Check out how the Mumbai-comedy scene evolved over the years

  • Soma Das, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jul 24, 2015 17:34 IST

It’s 1999. After a two-hour show at Off Beat Cafe in Phoenix Mills, a woman comes up to stand-up comedian Ash Chandler and tells him he’s good. She follows it up with a question: “But what happened to the performer for the evening?” “She didn’t think this could be a performance; she was expecting a dancer or a singer,” he recounts.

Long before ‘stand-up’ became common in the city’s lexicon, the likes of Chandler, Papa CJ, Vir Das and Cyrus Broacha had already established their reputations as ‘funnymen’. And in the absence of comedy clubs, these artistes performed at pubs and cafés like Café Goa, Not Just Jazz by the Bay, Blue Frog and IBar. The Bombay Elektrik Project (also the team behind The Hive in Bandra) held open mic nights. Inspiration also came from watching international stand-up acts on TV and, of course, from the first big Indian-origin comedian, Russell Peters.

Vir Das , the seasoned comedian, started Hamateur Nights in 2009. “Five years ago, I was performing for 600 people every weekend. Now, that number is between 3,000 to 5,000,” he says.

Stage one

It was in 2010 that The Comedy Store opened at Palladium, Lower Parel. It would turn out to be the catalyst the local scene needed. The space initially featured international acts, but Indian acts would fill in 10 minute slots in between the ‘star’ performers who were being flown down. Charlotte Ward, director of The Comedy Store, says Mumbai was the clear choice as the first Indian venue: “The city had a certain atmosphere. It had pubs, an improv scene, and all the (budding) comedians lived here.”

That’s where the present set of star comedians honed their skills. The city got artistes such as Ashish Shakya , Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi and Aditi Mittal. Others, like Sorabh Pant , worked with Das. These initial movements resulted in collectives like the All India Bakchod (AIB) formed by Gursimran Khamba and Tanmay Bhat , among others; East India Comedy (EIC) by Pant and Kunal Rao, among others; Schitzengiggles Stand Up Comedy by Karan Talwar and Varun Thakur, among others; and Weirdass Comedy by Das.

All India Bakchod founder-member Tanmay Bhat

Yet, even with a platform in place, most present-day star comedians concede it was just “something fun to do on the side”. None of them expected the fame that would follow. Sorabh Pant says, “I had zero expectations. I was in because it seemed fun.”

It was at a Hamateur night in 2010 that Rohan Joshi (then a TV journalist) discovered his passion for stand-up. He won the contest and, for a year-and-a-half, pursued it as a hobby. When the money he was making matched his salary, he switched to it full-time. “We were just at the right place at the right time. I don’t think there’ll ever be an organised comedy scene, though,” he says.

Comedian Anuvab Pal’s introduction was a little different. He spent his college years at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, before returning to India. He was working with Reuters and writing a film when he joined the scene. “We performed at bars, clubs and corporate events. It picked up speed and, suddenly, I was doing shows abroad,” says Pal.

Chartered accountant-turned-comedian Kunal Rao admits that, initially, it was tough to get gigs: “We’d actually make cold calls to pubs. We found success the hard way.”

By 2011, college-goers (and those in their teens) started giving stand-up a shot. Proving you could be funny outside of your friend circle seemed like quite a dare. And coaxed by friends, Karunesh Talwar, a 19-year-old philosophy student at Mithibai College, signed up for an open mic. Over time, he won an open mic and dropped out of college to pursue stand-up. “What got me hooked was that nothing was off-limits. Also, comedians like Vir Das had acts that were relevant to the Indian context. It encouraged others,” he says.

How the comedian became a star

Things really changed, though, when the joint venture with The Comedy Store ended in 2012, and the space was renamed Canvas Laugh Club. The club decided to use only Indian comics. “I’m not sure if the comics were ready, but when pushed on stage, they delivered,” says Amar Agrawal, owner, Canvas Laugh Club.

Pant started off, around 2008, as a writer on a comic show anchored by Das, and eventually did opening acts for Das’s shows. The first edition of his show, Traveling Pants, in 2014 was a success with 40 shows across 12 cities; the video was viewed by a million people. Now, Traveling Pants 2.0 will see him travelling around the country, with a finale in Mumbai. All this while, Pant’s house doubled as the unofficial headquarters of EIC. As he prepares to move into a Bandra office, it reflects the commercial success and audience for comedy.

Comedians are now raking it in: they are doing corporate shows, writing for movie awards shows and scripting videos that integrate products (think YouTube version of product integration in movies). While Weirdass Comedy wrote the script for the Filmfare awards show, EIC wrote for IIFA and the Ghanta awards. AIB gets so many requests, they actually have a corporate brand division.

Sorabh Pant. (HT photo: Vidya Subramanian)

“Stand-up is now a legitimate gig. When people choose between movies and stand-up on a weekend, that’s when you know this is real,” says Pant, who’s also got two books out, with a third set for next year.

Radhika Vaz , a stand-up comedian who performed in New York and returned to India, says: “We do corporate shows for the money.” She’s working on developing comedy videos, has a web series, titled Shugs & Fats , and is working on certain ideas with digital video distribution company Sooperfly.

