No Laughing Matter: Why is the Indian Comedy Scene So Morose?


No Laughing Matter: Why is the Indian Comedy Scene So Morose?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I first saw Being Indian’s stellar digital documentary, I Am Offended in early 2017. The documentary traces the history of comedy in India to the early days of Mehmood, the struggle of Johnny Lever, and the journey of Vir Das. It features a veritable who’s who of famous and soon-to-be famous comedy professionals including Vrajesh Hirjee, the AIB quartet, the EIC gang, Aditi Mittal, and more talking about not just the craft of comedy but also about the consequences of speaking truth to power. So impactful was this docu, that halfway through watching it, I was convinced that the comedy scene in India was truly revolutionary. It gave me the courage to go ahead and register for my first comedy open mic.

An open mic is basically a karaoke for comedy, but we are a different breed of besuras – slightly sanguine. Aspiring stand-up comedians like me actually believe we have a shot at making this our career.

It’s been two years since I first stood on stage with a piece of paper with notes scribbled on it. More than 150 gigs later, I am still just as nervous when I step on the stage and am equally thrilled when I get the occasional big laugh from a well-delivered joke. It’s the guffaws and the claps that keep us stand-up guys going.    

This odd high – the joke-coke as I call it – makes bombing on stage worth it. For us amateur comedians, doing regular open mics and getting our fix of “joke-coke” is sacrosanct to our growth as performers. But lately, open mics just haven’t been what they used to be. New rooms seem to be springing up every week, with little concern for quality control.

Following the sexual assault allegations against Utsav Chakraborty and the subsequent AIB controversy, a pall of gloom has descended on the comedy circuit. And the recent splitting up of comedy giant SNG has dipped the enthusiasm further. But as they say, the show must go on and Amazon Prime Specials don’t write themselves.

The silver lining of more open mics might be that as of January 2019, there is no dearth of stage time for aspiring comics in Mumbai. The bad news is that there seems to be a noticeable decline in genuine audiences coming in to watch live comedy shows. In my unscientific assessment, the number of shows cancelled because of low ticket sales appears to have gone up. Unless there’s a big name on the lineup, chances of a full house remain slim.

But why is the laughter dying? Are we not as funny as we once used to be? Are audiences weary of supporting a scene that seems to be getting more toxic by the week? Or is there a problem of plenty?

Quick searches on BookMyShow and Insider reveal that in January 2019 itself, Mumbaikars had the luxury of choosing between 130-odd live comedy shows. That’s an average of over four shows a day – most of these are open mics, featuring upcoming comics, not established names. “Audiences are going out only to watch a famous comic; it’s very rare that people go out to see just comedy,” says Jeeya Sethi, who runs Comedy Ladder, one of the longest-running open mics in the city.

Live comedy seems to have lost its sheen amid the dawn of YouTube virality.

But the number of gigs clearly outnumber the big names in comedy. And then there is fatigue. With the same audience coming for multiple shows, there’s also the risk of burning out material to the point where a tested bit that usually kills is reduced to mere pity laughs.

Live comedy also seems to have lost its sheen amid the dawn of online virality. Case in point, is Varun Grover. A National Award-winning lyricist and one of the most celebrated screenwriters of our times (he co-wrote Sacred Games and the film Masaan), yet Grover remains most recognised as “that comedian from that viral YouTube video”.

If that weren’t enough, audiences are further demotivated to step out of their homes and pay a sum to watch someone probably tank when they can get their share of laughter from comedy specials on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube. I can recall countless shows where the host tells the audience at the outset that comics are going to try new material tonight and there’s a collective slump in the room’s energy. It’s as if comedy audiences want to only watch shows with tested material but never be the guinea pigs on whom said material is actually tested out on.

That said, it’s important to realise that many of the current crop of famous comics began their careers at a time when the Indian stand-up wasn’t as mainstream as it is now. There’s no denying that we are all currently experiencing the latter part of the boom which started right after the AIB roast. And while comics like Vir Das, Aditi Mittal, and Atul Khatri are breaking barriers with Netflix specials and selling out arenas abroad, those left back are struggling to garner the laughs.

While more comedy rooms mean it’s a great time to be an aspiring comic, the dearth of genuinely interested audiences also means it’s that much harder to grow as one. And with most open mics today being merely an endless loop of aspiring comedians performing in front of other aspiring comedians, the real loser is the comedy scene.

So if you’re a paying customer who enjoys live comedy, then please come watch more open mics and support new local talent in your area. We may not be as hilarious as Biswa or as relatable as Zakir, but we try our best and seeing you cheer us motivates us to be even better. Because at the end of it all, life mein chahiye izzat.