Of Stand-up Comedy, Humour Journalism and Weekend plans | Vir Das | Papa CJ | Abish Mathew | Biswa Kalyan Rath

“Jaha gali gali ke kone pe kuude ka lagta dhera,

(Woh Bharat desh hain mera) 2

Jaha ‘gadhe ke poot, yaha matt moot’,

Likha hain sau bisera,

(Woh Bharat desh hain mera) 2

Jaha paan ko thuuk thuuk ke

(raste ki humne le li) 2

Jaha Ganga, Jamuna, Kaveri se,

(Saaf hain ghar ki naali) 2

Jaha har ek beach pe touriston ne, plastic bag bikhera,

(Woh Bharat desh hain mera) 2″

(The above excerpt is from a song composed by the lead guitarist of the fusion band Indian Ocean, Rahul Ram for his comedy satire group Aisi Taisi Democracy.)

Let me guess, while you read the above lines you could recognize the familiar tune of a classic Hindi song it was borrowing from, few words into the song you also realized this is a satirical take on the lack of cleanliness plaguing India trying to make you a tad uncomfortable with the lyrics, still you hummed along with an ever so slow gyration of your neck because, accept it guys, the song is catchy! That is the power of humorists and India has seen an upsurge of it in the recent years. I will go as far as calling it a renaissance of sorts because these comics are touching topics which are considered risqué, they are making social commentaries bordering on blasphemy and holding up mirrors to the society with a smile pasted across the face. If you can’t punch an issue in the gut, make a punchline out of it. And that’s where I see the renaissance.

Indian comedy scene evolved through three main stages over the past thirty years or so. Initially it was the shayars dishing on socio-political issues in Mehfils frequented by the erudites and like-minded poetry connoisseurs. Doordarshan reached out to our living rooms bringing hordes of such famous poets like Surendra Sharma, Pradeep Chaubey who infused humour into their day-to-day observations.

Then came the days of cable and with it, weekend stand-up comedy became the event which brought families together during dinner time. Raju Shrivastava , Sunil Pal, Ehsaan Qureshi became household names due to their clean and funny take on mundane stuff, stuff which is found in abundance in a diverse country like ours. But one thing was evident amidst all this. Everything seemed to be self-censored and layered with harmless sweet nothings. No criticism of the establishment, no standing against conformism and not even a mention of the hundreds of political scandals doing the rounds in media. Come on now! Humour is best appreciated if it came from or at the expense of people we revere or loath or both!

The internet came as a boon to the Indian audience looking for access to smarter comedy and wider range of performing arts as against what was fed to them on TV. All of a sudden people were gobbling up stand-up specials of Seinfeld, Chris Rock and the he’s-Canadian-but-we-will-still-own-him-cause-he’s-famous Russell Peters. We got the taste of western comedy, roast shows, improv comedy , open mics and what not. It was as if the Pandora’s box had opened up, but instead of finding Idli-Dosa, we had to be contended with Pizza-Burgers. But with the opening of that box, also opened up windows for stand-up comedy on the web in India. And this comedy is different.

One of the first bits of stand-up which went viral in India was Papa CJ making outsourcing jokes in front of a small crowd in London. He was also the first Indian comic to be invited to the Last Comic Standing in Las Vegas which made waves in the indian comedy loving circuit.

It was 2008 and Papa CJ had only a few peers in the unsaturated stand-up comedy scene. Vir Das was popular, Vipul Goyal was making a name for himself with his clean college/corporate targeted jokes and Nitin Gupta aka Rivaldo (don’t ask) were just a few names starting out. Most of them were doing live shows for audiences in closed auditoriums. But then, some of them realized the potential of the small screen, not TV, but even smaller screens of the mobile phones and became the personal comic of young 20+ year olds who were digitally savvy and had a good internet connection. India being a country where more than half the population is in the age group of 20-29, gave these artists the perfect audience to share their content with. And what is exciting to know is that this demography is more than willing to accept content which can be taboo, political, religious and even name calling. This liberal outlook came from watching hours of Bill Burr rant about Nazis, Chris Rock talk about black oppression and Anthony Jeselnik talk about, well, he is a bit twisted, so just check out his Netflix special to get an idea of his dark sense of humour. Here is a short sample of his kind of comedy—

Comedy clubs have played a stellar role in this stand-up revolution in India. They open their doors to newbies and established performers both. Weekends have a new destination these days. If karaoke was popular last decade (well, it is even now), this decade has comedy clubs as the weekend getaway. Popular spots like Blue Frog, Canvas Laugh Club in Mumbai, That Comedy Club in Bangalore and The People and Co in Gurugram have seen people with enough disposable income, flock the auditoriums in good numbers. And with that the money has come into stand up.

Over the years the regulars in the scene have found collaborations and regular content dissemination as the biggest stickiness to their page and a constant recall factor for the audience which is spoilt for choice. Exclusives are being shot with tie ups with video streaming website like Amazon and Netflix, groups are being created which create content which is witty, has decent production value and most importantly, has it’s target audience defined.

Abish Mathew for instance. He has collaborated with AIB, been part of the infamous Roast and does stand up on his own and also teams up with the equally and dare I say, more popular Kenny Sebastian (ok ladies, let out that Aww…). But the fact that his Son Of Abish qualified from being a random chat show on a stage with uncomfortable chairs and no aesthetics, to transforming into this Late Night with Jimmy Fallon-ish show for it’s second season, speaks volumes about the money being put in and the ‘quality controls’ being exercised. And he got stars on board! From Radhika Apte to Tapsee Pannu, he made chat shows fun again (enough of celebrity flirting and audience bashing in another similar hindi show on a popular channel. Abish boy is the rookie, give this man a cookie!)

We had to write this piece on the stand-up juggernaut in India. Much like instant noodles, stand ups give us instant content to munch on and with tremendous repeat value. Hell, I made new friends talking about Biswa Kalyan Rath’s pomegranate and banana connection with bachelors! Watch it here—

To more such stand-up shows and videos and to more awesome comedians! Cheers!

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