The social media blitzkrieg

While performing live is still their bread and butter, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have helped amplify the comedian’s reach. Shakya says that AIB “wouldn’t be the same without social media. Over time, we learned the science behind it.” For instance, videos shared from Monday to Wednesday work better than on weekends. And products integrated in videos work well too (such as the AIB video Honest Marriages featuring Ola Cabs). Most collectives don’t even employ a PR agency; with their popularity on social media, they don’t need to. Joshi says, “Social media helped us grow. The current comedy scene wouldn’t have worked a decade ago when social media wasn’t there.”

Pant also concedes that you need Twitter to become a popular stand-up comic in the present scenario. “Getting YouTube right, though, is still a challenge. We spent 2014-15 trying to figure out what works. We lost money initially, but realised that it helps to get corporates on board,” says Pant.

Choosing to go against the tide is Talwar, who consciously avoids YouTube. While he contributes to AIB’s videos, his focus is live acts. “An online channel is hard to sustain. I like being under the radar,” he says. Das adds that a funny tweet doesn’t make for a funny stage act: “You can’t just be funny on Twitter, you’ve got to be able to rock a stage as well.”

Vir Das, the seasoned comedian, started Hamateur Nights in 2009. (HT photo)

The backlash

With fame, though, comes criticism. Earlier this year, AIB broke new ground with the show, AIB Knockout Roast, with actors Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh. The show attracted brickbats for its language, including a censorship notice. But it made AIB’s reach even wider. The video, before it was banned, had an unprecedented 10 million views. Says Talwar, “There’s a ban on words, not on thoughts. We can use other words to say the same thing.”

Joshi concedes one of their inside jokes is “which comedian will be the first to go to jail. There’s a built-in risk in expressing through comedy. If it was not the Roast, it would’ve been something else.”

Bring on the women

Anyone can be funny, so why is stand-up male-dominated? This, despite the fact that comedians like Aditi Mittal , Anu Menon and Vaz have proven their mettle. When Mittal started five years back, she recounts there was barely any framework and they just about managed to make enough money for dinner. “It’s a tough job. But there’s no casting couch. The audience is the boss and HR evaluator rolled into one.” On the flip side, there is heckling based solely on gender: “If a guy does a bad joke, they are called terrible comedians. If a woman does so, people hurl vulgar comments; it’s unfair,” she mentions.

Vaz agrees that stand-up is tougher for women: “Men can get away with things that women can’t,” she says.

The way ahead

With comedy turning into a new career option, many aspire to do it professionally. OML launched a talent search for the next comedy star, featuring mentors like Shakya. “The idea is to find young talent. Youngsters consume digital media more than traditional media. Web is the next medium and has no restrictions,” says Shakya.

While the newer generation has platforms, they also have more competition. There are start-up companies like The Awkward Fruit by husband-wife duo of investment banker Akshata Agarwal and newbie comedian Kamal Trilok Singh. The company ties up with venues to host open mic nights (that bring in crowds) and invites comedians to participate. They do corporate roasts as well. Singh started this venture realising that gig opportunities were limited for newcomers: “The original motivation was to get more stage time,” he says. They have tie-ups with Cheval, Three Wise Men and Boveda; three more are in the pipeline.

While stand-up is enjoying the limelight, certain worries remain. For one, it’s still inaccessible to many. “Stand-up is still a niche, upper middle class preoccupation for English speaking people,” explains Shakya.

And things aren’t getting easier for the artistes either. “You can be popular on YouTube in six months, but what next? In stand-up, you get a review in 15 seconds and it can be brutal,” sums up Talwar.

Stand-up comedian Radhika Vaz performed in New York and returned to India.

=> Trade secrets: The big boys (and girls) share tips on how to make it as a stand-up comic:

Sorabh Pant: “I keep a notebook with me to jot down random ideas. You’ll find them everywhere. When the thought strikes, write it down immediately.”

Ashish Shakya: “Go for open mic events. Meet others, hang out, share ideas. Stand-up is a collaborative, open space."

Radhika Vaz: “A good stand-up needs good quality material, charisma and a solid work ethic.”

Aditi Mittal: “Make mistakes and learn in front of an audience. That’s how you’ll learn to handle them.”

Anuvab Pal: “Don’t overthink it; do your job. When you go out, be a good comedian.”

Kunal Rao: “I still rehearse in front of a mirror. I advise others to do so as well.”

Rohan Joshi: “One has to be pragmatic. My advice is that don’t quit your day job just yet, do it on the side.”

Left: Rohan Joshi; Right: Kunal Rao (HT photo: Kalpak Pathak)

=> Videos that went viral

* Rape? Ladies, it’s your fault by AIB

* Aaram se Padhunga: Exam Qtiyapa, The Viral Fever

* She Called Me Bhaiyya, Schitzengiggles

* Sex Education in India, EIC

* Alia Bhatt: Genius of the Year, AIB

* Watch out for:
Sorabh Pant’s Traveling Pants 2.0
On July 25, 8pm at Whistling Woods Andheri Base, Andheri

* The Comedy Hunt on YouTube
A web hunt for comedians on YouTube
Till July 26

* Ladies Special comedy on the Big Mac
On July 25, 8.30pm at The Hive, Khar (W)

Where to catch stand-up in Mumbai
* Canvas Laugh Club, Lower Parel

* blueFROG, Lower Parel

* The Hive, Khar

* NCPA, Nariman Point

* Cheval, Kala Ghoda

* Three Wise Men, Santacruz

* Boveda, Andheri

* Andheri Base, Andheri

* Bandra Base, Bandra

* Take It Easy, Andheri

(The writer tweets as @SomaRKDas )

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