For most typical ’90s kids in middle-class India, the first introduction to sketch comedy was Jaspal Bhatti’s Flop Show. Addressing a whole range of social idiosyncrasies over the course of its short 10-episode run, the Doordarshan show still stands the test of time: in one episode, its take on the inefficiencies of office interactions is eerily similar to the hot takes millennials tweet during their daily commute.
This nostalgic favourite, along with Ulta Pulta (another Bhatti offering) and Kerala’s Kalabhavan Mani who, with his comedy troupe Kalabhavan, started off a mimicry craze in his home state, is representative of a longstanding desi storytelling tradition. Short sketches that took potshots at those in power or exaggerated everyday miseries for comedic effect and featured characters and situations the common man was familiar with. The Indian audiences lapped it up, even as Indian television transitioned from short-form programming to long-running serials or sitcoms featuring beloved characters such as Srinivas Wagle in Wagle Ki Duniya or the brothers in Dekh Bhai Dekh.
Perhaps sketch comedy is just where Indian comedy’s strengths lie, compared to, say, improv which relies on an embracing of the absurd. Sketch comedy is what propelled the Indian stand-up comedy scene to where it is today. The current crop of top comics is made up of individuals (Kanan Gill, Kenny Sebastian) and collectives (All India Bakchod, Them Boxer Shorts, East India Comedy) who gained visibility posting short sketches on YouTube. AIB first made it big with Rape – It’s Your Fault, a sarcastic sketch with a social message starring Kalki Koechlin. In addition to their stand-up and funny reviews, Gill, Biswa Kalyan Rath and Sebastian created Dudes, a series of brief sketches about silly stand-offs between three friends.
The latest to bank on the form is Amazon Prime’s latest offering, Go Straight Take Left, starring Sumukhi Suresh and Naveen Richard. “When YouTube first came to India, no one knew what to do with it,” said Richard. “The only way to get a TV show [was] to show that you can write and act [in] comedy – sketches helped you gain an audience. You’d then get noticed by a TV channel, do a half-hour show and then a movie. At least, that was the original plan.”
Origins of sketch
Sketch has been around far longer than YouTube or even television. It calls upon a far older tradition – Indian theatre. “So much of our theatre is oral – this tradition of storytelling means there are so many versions of our epics, and their performance included everything, from dance to comedy,” said Arundhati Raja, founder of Bengaluru’s Jagriti Theatre, which has hosted several stand-up comics and comedy shows over the years. Sketch comedy stems from old vaudeville traditions, stripped of elements like music and dance. But other elements remain: sketch thrives when it has a chance to indulge in dramatics. Usually, there is an everyman forced to confront a familiar situation – a relatable reality viewers recognise – that is then exaggerated to comedic effect.
Even in the United States, sketch comedy’s origins can be traced back to vaudeville. It continues to remain popular today, with multiple comedy careers being launched on Saturday Night Live. The form still holds strong with Hasan Minhaj’s sketch comedy troupe Goatface inking a deal for a one-hour special on Comedy Central.
Across the pond, in the United Kingdom, things are less rosy. Once the masters of the form – both Richard and Suresh were inspired by Monty Python – sketch emerged out of theatre revues like the Cambridge Footlights that graduated university to enter television with shows like Blackadder and A Bit of Fry & Laurie. But now sketch comedy, on British television at least, has been declared dead.
The story is similar in India, with comedy on television largely being centred on stand-up bolstered by sound effects and celebrity interviews. Savita Bhatti finds them an unworthy successor to her husband Jaspal Bhatti’s work, deeming them to be largely reliant on shock value rather than content. “You are just getting the audience to say oh my god, rather than saying something of substance,” said Savita Bhatti.
Instead of television, YouTube and paid streaming services are today the natural home of sketch in India. Both Amazon Prime and Netflix have been churning out stand-up comedy specials and comedy-based shows every month, with more slated to be released in the coming year. But this doesn’t mean sketch comedy is being left behind.
In Go Straight Take Left, Richard and Suresh stick to the tried and tested, placing relatable characters in recognisable situations. “I wanted people to feel like they had seen this guy somewhere,” said Richard of his character. Suresh was firmly of the belief that “sketches need to have some innocence and simplicity to them, otherwise it takes away from the show”. This desire for familiarity is apparent right out of the gate, with Richard and Suresh opening the one hour as colleagues caught in a seemingly endless, yet fraught, water cooler conversation.
The show is deeply absorbing with sharp back-and-forths that compel a viewer to be drawn into the minutiae of their characters’ conflicts. But all isn’t hunky dory in its world – the show is unafraid to touch upon familial emotional atyachaar in Jail, where Suresh’s character pays a visit to her jailbird brother, played by Richard. Nor is it afraid to be silly – during a tennis match where the players’ grunts of exertion escalate with each set to a patriotic finish. The final sketch, Ventrilokism, leaves viewers torn between dawning horror at revelations of existential ennui, and in splits at the incredibly catchy introductory jingle to a ventriloquist show.
Despite its nods to its satirical predecessors, the form has evolved in its latest edition. Unlike previous sketches that seemed to be largely set in and concerned itself with the stereotypically foul-mouthed concerns of North Indians, Go Straight Take Left is deliciously South Indian. This seemed the obvious choice for Richard and Suresh – they hail in complex ways from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and have written shows set in Bengaluru (Pushpavalli) or starring obviously South Indian friends (Star Boyz).
But as things change, so they remain the same. Much like their old-school theatre counterparts, both Richard and Suresh enjoy performing sketch live. “We had an eleventh sketch, actually,” said Suresh, “but we cut it because it worked really well live but not necessarily on video.”
In many ways, sketch and even stand-up comedy still rely on the lessons Jaspal Bhatti’s productions taught us. Recalling her husband’s work, Savita Bhatti said that the comic and writer valued brevity – a hangover of his days as a cartoonist. “He always said that being to the point made things funnier,” she said, echoing what present-day comics desperately yearn for even today: a tight set. The concept of punching up instead of punching down (aiming the punchline at the institutionally privileged rather than the oppressed) was very much present in these classic sketches. “The thing about those sketches was that it was all internally directed towards [Jaspal Bhatti] – he was what prompted the laughter, instead of pointing fingers and laughing at other people,” said Savita Bhatti.
Things come full circle in more than one way. Online streaming services have their appeal and an unparalleled reach, but Raja thinks that live sketch comedy would do as well as any other performance once it finds its audience. For Richard and Suresh, it would be a chance to go back to their roots. After all, it was at Raja’s theatre that Go Straight Take Left began its journey. “Shankar [Chugani, a Bangalore-based stand-up] was running communications at Jagriti and he rang us saying that they had an available date for the theatre,” said Suresh. “Nothing motivates you like a deadline, so Naveen and I decided to do something. All we knew then was that we wanted to do something offbeat. What resulted were a few sketches that we kept working on after the show. Four years later we had Go Straight Take Left.”