Evolution of Stand-Up Comedy in India

Navjot Singh Sidhu and Archana Puran Singh’s exaggerated laughter is now a faded memory. We can thank god for ushering the era of YouTube as viewers ROFL to the latest stand-up solo. Comedy as a structured spectacle is a product of the last decade. Enthusiasts describe this emergence as a sum of four parts: Artist, Distribution, Monetisation, and Audience.

 

The comedy itself is not new. Mehmood, Johnny Lever, Jaspal Bhatti, or Raju Srivastav each had a go at striking mainstream acceptance. They tried but quickly fell in trap of being caricatured. The current cohort however, including names such as Kenny Sebastian, Kanan Gill, Biswa Kalyan Rath, or Aditi Mittal have truly groomed and developed a niche audience. They do stand-up acts which go viral on YouTube, perform live gigs for companies & colleges, and after having achieved mainstream acceptability end up streaming “Specials” on Netflix and Amazon Prime.  

 

This came to be thanks, to a few entrepreneurs who could sense the changing tide. The earliest proponent being US-returned comedy enthusiast Amar Agrawal, who started the Canvas Laugh Club in Mumbai. The Club became a launchpad for many, including Biswa Kalyan Rath, Zakir Khan, and Tanmay Bhat who went to start All India Bakchod (AIB) – a highly successful comedy sketch group. Even today the journey to fandom of most upcoming comedians starts with a gig at the Canvas Laugh Club, distributed thanks to YouTube.

Source: By User:Funnysinghisking [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

But distribution was earlier a hurdle. At the time of Canvas Laugh Club’s inception in 2010, neither was there a keen ticket-buying audience, nor was there a long roster of young comedians. Those established on television, thanks to poorly structured shows like The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, didn’t contemplate doing stage shows.

 

But now things have changed. Stage artists are regularly beating ‘stalwarts’ of the film and television industry. There are hundreds of stages pan India and many more are willing to pay the price. Thanks to booking platforms such as BookMyShow, Insider.in et al, access to tickets is fairly seamless.

Source: By IISER Kolkata [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The role of YouTube in the evolution of India’s stand-up scene is undeniable. It has created demand for a particular brand of (youth-focused) comic delivery, suitable for digestion on ‘personal’ devices like smartphones instead of family devices such as television. Interestingly so, while in countries like US the natural transition was from the stage to television to internet, Indian comics charted a reverse route.

 

With the entry of Over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the artists have now found newer and commercially viable avenues to reach their fans. Absence of a physical medium helped these comic bypass traditional gatekeepers. Wider reach ensured that they could develop a sticky and differentiated fan base.

 

What began as a hobby for most, has now become a profession. Comedy has evolved into a “serious” business and it becomes worthwhile to discern if the economics work. Though the area is light on data, based on anecdotal evidence, a ticket for an hour-long stand-up can be priced between INR400-INR1,000. This number depends on the comedian's popularity and fan following. Moreover, most shows are divided between two or more comics. In such a scenario, ticket sales per artist can range from INR30,000-50,000. Considering the venue and marketing takes up to INR20,000, the net income per show would be around INR10,000-INR30,000. A comedian is likely to do 2-4 shows per month. The earnings can be considerably higher for solo shows and corporate events. Moreover, established players can expect up to 3x-5x the above. YouTube on the other hand lets you host the content for free, while getting you revenue through adverts.  

Source: Carlos Delgado [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The new age comedians resonated with the Millennials. People found a relief in a whimsical analysis of daily chores. In popular theory, it is the truth which is layered in the delivery of a joke that really intrigues the listeners. The public however still need to evolve to accept some specific forms of comedy such as a Roast, which involves insulting someone with consent. The AIB Roast faced intense criticism from many. FIRs accusing the participants of obscene behaviour and abusive language were lodged. Three years later…the proceedings are still ongoing.    

 

Bad language aside, any dig at politics or religion would be considered courageous. Unless the constitutional direction of ensuring a ‘conditional’ freedom of expression is amended, it is difficult to see that change in the medium term.

 

Several people today are trying to realise their dreams of pushing the envelope of public narrative through comedy. The opportunities are no less. The Indian stand-up scene has evolved, it is the ‘joke’ now which needs to evolve.

 

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