In 2015, the second season of BoJack Horseman had a storyline about Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) getting sucked into a cult—one built around the practice of improv comedy. In typical BoJack fashion, the entire story arc was an allegory for Hollywood’s obsession with Scientology, but the choice of metaphor was quite apt. Improv, with its emphasis on intense, cohesive, repetitive group activities (and occasionally, the defensive attitude of its fans in the face of criticism) does resemble a cult at times. The key ingredients are compatibility and belief; if you and your partner(s) have been jamming for a while and you trust their flow, the improv will go down easier with viewers.
The recently released Amazon Prime Video series LOL: Hasse Toh Phasse is a reminder of these key improv qualities, most of which are conspicuous by their absence here. The concept behind LOL (which stands for “Last One Laughing”) is like Bigg Boss meets… a slightly confused comedy show. Ten comedians share a space for six hours on end, trying to make each other laugh while resisting the temptation to laugh or smile themselves. If you laugh or smile twice, you’re out of the door; you also cannot engage in ‘passive play’ although the parameters of this are never clearly defined. Last person standing wins the caboodle, Rs 25 lakh (this is a recession caboodle). Their endeavours are adjudicated by the hosts, Bollywood funnymen Boman Irani and Arshad Warsi. It’s not an original concept—it’s a redeveloped version of the highly successful Japanese show Documental, and Amazon has launched a series of LOL adaptations in several countries already.
But I’m not sure any of those have been as disastrous as LOL: Hasse Toh Phasse. To be honest, the central problem with the show is the way the lineup itself is structured. There are four old-timers, people who’ve been part of the film and TV industries for 20 years or more: Cyrus Broacha, Sunil Grover, Suresh Menon and Gaurav Gera. There’s Aditi Mittal, Aadar Malik and, to a lesser extent, Aakash Gupta form the “bridge generation.” And the rest—Mallika Dua, Kusha Kapila, Ankita Shrivastav—are a younger lot whom we can class as the YouTube generation.
What this leads to is an un-optimised mix of experience, expertise and aesthetic. Their sensibilities are very different, some are not nearly as technically accomplished as actors (despite Aadar Malik helpfully reminding everybody in the room that they’ve all been in theatre workshops) and unlike the old-timers, they haven’t really been put on the spot all that much. Their comfort zone is built around well-lit, professionally edited YouTube videos, where they can control all the discreet bits of data the viewer is fed on-screen. They can control the variables. Here, they’re about as comfortable as a cat in a cold bath—and at times, just as snippy too.
Mallika Dua’s entire career, it seems, is one-note: making repetitive, relentless fun of working-class and middle-class Indian English accents. Does she want to do more? Does she have it in her? We don’t know because Dua won’t let us know. Like Bhuvan Bam has bet his entire career on a handful of swear words popular across the Hindi-speaking parts of the country, Dua has bet hers on this ‘makeup Didi’ shtick that was tired to begin with (it is now a dead horse, well on its way to zombification).
Aadar Malik is bright, irreverent and resourceful but he plays well within himself here, realising that he’s a little bit out of his depth in front of the veterans. I liked his brief impersonation of an uppity theatre instructor, but the rest was strictly okay. Ankita Shrivastav, Kusha Kapila and Aditi Mittal try their best (Mittal makes a brave attempt at a straight-up, un-ironic cat-impersonation, among other things) but no cigar, I’m afraid. Mittal is very quickly out of the game while Kapila’s attempts at sketch comedy feel more like outtakes from her videos—in fact, watching her is a great way of understanding how fundamentally different YouTube comedy (narrow, topical, ironic, allusive in the extreme, the ‘if-you-know-you-know’ ethos) is from its Indian TV/film counterpart (broad, expansive, covering the full spectrum from pirouetting pantaloon to straight-faced satirist).
The old-timers, predictably, are far better at improv, especially Gera and Grover (one of them wins the caboodle, but you too must sit through Dua’s inanities to find out, just like I did). And why shouldn’t they? Think about all the practice they’ve had. Grover has performed in literally hundreds of Comedy Nights With Kapil episodes, playing all kinds of silly characters. Gera, one of Indian TV’s many tireless warrior-poets, is perhaps best known for his superb role on Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi (2003-2007).
But he’s also had tons of experience performing live—from June 2011 to September 2014, Gera performed as the lead in Jhumroo, a Kishore Kumar-inspired Bollywood musical at Gurgaon’s ‘Kingdom of Dreams’, a live entertainment venue where the weekend tickets start at a cool Rs. 1299 per person. Think about that: the same role for over three years, performing for the benefit of snooty Gurgaon yuppies whose idea of art is probably South Park.
There are any number of ways in which LOL could have used Gera, Grover and company. They could have been teamed up in a battle-of-the-generations style contest. They could have recreated some of their own old characters and gags. Hell, I’d pay good money to watch them just being themselves in a room for six hours, maybe with Irani and Warsi (who are good but just a wee bit underwhelmed by proceedings, like the rest of us) on real-time or even post-production commentary duties, like Javed Jaffrey in the Hindi dub for Takeshi’s Castle.
Improv might resemble a cult at times, but even the nuttiest cults have an internal logic of sorts, the kind that LOL sorely lacks.