On a hot Saturday evening, a bunch of comedy fans gathered on a terrace in Mumbai’s hip Bandra suburb to check out a “secret comedy show”. We climbed three floors to find a handful of chairs, two couches and a lounger in the corner, a mic stand on a rug, and that Bandra house staple: fairy lights. The furniture had been pulled out of the adjoining flat, where the organisers Shreyas Manohar and Hoshang Maini live. Their home is connected to the terrace, where we were promised “the best pre-game experience in the city”.
The early signs weren’t promising, like when they distributed handheld fans on what felt like the city’s hottest day in years. Our ears were assaulted by the incessant honking on the streets and the alarmingly loud exhaust fan above. In the background, there was the low but unmistakable buzz of music from the bar just around the corner. But just when any hope of a good night was starting to ebb away completely, the talent walked in.
The evening’s excellent lineup included Comicstaan’s Shamik Chakrabarti, Ladies Up’s Niveditha Prakasam and growing Instagram sensation Govind Menon. On other occasions, Abhishek Upmanyu, Shreeja Chaturvedi and Karunesh Talwar have also dropped in to try out their new material at these shows. But why are so many established comedians showing up to perform, for free, at places that are logistically sub-optimal at the very least?
“To be a working comic, you need to get up on stage as many times as you can in a week,” explained standup comedian and writer Shreyas Manohar. “With this show, we are battling all the people who are not giving us stage time,” he said. “We will still keep texting you [promoters], though.” It’s not just Manohar, anyone in the comedy circuit will tell you that there is no such thing as “enough stage time”. But not all stages are easy for everyone to get on, especially if you’re not an established name yet. So there are several smaller groups making soapboxes out of any space that will let them, regardless of the added challenges—bad acoustics, makeshift stage, uncomfortable seating. Pre-pandemic, we ourselves have visited shows in basement parking lots, closed classrooms, and building society meeting rooms for less established open mics.
Manohar and Maini’s little “room” was born out of parties that they hosted at their apartment. As comedians, the two are always looking for new audiences to try their material on. “Any time we’re at a party, our main goal is to make people laugh,” Manohar said. “So why not charge people for these parties and get some work done in the process?”
“It would be great if we could all be a little more supportive towards each other because comics, in general, are very insecure beings.” — comedian Mohd Anas.
The long-term goal with this experiment is to take their shows to bigger terraces across the city. Putting on a show like this doesn’t cost much. Initially, the duo rented the sound equipment; a couple of shows in, they dropped some of their earnings on a permanent setup. “Other than that, it’s all just DIY,” says Maini. With the rains knocking at our doors, their biggest challenge now is to find a rooftop in the city with some cover.
This isn’t the only secret rooftop show happening in Mumbai. Elsewhere in the city, comedians Mohd Anas and Mohammed Hussain have been putting on similarly intimate shows to experiment with alternative comedy. The shows—which are temporarily on hold right now—happen at secret locations across the city, which you can only attend by responding to their stories when they announce them. The two are inspired by the kind of comedy sketches you’ll find on I Think You Should Leave and are attempting to marry their Instagram sensibilities with their on-stage persona – you can be in the room (literally) to witness a whole new approach to comedy.
“It’s not difficult to find stage time at open mics,” said Anas cheekily, contrary to what motivated Manohar and Maini. Rather, these shows appeal to him as a performer because there is no red light to tell him that his time is up. He can go on for as long as he pleases, which he feels is needed to flesh out certain alternative routines.
“I think you need at least 10-odd people for it to be a productive show,” Hussain told us. “Workshopping requires people, I don’t need established rooms for the jokes, I need the people.”
Traditional gigs mean that you have to keep other comedians and their flow in mind, and you’ve got to keep the producers happy so you can get another slot. Naturally, that puts a lot of restrictions on what you can do on stage. So Anas and Hussain—currently working on a two-man show—figured that their living rooms are a better space for this sort of exploration and are thinking of opening it up to other performers as well. They were also motivated by what they see as a certain elitism or conservatism in the scene.
“It’s very hard to discuss anything new with [comedians] because they have that same old approach of, ‘this is not real comedy’,” he adds. Back in the day, these problems were circumvented by comedians by forming collectives such as EIC and the now-defunct SNG and AIB. These groups took the reins and more than being “gatekeepers” of standup comedy, found ways to experiment with artists and producers together. That same DIY spirit and “don’t take no for an answer” attitude also seem to be behind this new spate of underground shows. While proper venues—some of which we lost altogether during the pandemic years—find their feet again, comedians seem to be returning to creating their own spaces that bypass producers, ticking clocks, and traditional formats.
The end-goal? To grow the comedy scene, in the form of more stages for comedians to hit up, less internal politics to deal with, and safe spaces where comedians—and audiences—can try out bold, audacious ideas without the fear that bombing on stage (likely) could be career-threatening. “It would be great if we could all be a little more supportive towards each other because comics, in general, are very insecure beings,” said Anas, who believes that causes half the stress. Hope you’re listening, comedy peers!