On 30 March, 2020, comedian Nishant Tanwar reached out to the open-micers in the industry and offered to support them with funds for essentials, in light of the coronavirus pandemic. As comedy venues around the country pulled down their shutters, young comics found themselves without the means to sustain their careers financially. At the time, Tanwar told DeadAnt, “I know that there are a lot of open micers in the scene, a lot of comedians who’ve moved to Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore from other smaller cities, for open mics and opportunities… they survive literally month-to-month organising gigs for other comedians.” (FYI, Tanwar is still running the support campaign for struggling comedians and will transfer Rs 10,000 directly into their accounts post verification. More details here.)
But it’s not just about the money. Open mic events have always worked as safe spaces for comics—whether aspiring or established—to test drive their new material, see what works and what doesn’t. “Our first mistakes are made in a live space, we test our material there. We go through our highs and lows there,” says Evam Standup Tamasha founder Karthik Kumar. So the loss of regular open mic nights has been keenly felt.
Luckily, more and more open mic events are belatedly making the jump online, following the success of Zoom gigs and live-streamed sets by established comics. Comedian Sonali Thakker points out that there are more online open mics and Zoom shows happening in 2020 than there were live open mics in a city in any year.
“There’s no substitute to not being able to try your jokes in front of an audience,” she adds. The best thing to do, then? Look on the bright side and use this forced downtime to work on the very specific skills required to be funny despite WiFi issues and background noise. Here’s our guide on workshopping your material in the midst of COVID-19:
“I think there are a lot of open mics happening online, please approach them,” is Atul Khatri’s number one tip for younger comics; unfortunately, there’s no other alternative to the live show experience at the moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s multi-comic line-ups, online open mics, format shows or panel discussions, just sign up for as many digital shows as possible. It’s not the same thing, but it’s very, very workable. Thakker says, “[Zoom shows] will keep you in the practice of performing in front of an audience, which works better than just writing material that you think is funny and hasn’t been tried in front of an audience.” Reach out to senior comics—not just for spots—but also for other writing work, Khatri recommends, adding vehemently, “It’s absolutely okay to ask for work.”
Find Your Place Online
We’re no longer in the Jerry Seinfeld-era of comedy, Kumar says, urging freshers to craft a well-rounded funny persona that moves seamlessly from the stage to Instagram. He says, “Make your funny persona all-pervasive, as opposed to saying, ‘No! You should come see me inside a club.’” Some stuff will stick, some will be lost to the digital content black hole, but there’s no harm in experimenting. In fact, Siddharth Singhal, comedy agent at KWAN, says there’s no better time to release new material. “Put out content [on social media] without fear. A lot of younger comics like to do their open mics, they like to really flesh it out before they put it out. Have some faith in yourself.” It’s important to stay motivated and try new things—yes we mean podcasts—before you find what works for you.
C for COVID, C for Content
It’s hard not to write a one-hour COVID-19 special, but Tanwar will tell you to keep digging. In a post-pandemic world, there will be lots of jokes about Trump and Purrell, millennials bored of social distancing, NaMo’s speeches and Bigg Boss-esque tasks; so try to look at things from a different point-of-view while writing new material, the Delhi-based comedian says. Immerse yourself in different kinds of experiences because, Sumukhi Suresh says, comedy comes from experiences. Her advice? “Try and explore newer interests during this time to continue to build [a collection] of experiences.”
Back to School
There’s no time like the middle of a pandemic to hone your skills and refine your craft. DeadAnt recommends signing up for comedy workshops (including those hosted by other comics, like Aditi Mittal and Jeeya Sethi) to push past a bad bout of writer’s block or get feedback on existing sets. For comedians with a fondness for podcasts (so, all comedians?), edutainment podcasts like On Comedy Writing by Alan Johnson, Matt Morgan’s Funny How and The Comedian’s Comedian by Stuart Goldsmith are also worth checking out.