How Inside Jokes Helped Me Understand the Crisis in Indian Stand-Up Comedy

Pop Culture

How Inside Jokes Helped Me Understand the Crisis in Indian Stand-Up Comedy

Illustration: Arati Gujar

“I’m gonna have a real rough time if I don’t get in.” says Kellen Erskine, an amateur stand-up comedian in Inside Jokes, worried about landing a spot at the New Faces showcase. A woman looks at the camera for a quick second before replying,“That’s why you’re gonna get in.”

For a moment, I wondered whether her reply would have been different if the camera wasn’t there? Was she hoping that the cameraman or a producer would offer something? These questions actually enrich Amazon Prime Video’s Inside Jokes: As a viewer, you appreciate the opportunity to witness the moment where Erskine’s honest confession to his wife is met with loving reassurance. In fact, it underlines the distinctive experience of witnessing seven upcoming comedians invite the cameras to follow their lives on stage and off it. The six part docu-series follows them on their journey to land a spot at the New Faces showcase of Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal.

It is after all the world’s largest comedy festival (even though it has been marred with allegations of sexual harassment). So the personal stakes are evident from early on. On one hand, there’s MK Paulsen whose weekly shows happen in a parking lot: He sets up a stage and and goes around handing flyers shouting “Free stand-up comedy show down the street”. And on the other hand, there’s furniture salesman Robert Dean, who is about to make his eighth attempt at securinga spot on the New Faces showcase.

But one of the most fascinating aspects of the show is how it gets inside the heads of the comedians bringing in the laughs. For instance, we get to acquaint ourselves with Daphnique Springs’ discipline: Instead of engaging in banter before her spot, Daphnique, who has obsessive compulsive disorder, prefers being by herself. Then there’s Rosebud Baker, who’s comfortable joking about an abusive ex-boyfriend on stage but not about the tragedy that crushed her family. And when Paulsen is made to realise that a part of what holds him back as a comedian harks back to the lack of closure with his parents: We’re even afforded the chance to witness his heartwarming effort to resolve it. Inside Jokes doesn’t just see comedians, but understands them.

And as the top tier of Indian comedians now seem too comfortable to ever kick up a hornet’s nest, the revolutionary appeal of stand-up disappeared for me.

The show’s insights about comedy are invaluable. We see comedians performing the same jokes at different venues to varying levels of reactions – from ecstatic laughter to silence. Rejection isn’t hidden away but confronted as realistically as possible. An arresting moment arrives when Rosebud and Kellen discuss how altering the tone and volume of specific words in a joke gets a vastly different response. The conversation is illuminating in exposing how comedians view words as musical instruments, free to be tinkered with as desired.

Amateur comedians were the leads of another Amazon Prime Video offering this year: The Indian reality competition Comicstaan that sought to preserve the future of stand-up comedy without articulating the exact need for it. A far cry from the pragmatism of Inside Jokes, Comicstaan misrepresents the trying ecosystem of stand-up, where the glamour of sold-out shows and online specials are an exception, with a contrived open mic in the first episode.

The performative nature of the show wasn’t just limited to the contestants, but also extended to its judges and hosts. As a result, it treats comedy only as a device, not as a defining feature of someone’s life. And I never found myself investing in a single journey or truly understanding the personal costs of pulling off a successful set. In comparison, Inside Jokes is emotionally bare. It manages to get the most important things about stand-up right. The transient nature of the art form shines through in the occasional acceptance, frequent rejection, and everlasting anxiety.

Inside Jokes also comes at an important juncture in the Indian comedy scene. I have spent over four years consuming stand-up comedy – first as an observer working behind the scenes and later as a critic. The lengths that comedians went to elicit laughter, rebelled against hypocrisy, and disregarded societal conventions, amazed me. But in the process, I also romanticised comedians – the severity of that mistake only hit me in the past few weeks.

When The Caravan carried an investigation into the rampant sexual harassment that prevailed at Only Much Louder, the silence was glaring. After all, the event and talent management firm monopolises the business of Indian stand-up. It represents the most popular Indian comedians and produces nearly all online specials. Naturally, only a few comedians commented on the accusations in public, even though swift condemnations were previously offered against several comedians who had been named in the second wave of #MeToo. There were even suggestions of an Internal Complaints Committee being constituted for the comedy scene.

Yet the stand-up community was all too comfortable in holding their silence on OML. Comedians went about their day promoting shows and videos, and cracking jokes on social media. Popular comedians whose reputation hinged on raging against the establishment or calling out injustice, had now retreated. The irony was glaringly evident when most musicians and comedians continued to perform at NH7 Weekender, OML’s trademark annual event.

And as the top tier of Indian comedians now seem too comfortable to ever kick up a hornet’s nest, the revolutionary appeal of stand-up disappeared for me. Every joke seemed to ring hollow. The bravery I once associated with doing comedy in a country where the most banal things invite outrage vanished in face of the realisation that the establishment of Indian stand-up wields unchecked power as well. I thought I was done with loving stand-up until I stumbled upon Inside Jokes.

I don’t hold any illusions. Neither are comedians activists, nor revolutionaries. They are professional entertainers craving money and fame. In fact, the comedians I connected with in Inside Jokes might soon find themselves guided purely by greed and self-interest, but I hope their choice of an art form that demands constant reflection, helps them check themselves as well. Because, these seven contestants reminded me of hundreds others who struggle to share their stories through humour. And buying a ticket for people like them will always be worth it.