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Love at first laugh: A look at life on the open-mic circuit

Meet the nervous lot waiting to take their big step into the world of comedy. What does it take to be the next viral funny guy?

mumbai Updated: Jul 28, 2017 19:22 IST
Anesha George
Anesha George
Hindustan Times
Open Mic,Trial comedy sessions,Budding comedians
Sonal Bhandari Biyani addresses an audience at the aPaulogy art gallery in Worli, during an open mic organised by Chalta Hai Comedy that she went on to win, in 2015.

Where does the class jokester go when he wants to take the leap to stand-up comedy? Where might your neighbourhood funny guy attempt to be the next viral comedian? And where can you hear new material by established comedians, often for cheap?

“Open mics and trial sessions are usually the hub of comedy. It’s what brings the new guys into the scene and keeps the old ones going,” says comedian Anirban Dasgupta. He has been hosting and participating open mics in places like Canvas Laugh Club since 2013. Open-mic sessions, he says, are pivotal to the progress of the genre because it’s where fledgling comedians take their daunting first steps into the spotlight and where the seasoned ones try their hand at fresh gags. “It’s the place that gives you honest feedback,” he says.

Take a look at the places where you can spot emerging talent or be the emerging talent, just waiting to be spotted.

Anirban Dasgupta, who has been a CLC open-mic regular, says the most important thing newbies must remember is that the first time always sucks.

Canvas Laugh Club

It’s been the stepping stone for several famous comedians, be it Tanmay Bhat, Aditti Mittal or Rahul Subramanian, who won an open mic competition two years ago. “We get like 50 to 60 emails from aspiring comedians a week for our open mic sessions held on Mondays and Fridays,” says Sujit Nair, the programming manager at Canvas Laugh Club, Mumbai. “We have slots for only 15 performers per night and it’s a huge task to give everyone a chance.” The club started late-night trial joke sessions at on Fridays, because of the heavy demand three months ago. “It really has a good response.”

Anirban Dasgupta, who has been a CLC open-mic regular, says the most important thing newbies must remember is that the first time always sucks. “The comedian knows he isn’t the best, the audience knows that he isn’t the best, and everyone is there just to have a good time,” he says. “First-timers need to have good content and keep it short and simple.” Some open-mic comedians get on to the stage with ulterior motives too – to sneak in a photograph featuring them on stage with the CLC logo, hoping that it will give their career a boost!

Urooj Ashfaq is a regular performer at open mic shows held at The Habitat in Khar, on Tuesdays. ( Photo credit: Dishang Popat )

The Habitat

Here, new comedians don’t just get a platform to perform, they also get a longer shot at a career in comedy. They have an open mic every Tuesday and the winner gets a chance to perform alongside well-known comics on Thursday. “An open mic is the most organic form of stand-up comedy, where the content is either really good or really bad,” says Balraj Ghai, who runs The Habitat. “We decided to create a ladder for the good ones.”

Many comedians have potential and great content but need guidance. Perhaps it’s the script that needs tweaking or they need to have the right approach. “Getting a chance with a big name in the industry does give them the opportunity to try harder,” he explains.

But sometimes, open-mics are platforms just taken for granted as well. Ghai recalls an incident where a woman once went up on stage after downing few drinks and instead of cracking jokes, ended up ranting about her failed relationship and good-for-nothing boyfriend. “It was entertaining, but far off the point,” he says.

Chalta Hai Comedy

While most open-mics are ‘bringer’ shows – performers bring a friend to form the audience – Chalta Hai Comedy, is among the very few comedy collectives that don’t. “It’s rather harsh on the comics to make it mandatory to bring the audience with them,” says Punit Pania, founder of the collective that has been doing shows since 2015.

They have a weekly session for newcomers, interested performers are picked in random order instead of those who applied earliest. “We’ve done shows in places like Surat, Goa and smaller cities and open-mics are really a great place for comedians to learn everywhere. The ticket prices are more affordable and comedians get the platform they need,” says Pania.

Aditya Singh, who has performed at 40 open-mics in the last eight months cringes at the memory of his first shows: “ I had to resort to done-to-death porn jokes,” he says. “These are the jokes I now warn others against.”

Ankit Bareja, one of the co-founders of Hamster Comedy hosting an open-mic event.

Hamster Comedy

Launched by comedians Manu Gupta and Ankit Bareja, Hamster Comedy organises four to six open mic shows for budding comedians a month, one is also held every Sunday at Of10 in Powai.

“A lot rides on the host because he can lighten up the spirit of the room after a bad performance or encourage the first timer who is already facing crippling self-doubt,” Gupta says. The audience usually is supportive, but sometimes it is necessary to call a spade, a spade. “That is when the performer goes back and works on the loopholes in his script.”

Gupta is flooded with calls from ‘aspiring comedians who want a chance at an open-mic slot. “Once a guy called me up from Gujarat and started his act (which included mimicry) on the phone. When I told him I am not auditioning him, he went on to quiz me about my contacts in the industry. ‘Kapil Sharma ko jante ho?’ he asked. When I replied in the negative, I am sure he was heartbroken,” Gupta recalls laughing.

Parijat Sarkar, who has performed at 24 open mics in just two months, many with Hamster Comedy, says there’s a downside to an open-mic night. “We go there expecting laughs, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.” He once performed to an audience of comedians who were performing before or after him. “We didn’t really call it show then, it was more like a group discussion.”

Budding comedian Neeraj Pandey performs at an open mic session organised by The Awkward Fruit at QTube Cafe in Bandra. ( Shashi S Kashyap/ HT Photo )

The Awkward Fruit

The Awkward Fruit organises one open mic, usually every Wednesday, for which slots are booked, sometimes even a month in advance. Akshata Agarwal and her husband Kamal Singh, the founders, launched it to give budding comedians more stage time. “Kamal, a comedian, knew that the more you get on to the stage, you realise where your talent actually lies. These trial sessions give you a chance to experiment,” says Agarwal.

Kamal is a little more easy going on the performers, even giving kids as young as 16 a slot. “Once we had a guy come in with his uncle for an open mic, and just as he was about to deliver his punchline laden with expletives, his uncle wagged his finger and said a big NO,” he recalls. “Nevertheless, the audience burst out laughing.”

First Published: Jul 28, 2017 18:24 IST