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Notes from the Front Row at Home: First Thoughts on ‘Comicstaan’ S02

By Akhil Sood 13 July 2019

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Comicstaan is like a children’s birthday party. Everyone is ecstatic; they’ve eaten too much birthday cake so now they’re bouncing up the walls and bursting every single balloon they can find, then giggling uncontrollably. Halfway through the first episode, I’d already lost count of the number of shake-hands and high-fives that happened. Good joke? Shake hand. Bad joke? Shake hand even harder. The people in the show are on a very different show from the one I’m watching.

Compared to the first season, they’ve at least toned down the volume somewhat. The two hosts no longer scream out the name of every contestant like they’re wrestling commentators announcing the unexpected arrival of Hulk Hogan. What they have not changed, though, is the nauseating theme song for Comicstaan by Ritviz. I actually don’t even know if it’s any good or not—they play bits of it some 20 times an episode so eventually the only thing you can do is hate yourself.

The Format

This is the second season of the reality show, with the first three episodes streaming on Amazon Prime. The first season last year was, despite all the mockery directed at it, a success, and they’ve basically stuck to the same format. You have 10 upcoming comedians, selected after a (presumably) rigorous process of vetting, bits of which we’re shown as a staged round-table discussion after the auditions.

Each episode sees them trying out a different discipline of comedy in front of a live audience and a set of judges. The judges are the, well, who’s whos of metro comedy in India, and one of the mentors the comics in a different comedic style each episode.

The first one sees the contestants take on the broad theme of observational comedy, guided by Kanan Gill. They’re rated by the judges and the audience (who are these people who go to these filmings? I’ve always wondered) after each set, and the totals are tallied up at the end.

The #MeToo Fallout

Let’s take all the elephants out of the fridge, put them in the room, and address them. The new season of Comicstaan comes out in a changed world—the revelations of the Me Too movement from last year dispelled the foolhardy notion that English metropolitan standup comedy was a progressive space, and that casts a shadow over the show as a whole. For starters, it’s been produced by Only Much Louder, which faced allegations of all sorts in an article in Caravan magazine last year, without any real repercussions.

Then there’s the rejig of the judging panel on the show. Carrying on from last year are Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kaneez Surka, Kenneth Sebastian, and Gill. One of the judges who’s been replaced is Tanmay Bhat, of the (erstwhile?) All India Bakchod. The company found itself in the eye of the storm at the time for their—and Bhat’s, specifically—mishandling of the allegations against their collaborator Utsav Chakraborty. There’s no place for any of them here, given the show was filmed right after the movement broke out last year.

This year’s judges on Comicstaan.

The judges who’ve been brought in are Sumukhi Suresh, who moves from hosting to judging this season (Abish Mathew retains his ‘always the bridesmaid’ spot as the perennial host, joined by Urooj Ashfaq). The talented Neeti Palta is on the panel as well. And then there’s The Zakir Khan: comic, cult leader, and likely a future MRA hero. One step forward…

Playing It Safe?

With all this baggage around the show, it feels surprising—or perhaps the opposite—that Comicstaan is deeply non-confrontational. In the auditions episode (a bonus episode that’s not part of the actual line-up), one of the comics, Raunaq Rajani, has a bit about “fake eunuchs” with transphobic undertones, and no one seems to notice. He’s lauded for his comfort on stage, and makes it to the final line-up of comics.

Samay Raina, a Kashmiri comedian, does a bit about drugs making you forgetful in the first episode. Kenneth Sebastian points out that he’s heard something similar before. As Raina begins to address the allegations of plagiarism, explaining that he’s spoken to the comedian in question who has a similar bit, Sebastian cuts him short with a joke and moves on. The audience gets no resolution. Given the inherently confrontational nature of comedy, and its historical value as a tool of protest and free speech, this Indian family brushing-under-the-carpet energy feels out of place.

Even the feedback at the end of the three-minute sets that the contestants present feels oddly sanitised. All the judges are trained in the sandwich technique—compliment, followed by the criticism you actually want to make, followed by hollow compliment—which makes the screen-time dedicated to them unnecessary—the occasionally sharp observation or criticism of a set the only saving grace. (Which isn’t to say they should go all Simon Cowell and destroy the self-esteem of the contestants, but I think a middle-ground exists.) The rest of the time is spent focussing on the ‘hilarious antics’ of the judges, to capitalise on their status as recognisable internet personalities.

Those Who Make the Show What It Is

Comicstaan Season 2 contestants

Should we talk about the actual contestants? We should, right? Of the chosen 10, six are men and four are women.

They’re not exactly green; many of the selected comics have considerable experience in various comedy disciplines. Aakash Gupta, who did a goofy, over-the-top bit about cooking shows in the opening episode, has videos of his stand-up on YouTube with millions (plural) of views.

They all seem to be using this show as a propellant, a way to reach out to bigger audiences, and so the quality—in terms of both delivery and writing—is high. Sure, there’s plenty of garden-variety Indian Comedy jokes—there’s even one reference to comedian-favourite Stephen Hawking—but in general, most of the comics have discernible styles and voices. From these two episodes, I was taken by Shreeja Chaturvedi’s intensity and sharpness, the combative style of Joel D’Souza, as well as Raina’s and Gupta’s biting performances.

Thank you! That’s been my time, guys! My name is Akhil! You’ve been a lovely audience!

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