Back in 2020, when Instagram had just introduced the Reels feature, Sahil Shah uploaded a silly little physical gag he’d come up with on the fly—about how he can bend his tongue into a star shape. He didn’t think much of it. “It was just a stupid joke that I shared on Instagram,” the comedian told DeadAnt. “[But] that particular video reached 3 million people.” Since then, Shah has posted hundreds of short sketches ranting and playing different characters, with elaborate light setups and scripts. Last year though, the comedian got tired of trying to keep up with the content creators of the world and tapped into a more innate skill-set—standup comedy. “I realised I’m not a creator. I’m a comedian,” he said. “Some time last year, I started posting crowd work clips and in the last six months I’ve doubled down and put out topical sets every week.” The result? He’s seen a bump in attendance at his shows, easily selling out venues across Mumbai.
Shah is just one of many comedians who have been able to leverage their success with Instagram reels into more boots through the comedy club doors. Internationally, comedians like Matt Rife and Matteo Lane have found incredible success on TikTok, and are now performing to sold-out venues. It’s clear that social media has become a major avenue for people to discover new comedians. You no longer have to brave traffic and sit through a lineup show of variable quality, just to find your new favourite comedic voice. Platforms like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok have made it a lot easier for comedians to reach a wider demographic, levelling the playing field for upcoming artists.
Before the introduction of short-form content, comedians, promoters and clubs had limited resources to amplify upcoming shows and tours—sure you could buy make promotional posts, even buy some advertising on Instagram, but paid-for views rarely led to real engagement or ticket sales. As a result, venues relied on known faces to fill their seats given that at the end of the day, they are for-profit industries looking to keep their business running. In India, people are still getting used to the idea of going out for a night of comedy regardless of the performers on the lineup. That is where reel fame and virality came in handy for the comedians. “Before reels, the audience turnout was not that good,” said Balraj Ghai who produces comedy shows and runs one of Mumbai’s longest-running comedy clubs The Habitat. “People were still only coming out for known comedians. So yes, short-form content is 100% helpful in translating to ticket sales.”
Ghai and his team have an in-house video production setup to help comedians record and push out their content. He was inspired by California’s Laugh Factory, which regularly uploads videos onto their Instagram page. “I clearly remember, in April 2018, their page had about 150k followers. They had started putting up one-minute clips back then and in a matter of two months their following had tripled to almost 450k,” he said.
In 2019, Ghai teamed up with comedian Navin Noronha and put together a show called Comedy Triad at the Habitat. The show consisted of three comedians who would perform 20-minute sets every Friday night. Those sets would be recorded at the Habitat’s cost and given to the comedians for free. In return, the venue would take a one-minute clip which would be uploaded to their Instagram page. The initial reception to the initiative was lukewarm. But once TikTok was banned in the country—giving an unexpected boost to Instagram’s reels—the Habitat saw a significant boost in their followers which in turn led to a rise in ticket sales. “Once our reels started to blow up and our traction increased, we saw a direct correlation in the number of people who were coming out to watch standup,” said Ghai. “Putting up a video is an advertisement and Instagram is your billboard. The more you are visible on that billboard, the more tickets you will sell.”
Comedian Siddharth Dudeja, who is currently on his debut national tour, said most of his ticket sales have come through Instagram. The comedian—who has been in the circuit for almost seven years and has over 11 million views on his YouTube videos—saw a big rise in his YouTube subscribers and the number of people who came out to watch him after finding success on Instagram. “During the COVID-19 lockdown barely any shows were happening. That’s when Karunesh [Talwar] told me to cut my YouTube videos into shorter clips and push them on Instagram,” he said. “Once live comedy resumed, I noticed more people coming out for my shows. Now it’s just a regular practice. Every time I edit a YouTube video, there are 10 reels cut and ready to upload at any given point.”
Putting up a video is an advertisement and Instagram is your billboard. The more you are visible on that billboard, the more tickets you will sell.Balraj Ghai
Siddharth Singhal, Head of Comedy at Collective Artists Network, says he regularly urges the artists on his roster to use Instagram reels to their advantage. “I think it’s a good way to lure people into watching your content,” he said. “You’ll also notice that most of the reels that are put out by comedians are to promote their tours. So you’ll naturally see it translating into ticket sales because if someone likes your pun or punch, they would be intrigued to see the person live and buy a ticket. It’s also purely algorithm-based. The more sharable and relatable it is, the more people will see it. You’re essentially spreading your net wide so that your transactions become larger.”
