At a recent open mic in Mumbai, I paid Rs 200 to watch a lineup of 10 comics perform five minutes each. These were relatively new comics trying to work their way into the scene, and I went out of curiosity to see what was on offer, and whether I would spot any talent that would go on to become big names.
As it turned out, the show was of very poor quality. The comics were almost uniformly inexperienced and unfunny, and got maybe three laughs out of me over 90 minutes. Among those performing was a banker who had decided to try his hand at comedy and was going on stage for the first time with his material. Apart from the weak material, the comics were almost all terrible in their articulation, and for the most part words seemed to dribble out of them with no thought about volume, modulation and pacing.
Now, no one can grudge comics—particularly ones who are starting out—for not being funny. It is a grindingly difficult art form and every successful comedian goes through a long and steep learning curve of not being funny before they discover their voice and style. For a healthy comedy culture, it is important that audiences understand this, and attend these shows in a supportive spirit.
What one can take objection to, however, is that producers consider it fair to charge audiences Rs 200 for a ticket to watch amateurs struggle through weak material. Not just that, in what is now a very common practice, many producers now also charge comics for their stage time—typically in the region of Rs 200. Alternatively (as in the show I attended), they mandate that every comic has to bring a “plus one” who pays the show’s entry fee.
General audience members who walk into a ticketed show expecting a certain level of performers, only to encounter inexperienced amateurs, are likely to be put off the scene for a long time.
This is, very simply, unethical practice. A producer can do one of two things. They can charge an audience for a show that the producer has curated and therefore believes to be of a certain calibre. Or they can charge very inexperienced performers to give them stage time to begin developing their material, and allow supportive audiences to attend such shows for free. (Or, alternatively, mandate that comics bring a “plus one” who pays a fee. But regular audiences should be allowed to attend such shows for free.)
For a producer to take money from both the performer and the audience is not a fair practice. It also is damaging for a comedy watching culture, because general audience members who walk into a ticketed show expecting a certain level of performers, only to encounter inexperienced amateurs, are likely to be put off the scene for a long time, and never make the effort to try and discover and support nascent talent.
Some producers argue that comics sometimes block time at multiple stages and then don’t turn up, and that charging them a fee (even for a show that is ticketed anyway) helps prevent this from happening. This is a fair problem, but the solution remains unsatisfactory. To ensure that comics don’t block and then abandon stage slots, these producers can perhaps charge them a refundable booking fee that is returned to the comedian after the show. Then the onus of putting up a show worthy of selling tickets for remains with the producer.
A healthy scene might look something like this. At the lowest level are open mics where producers scout for new talent, and perhaps sometimes charge performers for stage time. Audiences who come to these shows are the comedy obsessives who want to track the scene closely and spot the next big thing before anyone else—these watchers should be encouraged and not be made to buy tickets. At the most they should be asked to pay a token amount for the tickets, as a gesture of recognition that even the most inexperienced and unfunny amateur comedians work hard before they get up on stage.
From here, promising comedians are picked up for curated ticketed shows featuring multiple performers doing five or more minutes each. Because they have been at least partially vetted, audiences who buy tickets need not be comedy obsessives, but could be people looking for an enjoyable night out, and are OK to take a chance with a curated lineup. And above this are the different grades of ticketed shows—trial shows, double bills, tapings, specials and so on—each of which appeal to audiences with different degrees of investment and interest in the comedy scene, but all of which guarantee a basic level of entertainment for an evening. Much of this structure is already in operation in the comedy scene. Yet one cannot deny that at the base, producers who charge both audiences and comics for shows are perpetrating an unhealthy practice.