“Standup comedy mein competition bahut badh gaya hai ab (There’s too much competition in standup comedy).”
I have been hearing variations on this sentence for the last six years, yet I see new comedians breaking in every year and the old comedians continue to flourish. However, I think the expectations of young comics entering the standup scene need to be rationalised. You need to treat the first three years like you treat any other field of education or a course of graduation. Just focus on learning and not on earning. Any money you make is a bonus!
When we started in 2010, only Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore had small live comedy scenes. Except for the Comedy Store—which largely hosted international comedians at that time—a venue would have 20-30 people who would be drunk and supportive, with 10 of us trying our jokes out on them. If you managed a few laughs (most of which were charity laughs), you went home happy, ready to write more. If you encountered one drunk heckler who didn’t let you talk, you went back thinking “Do I really want to do this?”
The first generation of Indian comics worked against all odds, trying to set up shows and create a space for live comedy.
It was a lot of fun and a lot of work!
From performing to 25 people every fortnight in 2010, to crowds of a few hundred on average and multiple daily shows, live comedy has come a long way in India. There are a few factors that I think were instrumental in this exponential growth:
The first generation of Indian comics worked against all odds, trying to set up shows and create a space for live comedy. All the comedians knew was that we needed stage time and there were no clubs. So we started creating a stage of our own—partnering with pubs, putting up posters, booking auditoriums, we did everything ourselves. Rajneesh Kapoor (Delhi) went a step ahead and also scouted for aspiring comedians. Fun fact—Gursimran Khamba was approached by Rajneesh to try standup comedy after discovering him on Twitter (Khamba had a big following on Twitter when most people hadn’t even heard of it).
Although live comedy is very different, the comedy shows on TV made people much more open to the idea of watching comedians live. Celebrities laughing at jokes about themselves made the audience more receptive to the idea of laughing at themselves. Thanks to Kapil Sharma, a lot of people refer to a standup comedy gig as ‘Comedy Nightss’.
3. The Internet
Just like plagiarism helped Microsoft reach every nook and corner of the world, WhatsApp videos took standup comedy to everyone. When you release a video, you have the potential of reaching out to over a million people instead of the 50-60 people that otherwise come to watch a live show. We put it up on YouTube/Facebook and if people like it, they’ll download and start sharing on WhatsApp, taking your viewership to millions. It’s word of mouth on steroids.
Thanks to these factors, along with the explosion of comic talent in the last 10 years, comedy shows now attract audiences in all corners of the country. Anubhav Singh Bassi, Zakir Khan and Abhishek Upmanyu are opening doors in cities that have never had a serious live comedy scene.
Ticket prices have also gone up, with a comedy show typically costing twice as much as a movie ticket. And people are willing to pay! Five years ago, only Vir Das could sell out 2,000 seats at a venue like Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium. Now he’s performing to packed 10,000-seater venues, and there are at least five-six comedians who can easily sell out a Siri Fort.
But that doesn’t mean the pub show and open mic circuit isn’t still very important. That’s where every comic is born, after all. We still get drunk hecklers, of course. But now you don’t go home wondering if you still want to do comedy. Because now the audience is on the comic’s side, occasionally even making them leave the show. Whatever problems Indian comedy is currently facing, that’s proof enough that it exits the last decade in much better shape than it entered. Hopefully, it continues to grow and grow.