Goodbye 2010s: The Decade When Indian Stand-up Became a Thursday Night Plan

When Millennials Grew Up

Goodbye 2010s: The Decade When Indian Stand-up Became a Thursday Night Plan

Illustration: Sid M

Back in 2015, American comedian Bill Burr performed in Mumbai for the first time. After riffing with the audience about public defecation in India and stray dogs for five minutes, it dawned on Burr that a couple of people sitting in the front row were aspiring stand-up comedians. “Wait, how many of you are stand-up comics?” he asked, amused. Fifty hands shot up in the auditorium. “Jesus Christ! It’s like school here! What you got to do with the set up guys is…!,”  Burr bantered in reply. The crowd broke into applause. What the comedian didn’t know then was that the fifty comics in the room made up pretty much ALL the comics trying to make a stand-up career for themselves in the city.

Fours years since, several comics who were in the audience at the Burr show have now gone on to bag their own comedy specials on Amazon and Netflix. What was once a small group of funny folks struggling to get stage time, unsure of whether their jokes could translate into a viable career has now multiplied, their numbers spread out across the length and breadth of the city. As we stare at the end of the decade in 2019, they have emerged on the other side as seasoned comedians simultaneously performing and releasing material reflecting upon the experiences, contradictions, and challenges of being Indian. 

Bill Burr

Fours years since, several comics who were in the audience at the Burr show have now gone on to bag their own comedy specials on Amazon and Netflix.

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Joke writing in India is very unique. It’s one of the few countries where jokes aren’t bound by the restrictions of language – they have the luxury of being bilingual. This fluidity becomes a bridge between the comic and the audience, who besides responding to the punchline, relate additionality to a joke based on its verbiage.

In that sense, the last couple of years has witnessed Indian comics figure out a way to marry the structure of traditional joke writing with our homegrown oral storytelling templates. It’s probably why most stand-up sets tend to evoke that exact feeling of listening in to that funny friend who spins tales to purely entertain. Essentially, as the comedy scene kept expanding, more and more Indians comics took to writing the rulebook themselves instead of blinding following an already existing one. 

Joke writing in India is very unique.

Take for instance, Zakir Khan, one of the best storytellers in the country, whose material isn’t limited to an assortment of punchlines. Instead, Khan weaves an entire emotional arc around his jokes, depending on a mix of a visual storytelling with inherently nostalgic stories about growing up or the comedy of Indian education to make for some of the most compelling bits in the scene. In a country obsessed with quoting Bollywood, the comedian, whose sets are predominantly in Hindi, has managed to draw a dedicated audience that understands him through his catchphrase, “Main sakht launda hoon. Pighalta nahi hoon.”

Zakir Khan

Zakir Khan weaves an entire emotional arc around his jokes, depending on a mix of a visual storytelling with inherently nostalgic stories about growing up or the comedy of Indian education to make for some of the most compelling bits in the scene.

Amazon Prime Video

For the longest time in America, a late night television debut was considered the launchpad for comics to announce themselves to the world. To get there, the amount of time an average comic would have to spend on stage in comedy clubs or bars would be close to a decade. In India on the other hand, the idea of stand-up comedy was limited to imitation-heavy laughter challenges on primetime television that worked overtime to bait family audiences. What we know as Indian stand-up right now was born exclusively online. This happened at the same time Jio’s freak prices had taken the data market by storm. It meant that there were not only a large number of people who could afford smartphones and had a lot of time to kill, but that they also had easy access to the internet.

The upshot for aspiring comics who were putting out their material on YouTube was the easy availability of a burgeoning audience. If a comedian’s set went viral, they were sure to sell out auditoriums within the year. In the West, producers and bookers are still the arbiters of taste, deciding who gets stage time in front of a primetime audience. But in India, the internet turned that idea of gatekeeping on its head by demanding that their favourite comedian be given the stage time, which they were happy to pay for.

It was these videos that introduced India to stand-up comedy as an art form and as a way to identify with strangers who felt the same way. The origins of the current crop of popular stand-up comedians, right from Abhishek Upmanyu, Biswa Kalyan Rath to even Urooj Ashfaq and Sumukhi Suresh, can all be traced back to the internet. What differs is their approaches: If Biswa, along with Kanan Gill, shot to fame with Pretentious Movie Reviews, a parody review format, then Urooj and Sumukhi got noticed in the sketches they were a part of.  And in no time, what started as a bunch of people posting their thoughts with the sole purpose of being funny transmuted into a sub-culture of its own.

Kanan Biswa

If Biswa, along with Kanan Gill, shot to fame with Pretentious Movie Reviews, a parody review format, then Urooj and Sumukhi got noticed in the sketches they were a part of.

Youtube

Today, Indian stand-up is entwined with the internet. There’s a certain sense of security knowing how democratic YouTube and its metrics of virality is for a comic to market themselves. For the first time, your success wasn’t dependent on who backed you, how much money you could spare to promote yourself, or how sleek your video looked. You could be a pixelated blob on screen and if your bit was funny enough, it would still be shared. In a way, YouTube freed the barriers of class and geographical demographics when it came to consuming stand-up comedy. It explains why Indian stand-up went from catering to a largely urban audience to effortlessly penetrating metros.

To say that stand-up is thriving in India would be too simple. Despite a flourishing scene replete with innumerable open mics, comedy festivals, and deals for stand-up specials, there are still only a handful who are being able to sustain themselves without having a side hustle. But what we know for certain is that there is a demand for laughter in India now more than ever. The coming decade could possibly hold a more concrete answer for how effective the Indian comedy scene will be as a career. For now though, it makes for a pretty solid Thursday night plan.

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