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Standup in a Post-COVID World: The Way Forward For Indian Comedy

By Maanya Sachdeva 20 August 2020

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It has been a whirlwind few months for Indian comedy, hasn’t it? Ever since COVID-19 hit these shores, everyone in the industry has been scrambling to adjust to the new reality. Reactions have ranged from doom and gloom or resigned acceptance, to a flurry of attempted innovations as comedians look for new ways to engage with their audiences. More and more comics are now shifting their attention to online corporate gigs, panel/format shows, full-fledged comedy festivals and crowd work performances—with heavily subsidised tickets—as a way to stay afloat.

But is that sustainable? What are the perils of performing new material in an environment as unregulated as Zoom? Should comedians charge more for these shows that are subbing in for so many different kinds of entertainment (including eating out, grabbing a drink with friends, watching a movie) at the moment? Will Zoom shows persist in a post-pandemic world? How can the industry look out for comics who are just starting out? Where do venues and comedy clubs figure in the big picture?

To answer these questions, we spoke to comedians, venue owners, promoters and artist managers across the country to provide you with a 360-degree perspective on how the Indian comedy industry is navigating this unfortunate crisis.

What’s The Damage?

Both Atul Khatri and Amit Tandon were on-schedule for international tours when COVID-19 hit, and cancelling these had huge financial repercussions. While Khatri was touring his new special Daddy Kool across the United States, Tandon was one of the Indian comics scheduled to perform at Netflix’s first-ever comedy festival, sharing the stage with the likes of Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. Tandon’s world tour, scheduled after the release of his Family Tandoncies special, was also shelved. “That was a big blow,” he says.

For Pushpavalli creator Sumukhi Suresh, the timing of the pandemic—right around Women’s Day—was particularly bad for women comics. “That’s the only month we get a crazy amount of corporate enquiries,” she says. “I was locked [to do shows] from February 28 till March 11, but they all got cancelled.”

With the lockdown coming into place, revenue streams dried up overnight for all live performers in India. According to Siddharth Singhal, comedy agent at Kwan, the income of most comedians dropped to about 30% of what they were earning pre-COVID.  Only Much Louder CEO Ajay Nair confirmed in May that anyone making a decent amount of money from live shows should expect to lose 70-80% of that revenue in the coming months. He noted, “We’ve found that most people who invested time and effort in content creation over the last few years have done well in this time.”

As someone who continues to steer clear of Zoom comedy shows, Evam Standup Tamasha founder Karthik Kumar highlights the emotional and creative impact of this overnight shutdown of offline gigs. “The fountainhead of stand-up comedy is the live version of it,” he says. “OTT [platforms] and YouTube are merely multipliers of something that is inherently live. It’s a visceral, tactile experience and that’s missing right now, so that’s hugely impacted us as both artists and as professionals.”

Zoom to the Rescue?

In the meantime, Zoom has become a popular destination for stand-up comedy—but this didn’t happen overnight. Even as some comics (Sahil Shah and Tandon were among the first few Zoomers) began to use the platform to workshop new material and perform full-length sets around mid-April, the general rate of adoption was quite low. Nair says, “In month one, the newer comics said ‘nahin karna hai, it doesn’t feel like a live show.’ Now everyone is doing it, we’re past the initial bravado.”

In competition with the content on streaming platforms, are these Zoom shows viable? Daniel Fernandes thinks so. “If you crack a Zoom show and you work on volume, you can make a decent income,” the Mumbai-based comedian and podcast host confirms.

Everyone’s working from home, he adds, and so are India’s comedians—but the medium is not without its flaws. “One is the experience [of watching a live show]: can we replace that as virtual reality grows and it becomes possible to simulate the experience of a club?” Tandon explains that the other, more pressing concern is protecting the comedian’s Intellectual Property Rights. Singhal also concurs that the biggest worry with performing comedy online is that someone from the audience will record it surreptitiously and the efforts put in by comedians over the last 6 to 8 months of writing a new set would be completely diminished.

So what works for Zoom comedy and live streaming? In the wake of live gigs, these virtual shows are a few notches above regular, impersonal YouTube fare. Moreover, according to everyone we spoke to, Zoom shows offer advantages in terms of reach and marketing. Singhal reveals that the comedians managed by Kwan (including Vir Das and Tandon) are doing 2-3 shows a week, as they’re realising that you don’t technically have to be in a city to perform there. Das has done so many of these shows that he was able to compile crowd-work footage into a charity special, out this weekend.

The best thing about these live show substitutes? They have elevated comedy shows to the status of an essential commodity. He says, “You’re going to wake up the next day and you’re going to smile because Amit [Tandon] said something you can relate to, or have just experienced at home. That’s the feeling people are buying into.”

Can comedians afford to charge a premium for these shows then? Khatri believes so. “Right from the start, I’ve been charging Rs. 499 min. for my Zoom comedy shows,” he explains. “My logic is that in one screen there are usually two-three people watching.”

