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The Rise of Zoomer Comedy

By Maanya Sachdeva 7 May 2020

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Chances are that, over the last 40 days, you’ve either signed up for a Zoom workshop, pledged money to your favourite live streamer, downloaded Google Hangouts so you can take a yoga class, or tuned in for an Instagram Live and called it ‘your weekend plans’. In fact, it’s extremely likely that you checked ‘all of the above’ on this very informal time-use survey (there’s no judgement here; this writer’s screen time is doubling every 24 hours). And it’s not just the audience that has been forced online.

Indian content creators and performers have been busy finding clever ways to adapt to this new normal and provide virtually non-stop entertainment. This is true for India’s comedy industry as well. In the blink of an eye, the universe of digital comedy has expanded from shaky lives and pre-recorded bits to include a full-fledged festival, a charity streamathon, chess tournaments, comedy workshops, YouTube lives, reunion specials (#EICDosti is all that matters) and even corporate shows. But what makes for compelling content? And how do you make sure you’re not drowned out by the noise on the Internet that only seems to be getting louder? Most importantly…what do you wear to a Zoom show?

It’s back-to-the-basics for India’s comedians, as they try to adapt the live show experience from auditoriums to your laptops. Comedian Amit Tandon, who started using Zoom to host comedy workshops, says that there’s a bit of a learning curve. “In the beginning it was very different, it was very disconcerting,” he explains. “Now we’re slowly getting used to the format, (to the idea) that this is not a stage performance.

Tandon likens the boom of digital comedy shows to the days of open mics, way back in 2010-11, when stand-up comics were figuring out how the stage operates and the logistics of performing for a live audience. “It (performing digital shows) is a new art form,” he suggests.

He observes that the year 2020 is like the year 2010 in another significant way; the lockdown has brought the comedy industry together once more as they try to decode a new medium. “What we’ve done is we’ve formed a group…we had a Zoom call with 35 comedians where we discussed what we learnt from our own shows,” says Tandon. “Getting up to speed is easier if you learn from everybody. We are now back to becoming a fraternity, from an industry, because we have to get together to learn together.”

One of the goodest boys of Bombay, Sahil Shah notes that there’s another very important cause that’s encouraging collaboration between performers–raising funds for COVID-19 relief workers and NGOs. “All of us are at home and all of us are frustrated so it’s a nice thing that we’re coming together to do things. We raised funds for charity on Tanmay (Bhat)’s stream, there’s chess happening, the #EICReunion that we did.”

And they might as well get comfortable with it, Shah explains, since these shows are the only ones happening right now. “Eventually, everyone will come on board because at the end of the day this is the only legitimate way of doing jokes actively for the next two months minimum.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing in Shah’s opinion. “Here, I can go for an open mic across the world,” he says. “My perspective is that even though we’re doing these shows right now, I’d still like to do a digital trial show even when lockdown ends. I can sit at home and do six shows back-to-back if I want.”

Sold? If you’re looking to try your hand at doing a virtual comedy show, here’s some things to think about:

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. The audience knows that you’re doing this from your home, with what you have. For the most part, everyone understands that this is largely uncharted territory and mistakes happen.
  • Content continues to reign supreme. Shah says, “The one thing I’ve learned is that no matter what your production is, no matter how much money you spend, content is king. If people are coming to listen to your jokes, you could be doing it in your chaddis, you could be doing it shirtless or you could be doing it in an auditorium. If you’re funny, you’re funny.”
  • Performing to a computer screen requires that you make some changes. “Earlier, your body language used to matter a lot but now the focus has shifted to facial expressions,” Tandon explains. The focus on expressions has increased, he feels. In addition, Shah says it’s important to talk a lot slower than you’re used to, to account for audio lags.
  • You do you! Tandon underscored the importance of staying true to your experiences and voice. “Why should I push myself to write a set about, say, college experiences when it’s not relevant to me or my life now? It’s not coming from an honest place.”
  • This one’s obvious but really important. Make sure you’re in a place with a good internet connection because you have to have the best internet, not the viewers. Check your bandwidth and figure a solid backup.
  • Treat it like a show. Actually stand-up and perform, says Shah. “Because I have to make do with what I have, in my room I put a ladder. On the ladder, I put a box and on the box, my laptop. It is very irritating, it easily takes me half an hour to set up because there’s so much to do. I’ve started using a microphone now, then you do a light set up, testing…proper half an hour goes. Now we’ve started playing music, putting up a slide, we make it feel like a show. Little effort has to go if you want to make it fun for everyone.”
  • Bad lighting is a common mistake.
  • Just have fun. Don’t take it seriously because everyone is in the same boat as you. “Earlier when there were open mics, you had to be qualified to take part or there was a cap on the number of performers. Then you think okay I want to create my own open mic night, you have to find a venue, talk to someone. Here you just create a Zoom call. That’s it! Anyone can do whatever they want!” Shah ends enthusiastically.

 Zoom isn’t the only way comedians are adapting to the new online reality. For our article on the basics of live streaming, click here.

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