario is the sheer gulf between a professional and an open micer.  It’s tough being an open micer now, because you have to perform at actual open mics, to a handful of people, who are usually other open micers. It’s a shitty situation. However, what makes this industry special is it just takes one or a couple of lucky moments for you to move into professional territory. It doesn’t take much for the reverse to happen either, and that’s what makes it art.

I genuinely believe that if I had started out in the last three or four years, I would have had a much harder time becoming a professional—assuming I even made it past 10 open mics—because failing in front of a community is very different from failing in front of an industry. I will never be grateful enough for having the fortune of starting alongside Indian standup comedy itself. To literally be New Delhi’s first open micer.

As someone who has seen the massive ups and downs of this business, and as someone who has helped shape this industry in some ways, I think that the true comedy fan is one who shows up at open mics. If you’re only going to watch the stars, I’m sorry, but you’re an enthusiast at best, not a fan/nerd. I genuinely believe that anyone true to the craft will always go to open mics. Take all you want from the industry, but you must give back to the community.

Last, but not the least, to the open micers: your current situation is not a designation, but a phase, and it’s a phase I will always be proud to be a part of.

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