Singhal is also of the opinion that consistency is key when it comes to using reels to promote shows. “I think your regularity with posting is completely proportionate to the people who are following you and then eventually buying your tickets.” He points at Vir Das as a perfect example of this. “During the lockdown he started being very regular on Instagram. He was always the biggest comedian in the country, but he also started becoming popular on Instagram. And now you can see his shows are selling out within minutes. You can’t really put a pin on it and say this is the connection but it’s important to acknowledge that it does play a role. If someone is going from 100,000 followers to 1.3 million and is subsequently easily selling out tickets, it isn’t random. So yes, from the business side of things, reels help you in reaching new audiences and working with brands because that’s where everybody is advertising nowadays.”
Another great example of this phenomenon is Harpriya Bains. The Delhi comedian’s debut YouTube clip Carry on Mummy was well-received on YouTube but did phenomenally well on Instagram, reeling in 41 million views across various short clips on the platform. “It was beyond my imagination,” Bains told us. “My followers went from 1,300 on 1 May to 100,000 in 18 days. This virality on Instagram has led to a significant rise in corporate show inquiries, most of which come through Instagram DMs. And with the increase in followers, brands are also keen on collaborating with me.”
Working with Reels also pushes comedians to tighten their material and mine current events for topical jokes, which in turn is raising the bar for standup comedy in India. Previously, comedians would only be pitted against fellow comics on the lineup. But now, they have to compete with a plethora of creators and meme pages. In a one-minute clip, comedians need to grab the attention of the viewer up-top. “Reels have made me tighten up a lot of my material because I have only 30 seconds to set up my character and the premise,” said comedian Tarang Hardikar. “During a live show I can take my time and maybe by the second or third joke the audience is on my side. In that way I feel like it makes you a better writer in some sense.”
Vrinda Bhagchandani—one of the 20 comedians who performed 60-second-sets for DeadAnt’s Laughs Per Minute show—said the format definitely puts the pressure on the performer to stick to their guns. “Either you have one long premise or three different jokes. There’s no room for transitions and that really keeps the comedians alert.”
To stay on top of his reel game, Sahil Shah performs every Tuesday at The Habitat to get some material for his reel bank. “It’s set a target for me and keeps me on my toes,” he said. “I’m enjoying this process. It’s also transforming my comedy. It’s a lot more one-liner based now, which means my set is just back-to-back jokes.”
The flip side to this approach is the algorithmic Damocles sword that is constantly dangling over your head. If you aren’t regular with your posting schedule, your reach is going to get affected. “Agar properly nahi daala reels toh followers aur reach kam bhi ho jaate hai, (If you aren’t regular with your posting schedule, your reach and number of followers take a hit)” said Dudeja. Before leaving for his shows in Toronto, Shah took on the colossal task of shooting a bank of 50 reels, which resulted in major writer’s block and burnout.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” added Bains. “You really have to sustain it. It’s a lot of pressure. You think that people are showing a lot of interest but it’s all very superficial. Initially, the online fame converted into on-ground ticket sales but then sometimes when you struggle to sell a few tickets you really wonder where are these people? So, you really have to be at it. Or they’ll lose interest in you very quickly.”
Some comedians also say that reels are responsible for setting unrealistic expectations for the audience. People who come for lineup shows after seeing a particular comedian’s Instagram content can be disruptive to the entire show when these expectations aren’t met. “They are coming in with a very skewed perspective,” said Ghai. “They’re coming in pre-conditioned. They are there only to see a specific face which is unfair to the lineup.”
“Indian audiences still need to realise the difference between content creators and standup comedians,” said Bains. “When I’m going for a show, there are people who will reach out to me and ask me to do an Instagram live from the venue so they can watch the video. People aren’t understanding how much time goes into developing a set and that we are using reels to promote the live show experience. But they think that reels is all that we do.”