As a concept, One Mic Stand doesn’t really offer any real value to its audience. Aesthetically, emotionally, intellectually, the Amazon Prime Video show is a decidedly lukewarm offering—rating higher than a “meh”, but far from a “whoa”. In fairness, it doesn’t seem like the show has any grander aspirations either. At its core, this is a show you watch to see your favourite (and not-so-favourite) celebrities try something new. You watch it for the cheap thrill of Karan Johar insinuating, in good humour, that everyone in the crowd is ugly. To discover that Sunny Leone has impeccable timing and an unexpected flair for standup comedy. To scoff at Chetan Bhagat comparing himself to Old Bill Shakespeare: he says in all seriousness that Shakespeare was the Chetan Bhagat of his time.
That’s really the whole point here: the novelty. Celebrities and pop culture types that we recognise in the controlled setting that they exist in, suddenly being transported into a fish out of water scenario that can potentially humble them. They feel less like rich alien freaks. They’re (almost) endearing. One Mic Stand is fun if you want it to be—never bad enough to be truly trashy, but also sans even a glimmer of greater creative ambition. It resides in that in-between space where everyone wins but nothing actually changes: maybe Amazon Prime Video gets a viral clip out of it. A couple of the celebrities potentially get to present a new side of their persona to fans. The standup scene in Mumbai, which exists on the fringes of Bollywood and mainstream pop culture, crawls an inch further in the right direction.
Things can get a little repetitive given the five episodes—featuring Leone, Johar, journalist Faye D’Souza, Bhagat, and rapper Raftaar—follow a rigid template. This is the second season of the show, and it was shot over a long period with all the breaks we’ve had over the past couple of years thanks to that big thing that’s going on.
One episode has a huge crowd cheering on the comic like you’d expect, which is great. But the others have socially distanced people in masks, making it impossible to see if someone’s smiling or scowling at a joke. (I’m not an eye reader.) The energy in the room, understandably, is often uncertain. For a first-time comedian in particular, that doesn’t sound like the ideal situation.
Each episode starts with the host Sapan Verma—who has a disarming friendliness about him—meeting the chosen famous person. He hooks them up with one comedian who’s going to mentor them for an upcoming standup performance (Neeti Palta, Sumukhi Suresh, Atul Khatri, Abish Mathew, and Samay Raina don the mentor hats here.) They talk about life for a bit, acting like they’re all best friends, discussing each other’s craft and what makes it tick. There’s a “role reversal” segment each time where we see the comedians learning about the celebrity’s profession—Atul Khatri (and the ever-present Verma) are taught by Faye D’Souza to be angry news anchors who throw pens at the camera. Karan Johar insults everyone’s clothes. There are also some pitiful attempts at pole dancing and a cringy rap song that will make even the best among us squirm in discomfort. And then the celebrity is prepared, off screen, for a 10-minute set.
On to the performances themselves: I went in hoping for at least one car-crash, if not a magical full house. One train-wreck, that’s all I ask, with people booing and the performer cursing out the crowd. Sadly, there’s none of that. Sure, many jokes are predictably agonising, and the crowd’s enthusiasm wavers from time to time. But there are no outright catastrophes.
It’s the sets by Sunny Leone—who uses her past career in the adult film industry as a hook to poke fun at the hypocrisy, weirdness, and general discomfort that follows her—and Chetan Bhagat—about how everyone pretty much hates everything he does or doesn’t do—that really stand out.
These are all high profile public figures with varying degrees of wit and confidence, trained in public speaking or working the stage. Faye D’Souza is even confident enough to ditch the comedy entirely toward the latter half of her set, instead trying her best to reach out to young people to tell them about the value of good quality journalism.
On top of that, they have professional comedians tutoring them, presumably even writing many of the punchlines. That leaves limited room for schadenfreude. There’s a rare and fascinating bit of insight too, as Abish Mathew explains to Chetan Bhagat how comedy is about finding a balance between your writing, your performance, and your personality. How you need to focus on the parts you’re good at, to compensate for the weaknesses. And just as a cherry on top, the comedians do a five-minute routine at the beginning of each episode, with Sumukhi Suresh’s delightful set perhaps the highlight of the whole show.
What is pleasantly surprising, though, is the innate knack at comedy that some of the celebrities possess. They all choose a style that draws heavily on their personality and their life story, drawing the crowd in. Some self-deprecation is thrown in (though it’s hard to tell sometimes if famous people are being self-deprecating or if they’re secretly bragging), as also the odd “mean-spirited” dig, conveniently directed, most often, at Sapan Verma or the mentor.
Within that framework though, it’s the sets by Sunny Leone—who uses her past career in the adult film industry as a hook to poke fun at the hypocrisy, weirdness, and general discomfort that follows her—and Chetan Bhagat—about how everyone pretty much hates everything he does or doesn’t do—that really stand out. Bhagat, with his nervous energy driving the rhythm of the set, is a revelation. He’s secure enough to really dig in, whether the jibes are directed at himself or the people he pisses off. It hints at the slightest bit of inner turmoil about his place in history.
More than anything, though, One Mic Stand is emblematic of the weird, almost macabre relationship that exists between audiences and celebrities in India. We see it more and more every day now—in Bollywood, in sport, journalism, big business, politics, everything. It’s worryingly co-dependent, often creepy. No one gets any real joy out of it anymore. We want them to be just like us, but the idea that they’re like us in any way is scary. So, at the same time, we want them to be nothing like us. It evokes an odd mix of adulation and resentment. In a way, you could say the same about One Mic Stand.