Even a cursory look at the evolution of Indian reality TV shows across the last 20 years will reveal some simple, unvarnished truths about the fabled Indian middle-class. First came the talent-based shows like Boogie Woogie and Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Indian Idol, where the aspirational carrot was crystal-clear. If you could sing or dance and gain the approval of Bollywood-adjacent judges, that was your ticket to showbiz. Sushant Singh Rajput who—in death—has become perhaps the biggest symbol of ‘outsider’ success in the industry, started off as a part of Shiamak Davar’s dance troupe.
Then, as young Indians became more confident and partook of social media, creative worth was suddenly unworthy (and worse, uncool) and young people wanted to be famous for being famous, like the Kardashians. Any discernible talent, on the rare occasion of its presence, was secondary to your looks and the way you “presented yourself” (read: showed off enough affectations tangibly linked to the metropolitan elite). Enter reality shows of the horse manure persuasion, like Roadies and Splitsvilla and more recently, Skulls and Roses.
The Amazon Prime Video show Comicstaan belongs firmly in the talent-led reality TV camp. But even within this category there has been a shift in the tonality, as is evident in the recently released third season, hosted by Abish Mathew and Kusha Kapila. Everybody, from the participants and the hosts to the judges, is noticeably nicer. Critiques are respectfully expressed and always softened with heartfelt words of encouragement. The mentors assigned to participants (one per round—Aadar Malik for improv, Anu Menon for sketch comedy, Sapan Verma for topical comedy and so on) behave in a distinctly egalitarian way. It’s a remarkable journey, in some ways, for an industry whose modern-day momentum was derived in part from a roast that went viral.
There are sound, structural reasons behind this, in my view; the first is the overall trend of reality TV judges becoming nicer across the board (the likes of Simon Cowell et al went too far in their misanthropy, ceding market space to nicer competitors like JLo on The Voice, forcing network executives to crack the whip). The second reason is a little more subtle. Earlier this year, I wrote about Shark Tank India in a column for The Hindu, which included these lines:
“The point of most talent-hunt reality TV is to audition for class mobility. Your performance on the show decides whether you’re bumped up into the judges’ societal class.”
Apply this principle to Comicstaan and you can see why the judges feel much nicer this time around — stand-up comics, at least the ones not swimming in corporate promo-work, have bled since the pandemic began. Lockdowns meant that ticketed shows came to a standstill for a while, and even when they resumed, the premium on going out had risen sharply. You had to be really, really good for people—especially at-risk people—to consider leaving their homes at all. Class mobility is only a carrot if the people on the other end of the table look and sound assured, complacent, self-satisfied even.
Almost everybody involved has bought into unironic sincerity, especially when it comes to (deep breath) The Craft.
Does all of this make Comicstaan Season 3 a better show than its previous instalments? I’d argue, yes, certainly. For one, almost everybody involved has bought into unironic sincerity, especially when it comes to (deep breath) The Craft.
Zakir Khan, on one occasion, delivers a gentle but firm lecture to a contestant named Natiq Hasan when the latter confesses that he does not write his jokes down in full—he prefers instead to improvise almost constantly. Take the craft seriously, he tells Hasan, channeling the Big Dad Energy that becomes his signature in this season (he recognises this too, playfully asking a contestant to keep his hands out of his pockets following a brilliant performance).
Sumukhi Suresh is similarly encouraging, rational and always has interesting things to say about voice modulation, stage presence and so on. Kenny Sebastian, whose bedside manner would put most doctors to shame, has many disarmingly honest comments throughout, but the one I liked the most was when he talked about what he felt was a problem with Indian standup: “beyond a point we all kinda start sounding like each other.” Yes Kenny, sing it from the mountain-top my gentle-voiced brother. Neeti Palta treats the contestants with a great deal of collegial respect (and also offers some interesting perspectives on work in other media, like radio or ad voice-overs) which is always nice to see. It helps that the show has streamlined its judges’ table—eight was too many judges and four feels just right. In previous years, the editing did no justice to the judges’ comments; this year they come across as much warm, knowledgeable people willing to share.
Besides, these particular contestants—Aman Jotwani, Pavitra Shetty et al—have been around the Indian standup circuit for several years, almost as long as some of the judges. It’s not difficult to see why they represent a level-up from the contestants in Seasons 1 and 2. Shamik Chakrabarti from Bangalore, for example, is a sharp writer who grows as a performer, too, through the course of the season. DeadAnt had interviewed Chakrabarti two and a half years ago, in February 2020, marking him as a talent to watch out for. For Pavitra, this was even earlier, a solid three years ago, in July 2019.
Because this lot has been around the block for a while, the judges are unafraid to talk about the darker aspects of standup with them. Zakir, on more than one occasion, asks a performer for more energy onstage because “This is the job you have chosen, unfortunately, so you have to act like you’re really interested in your own words, every single time”. One of the contestants, Adesh Nichit, forgot his set entirely during a round and straight-up asked to start again; Natiq bombed hard and said “I f***ed this round” after doing so. These were moments that showed us the flip side of this business; once again, something conspicuously absent in previous seasons.
My personal favourites, Ashish Solanki and Gurleen Pannu, are pretty good all-round comics, scoring highly in pretty much every department you can think of—they also have interesting faces and personas that are decidedly not from the assembly line. Ashish was called ‘Suppandi’ at one point by Sumukhi Suresh and I thought that was a great compliment for a budding comic (Suppandi is a beloved and hilarious fool from the pages of Tinkle, one of India’s most popular children’s magazines).
Adesh Nichit’s remarkable, experimental set in the penultimate episode was given a perfect 10/10 score—this was the ‘alt-comedy’ round mentored by Kanan Gill and it’s one of the best-ever Comicstaan episodes in my view. Patna’s Shreya Priyam has charisma and a sharp eye for hypocrisy and she’ll be a voice to watch out for in the years ahead. To be honest, I found myself rooting for all eight of the contestants because in their own ways, they were all very unguarded and genuine and showed a willingness to learn and evolve that’s often missing from your garden-variety reality show.
Arriving shortly after a former winner just made an ass of himself on a national scale, Comicstaan’s Season 3 is wholesome, frequently funny and injects some fresh blood into the world of Indian standup.