He also believes that Zoom shows are currently replacing most other kinds of entertainment. Kumar agrees. “The fact that Zoom tickets are priced at a subsidy is a very dangerous sign because we are at some level selling ourselves short,” he says. “It [leaves us in] the precarious space of potentially devaluing ourselves.”

Diversify, Diversify, Diversify

Since Zoom shows cannot be expected to sufficiently plug the income gap, the need of the hour is an almost-relentless focus on diversifying into content and tapping into different sources of income. If something sticks, Fernandes says, it becomes monetisable, while also keeping you relevant and top-of-mind. Visibility is key. Cue the surge in podcasts, web shows, and live streaming that might help comedians cushion their savings. Nair says, “The plan is that everyone is experimenting right now—there will be some sponsorship and ticketing money, and the advantage is that theoretically, your audience is infinite; anyone can tune it. Some comics [Kumar Varun with quizzing, for example] will find a way to do this well.”

Comics who crack these formats, he says, can and will treat it as a long term thing. It seems unlikely, for instance, that Samay Raina’s wildly popular chess live streams will cease to exist when the pandemic blows over. Comics have other skills that they can put to use as well, especially if they’ve got experience in content creation. “Now you can’t tell people to make content, but it’s working well for those who naturally took to it,” says Nair. “A reasonable number of comics were able to do that, and that’s also created a good pool that allows comics to employ other comics. Shows we do —One Mic Stand, Comicstaan—the writers room is usually populated with other comics.”

Given that OTT platforms are still commissioning specials and brand work continues at an aggressive pace, nothing has changed for India’s top tier of comics, according to Nair. However, he adds grimly, that the industry will lose out on a lot of younger talent. How can they survive the pandemic?

Kumar recommends spending some time to figure out how to make your funny persona medium-agnostic. “We’re no longer in the Jerry Seinfeld era of live comedy; you have to be able to adapt across mediums,” he says. Khatri suggests a three-fold approach which includes tightening purse strings by trying to cut back on expenses like rent and approaching senior comics for writing or tertiary work. The best way to continue workshopping material and get ‘stage time’, according to Fernandes, is to try to get on Zoom shows with other comics. Nair is also counting on the fact that many established comics like Nishant Tanwar are also working out ways to help as many struggling comedians during this time as possible.

Back To The Future

Even when live comedy does return, there’s no guarantee that it will look like it did before the pandemic, with venues and promoters being particularly badly hit. Brick-and-mortar comedy venues had only just begun cropping up in India’s metros—predominantly in Mumbai, Bengaluru, New Delhi and, more recently, Chennai—before the virus forced them to pull their shutters down. That Comedy Club owner Sumendra Singh says that the venue hasn’t had a single show in over four months and it’s unlikely that live shows will return before the end of the year. On July 11, 2020, the Bandra-based comedy club turned to its patrons for support with a crowdfunding drive, #SupportTCC. What has the response to that been? “We got a lot of support from people who have come to the shows, so there’s some sort of monetary benefit there, some hope that people like the space. That gives you the extra confidence to hold on,” he says, adding that the funds are going to cover some of the rent and other overhead expenses. For the time being, the plan is to sit tight and survive.

Meanwhile, The Habitat’s Balraj Ghai is looking to pivot his business from live open mics to working as support ops for comedians who are experimenting with unique online concepts and formats on their own handles. Whether that involves working with Raina to help set-up his chess live streams or coming up with fresh formats like Comics Trying Poetry and its counterpart, Poets Trying Comedy, The Habitat is trying to help comics build an online audience. “If an online audience turns into an offline audience, that’s good for us as a venue,” he reasons.

The Grin Revolution, well-known on the Mumbai circuit for hosting weekly gigs at different bars and clubs across the city, is also working on developing fresh formats that are fun to watch online. At present, they organise two Zoom format shows—I’m The Best and Wrong Answers Only—with heavyweight line-ups while watching and learning to see how things evolve. 

Similar initiatives are being attempted by other artists, venues and promoters, with varying degrees of success. Some argue that this flurry of experimentation, forced on the industry by the pandemic, may actually lead to a healthier, more diversified comedy industry in the future. Even when live comedy finally returns, comedians and industry players will continue to benefit from this newly developed arsenal of strategies, formats and revenue streams. “Once things open up, these new sources of income are going to be added to what comedians were earning earlier because these are revenue streams that they are open to exploit anywhere and anytime,” says Singhal.

The comics concur. Counting down to the day she can perform on-stage again, Suresh says, “The moment we come back, there is going to be an equally large demand. If we have a smart way or an organised way to cater to this demand, then we can make some of the money back for sure.” What does that mean? Tighter material, a more mindful live experience including well-curated shows that start on time, and a more collaborative industry. As far as silver linings go, that isn’t half bad.  

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