Over the past couple of years, starting with Comicstaan, Amazon Prime Video has become something of a comedy conveyor belt in India, shuffling between a familiar lineup of comedians from one comedy IP to the next. That trend continues in their latest Tamil comedy release LOL: Enga Siri Paappom, which features a number of familiar faces.
Syama Harini, the runner-up of Comicstaan: Semma Comedy Pa is among the 10 comedians in the recently released Tamil edition of the LOL franchise. Maya Krishnan, a guest star in sci-fi comedy Time Enna Boss on the same platform, is another comedian on this show. The others include Satish (who has won awards for “Best Comedian” in a bunch of films (Kaththi, Thangamagan, Remo, Tamizh Padam 2), Pugazh (best known for his work on the culinary-comedy show Cooku With Comali), Harathi (who won the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Comedian for her work in Paraseega Mannan), and Premgi Amaren (the actor, musician, and comedian whose stage name in a cruel, comedic twist is a spelling error—it was supposed to be Prem G).
The big Thanjavur thalayatti bommai, the bobble-head doll on the stage, is all that helps distinguish this space aesthetically from its equally dull, equally embarrassing Hinglish forerunner LOL: Hasse Toh Phasse. Both have the same idea—10 comedians are locked in a room for 6 hours. They have to make each other laugh, through conversation, through stand-up, through sketches, but they mustn’t laugh themselves. You get a yellow card if you laugh once, and an eliminating red card if you laugh twice. If you are passive i.e. not being funny, not doing things to elicit laughs, you will be warned with a yellow card.
It’s a tricky concept to execute, but in the right hands—such as the Japanese edition hosted by Hitoshi Matsumoto—it can be quite successful. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of judges Shiva and the late Vivek, the Tamil edition trips, stumbles or leaps headlong into almost all of the potential pitfalls of making an unscripted comedy show.
Perhaps the makers were so intent on the competition aspect of the show that they forgot about the need to make their audience laugh. The rules are surprisingly stringent—you are not allowed to laugh, smile, or even move the muscles around your mouth implying a smile. Sometimes showing teeth was enough to get a yellow card. Sometimes the smile they showed didn’t even look like a smile, as opposed to a resting face, an inadvertent fall back on muscle memory. Often, the suspense of the show, stringing one episode to the next through a cliffhanger, hinged on who committed the cardinal sin of showing amusement.
If anything, the curtains are dejectedly drawn on the idea that these comedians can be funny when unscripted.
Why so strict, I wondered? Wasn’t the point of the show to get comedians to be their funniest, to revel in the jovial power of comedy—the difficulty to produce it, and the difficulty to be immune to it. Why was only the former dealt with here?
In the third episode, to make them laugh, the hosts make the comedians jump back and forth, left and right. The comedian who got a yellow card in this exercise wasn’t even laughing—she was just sneering her lips to the left. But there is something more deeply debasing about this concept.
Did the showrunners really think that comedians would be so ineffective at making each other laugh that we have to make them jump like toddlers in a sandbox? Or that they could trick people into smiling by getting them to pose for a photograph saying “Smile please”? Later, there are thumb fights to induce something. It is humiliating to see this play out, second-hand embarrassment extended to people like Baggy who at one point pretends to be mad, tying his lungi nipple-height, head shaved to have hair in the shape of a chameleon. Or Harathi wearing an inflatable sumo costume—comedians beckoning ‘please laugh at my weight’.
I guess it makes sense that they are immune to laughter, given the craft requires them to perform their sets with a poker face. But shouldn’t the solution to get such comedians to laugh be ecstatic, eccentric, exaggerated, excessive humour and not people cosplaying buck-toothed journalists?
The comedians just banter sometimes, and like the hosts and judges note, you don’t understand what they are saying, nor do you laugh: “onnum puriyalay, sirippum varalay”. The show, boring on the uptake, also comes dangerously close to embodying all that is regressive and unfunny about mainstream Tamil comedy. If anything, the curtains are dejectedly drawn on the idea that these comedians can be funny when unscripted. In turn, our respect for standup—a curated, rehearsed, careful performance of casual humour—is heightened.
Though there are some inspiring stretches—like when Satish, who doesn’t do a single costume change or use props throughout the show, and Pugazh, the best of the comedians, riff in “pure” Tamil. The humour, of course, doesn’t translate in the subtitles, but those few minutes unmask these two comedians for what they are—inspired, spontaneous artists. The rest is drivel.