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Seriously funny business

They are not mimicry artistes, nor the guys who recycle their repertoire of puerile jokes. A bevy of international stand-up comedians, performing in Mumbai this June, are threatening to change the entertainment scene in India. Mini Pant Zachariah tells us more...

india Updated: May 30, 2009 23:32 IST
Mini Pant Zachariah

They do politics, Pakistan, Page 3 denizens, sports and sex and seem barely to hold their tongue while you laugh your head off or permit a wry smile depending on your stuffiness quotient.

They are not mimicry artistes, nor the guys who recycle their repertoire of puerile jokes. A bevy of international stand-up comedians, performing in Mumbai this June, are threatening to change the entertainment scene in India. For, while the Comedy Store, UK plans to set up shop here later this year, British ex-pat Quill Potter is ready with laughter fests with Jonathan Atherton, Gordon Southern and Alan Bates to name a few performers.

Why India, why now, is the obvious question you ask. To which Deepak Bedi, the CEO of Horseshoe Entertainment, responsible for bringing The Comedy Store tour to Mumbai says, “Honestly, because it (stand-up comedy) doesn’t exist here on a regular basis. People can’t be going to bars with loud music to unwind, not five times a week. They’ll enjoy a good laugh once in a while.”

Timing, they say, is everything in comedy. At a time when comedy shows are grabbing eyeballs on the Hindi television channels, there is practically no Indian comedy show in English. And there is a huge English-speaking population in India that is ready for a different kind of entertainment. They are willing to pay to laugh and perhaps even be laughed at.

As The Comedy Store, UK, chief Don Ward explains, “There is a lot of comedy on (Indian) TV which is based on jokes and slapstick but very little in the way of live comedy, indeed apart from a number of small tours e.g. Russell Peters (who has worked at The Comedy Store) live performance comedy is rarely see (in India).” Quill Potter puts it more succinctly, “The Indian intellect is poorly served by the substandard comedy that exists on television.”

It is not as if the English-speaking class in India has been humour starved all these many years. Corporate houses here have often used stand-up comedy artists to liven up their get-togethers. But stand-up performers are too few. Theatre person Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal who has done some gigs for the corporate sector in India and performed in the UK, USA and Singapore, says, “Stand-up comedy is serious business. You got to be very well in with the politics of the place and the local news. It takes a lot of time to get an act together.” And she is not afraid to admit that the comedy show on Indian television make her cringe.

Says Potter, creative consultant to an Indian television company, “Stand-up comedy has to be sophisticated, intellectually challenging play of words peppered with a little bit of crudity.”

Papa CJ, the Oxford-educated comic from Calcutta who has been a regular at The Comedy Store in London since 2004, believe there is phenomenal potential for high quality stand-up comedy in India.

“In the hands of an able and experienced performer, the expectations of the audience can be managed during the course of the show and by the end you can take them to places where they would have been unwilling to go to at the start,” he believes after having performed gigs in not only the liberal metros of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Calcutta but also in the seemingly conservative ones like Hyderabad, Lucknow, Chandigarh, Pune and Ludhiana.

So what goes well with the Indian audience? “Politics, sex, Page 3 people, Pakistan, Hollywood, Bollywood,” rattles off Kotwal as she adds, “One can be irreverent but not rude to the audience. There has to be a certain finesse in what you do.”

It is that finesse that The Comedy Store, with an experience of 30 years behind it, wants to expose the Indian audience to by sending three international comics every week to perform at its soon to be set up permanent venue in Mumbai.

“But our aim is to develop and support the local Hindi market as well and will be running masterclasses for local comics. We really do want to make stars of local people,” says Ward. Bedi adds, “We want to create a huge body of Indian stand up comics be it in vernacular and English.”

They start with Mumbai for “its vibrancy very similar to both London and Manchester’ and hope to spread to Delhi and Bangalore later.

“I see the Indian comedy scene developing quite nicely from slapstick to a lot more intelligent form,” says Bedi. The point is: Will they laugh all the way to the bank?