The fraught atmosphere inside the green room at a comedy club or at the back of a bar that’s hosting a stand-up comedy show is often similar to that outside a school examination hall. Comics mill around each other as they wait their turn to go up on stage. The ones still waiting for their spot keep an eye on the audience. A warm room – one where the audience is engaged, open and, most ideally, laughing already – is their dream crowd. After killing or bombing, the comic rejoins the pack, but this time their attention turns to their sharp-eyed colleagues. They want critique. Did their new bit work? Does it need more tags? Was the set-up too esoteric? Feedback flies fast and furious.
A version of this mentoring session is what the public gets a glimpse of on Comicstaan – Amazon Prime’s latest flagship original that just broke records to become the most-viewed offering on the mammoth streaming platform. Presented in a format that would be familiar to anyone who has watched a reality show on Indian television in the last decade, 10 comics from across India compete every week to master a new genre of comedy and earn points from their judges and studio audience. All this for a shot at winning a cash prize of Rs 10 lakh and a highly-coveted Amazon contract for a special.
There are downsides to this juggernaut configuration. In its quest for mass market appeal, the show loses out on nuance. The urge to have the funniest comeback in a group chat magnified a million times is tantamount to every comic’s personal existential crisis. They are an intensely competitive bunch, but a talent show rubric fails to convey just how time and labour intensive coming up with a hit joke is. “Jokes are refined over months, if not years,” said Nishant Suri, a Delhi-based comic and one of the 10 contestants on Comicstaan. “The show does not necessarily show everyone’s best material.”
Each one-hour episode features 10 contestants who compete to be the best comic for the pre-defined genre each week. The seven judges, who double up as mentors, spend a week advising the contestants on their area of specialisation – ranging from the easily-accessible observational comedy to the more performative sketch comedy. Comics then perform to receive feedback and scores from the judges. Audiences at each of these live tapings also score them. There is no elimination: the average of the scores determine the standings on the leaderboard, week after week.
Each comic develops their act over the course of a week or relies on older material. They usually gets about three or four opportunities to test their material before it is finally taped. The series released four episodes starting July 13 and the finale (where the winner, the one with highest final score on the leaderboard, is crowned) is scheduled to air on August 17.
Going up on stage with bits that are sometimes just a week old makes performances appear more uneven than they are. “Layered jokes,” said another contestant, Shashwat Maheshwari from Kanpur, “are built when you add tags, tighten the set, or modify the joke after hitting many open mics to test it out with different audiences”.
Mumbai-based comic Aishwarya Mohanraj believes this is a constraint of time. “Ten comics have four minutes each,” she said. “Plus, there’s the judge’s comments, the hosts doing their transitions, audience response...you have to fit in so much into less than an hour per episode.”
But ultimately, there is no combating the fact that stand-up is best enjoyed live – good comics don’t just tell jokes, they create a mood to take their audience through a narrative arc (see: Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette). Maheshwari agrees. “The reality TV format works for music, not comedy,” he said. “You can’t create a connect with the audience, which is necessary for stand-up.” Moral of the story: going for a live show is the best way to support a local comic.
The roving lights and glitzy sets are more reminiscent of today’s popular singing competitions and quite unlike the spare stage comics hitting the open mic circuit are used to. But this does not mean the jokes are hack. Instead, unlike a lot of their predecessors – like comics on The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, Comedy Nights with Kapil Sharma, or those who began their careers by capitalising on stereotypes – they consistently punch up. The feedback from the show’s judges is helpful narrative and structural advice any creative can learn from. And the sheer variety of comedy styles (from anecdotal to alternative) will hopefully inspire future comics to never crack another Gujjus-are-so-cheap joke again.
Diverse casting means the sardonic humour of Amethi’s real powerhouse, Prashasti Singh, finds a home as easily as the wholesome appeal of Bengaluru’s favourite Shankar Chugani. It’s also an opportunity to take a risk – Mohanraj, only four months into her stand-up career at the time of shooting – manages to make the death of someone young, relatable during the observational episode.
The action isn’t confined to the fringes. Another one of Mohanraj’s set, castigating male opposition to feminist movements, is just waiting to go viral – it received 5.8 lakh views when shared on comedy collective All India Bakchod’s Instagram page. Rahul Dua’s highly relatable set on being forced to choose a side will appeal to anyone who has been an innocent bystander to social media fights. The content is a careful balance of the edgy and the relatable.
A strong sense of community pervades the Indian stand-up scene. There’s a feeling of being in the trenches together – underdogs fighting for legitimacy, laughs and more stage time. While one loses an authentic sense of this camaraderie at the altar of the talent show format, Suri observed that “Comicstaan has remained focused on the content, instead of the drama”.
There are moments – though few and far between – that pull back the curtain on this rapidly expanding subculture. Chugani sings praises about how fellow contestant, Mumbai comic Rueben Kaduskar, worked tirelessly to familiarise his out-of-town colleagues with the local scene, so they could test new material at open mics between tapings. Comics talk about how their judge-mentors fought for contestants to have more stage time. Even fans of the show point out how Mohanraj always exchanged a friendly hug with host Sumukhi Suresh after her set in every episode.
This is a culture built on open mics. But the show circles back unfailingly to its framework of sticking to the week’s genre, tracking points and progression across the leaderboard and driving towards what promises to be a record-breaking finale in under 60 minutes. It isn’t conducive to creating the warm room comics work so hard to build in order to ensure a satisfying experience.
But things are not all doom and gloom. “Pure stand-up becomes monotonous in a reality show format,” said Suri. “But there is something new in every episode. How many people have seen improv? Or have heard of alternative [slated to air soon]?” Comicstaan might be the ticket for converting those who see stand-up as niche entertainment into hardcore stand-up enthusiasts. Social media is already flooded with fans rooting for their favourites. Some comics have seen their online following grow exponentially. Newest to the scene, Mohanraj declares that if it weren’t for Comicstaan, she would still be plugging away as a research analyst at AC Nielsen. Now she is writing for Suresh’s Behti Naak, AIB’s On Air with AIB and for Abish Mathew’s Son of Abish.
Comicstaan has been renewed for a second season with casting already underway, indicating the powers-that-be are pleased with the show’s success. A franchise that introduces a new generation of comics to Indian audiences every year is in the works. For a community that has relied on individual comics cobbling together the resources to film a set, posting it online and hoping it goes viral, it’s a marked change in the way they do business. What remains to be seen is whether the stand-up scene will change to reflect this new mode of revenue generation. Or will Comicstaan get past its technical teething troubles to more accurately represent the local stand-up scene it so relentlessly champions?