A serious chat about stand-up comedy in India
With Kenny Sebastian, Kaneez Surka, Abish Mathew and Sumukhi Suresh
– Make your way to comedy open mics at intimate neighbourhood venues every week or at least every other week?
– Save up for large-scale auditorium shows headlined by an all-star?
– Eagerly wait for and watch Amazon specials?
– Bookmark 10-minute YouTube videos for a well-deserved laugh after a hard day at work?
– Come back to your favourite comedian’s Instagram stories for a micro-dose of happiness during lunch break?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any (or all) of the above, you are part of a growing section of people that count on comedy for respite from mid-week blues and weekend entertainment, in India. Chances are that, while you may not remember exactly when you first discovered just how much you enjoyed laughing non-stop for a whole hour in a dark room with complete strangers, you have since found a preferred style, venue, and comedian. You have become a part of the ecosystem—by helping sell tickets and racking up views—just as much as the content creators and performers you love. An ecosystem that, we’re happy to report, is thriving. But, more importantly, accommodating of fresh ideas, talent, and stories.
Amazon Prime India’s comedy reality show, Comicstaan, returns for a second season this July, with a roster of amateur comedians that will try and find their place in this brave new world. Like season one, it has been conceptualised as an immersive comedy ‘course’ that trains participants in its various styles (like improv, sketch and anecdotal comedy) over eight weeks, but there are a few key changes this year. Comedians Zakir Khan and Neeti Palta join Kanan Gill, Kenny Sebastian, Kaneez Surka and Biswa Kalyan Rath on the judges’ panel, together with season one host, Sumukhi Suresh, from whom Urooj Ashfaq takes over as Abish Mathew’s co-host. The sets are bigger and better, there’s less uncertainty about the format and the jokes are tighter. The biggest change? Everyone’s playing to win.
If season one was an experiment, season two is tried-and-tested. Having successfully launched the careers of stand-up comics like season one-winner Nishant Suri, and contestants Rahul Dua, Prashasti Singh and Saurav Mehta, Comicstaan is now seen as a platform to aspire to, for those who mean (funny) business. But that’s not its greatest appeal; instead, it is the opportunity to draw from the judges’ collective pool of real-world experience in an industry that is still coming into its own.
We spoke to season two mentors, Kenny, Kaneez, Abish and Sumukhi to find out what they wish they’d known when they were just starting out. Including the all-important piece of gyaan—joke karna koi mazzaak nahi.
You’ve got to really love what you do
And stick with it. Kenny started creating YouTube videos while he was still studying at art college in Bengaluru, doing freelance projects to pay the bills, and juggling open mics and theatre, but it would be six years before things started moving for the ‘paavam’ comedian who has over 650,000 followers on Instagram today. “I remember there was one breaking point, when Kanan, Biswa and AIB were blowing up, and people were asking me things like “Why haven’t you become ‘viral’ yet?” he says.
Despite 100 self-shot and produced YouTube videos and online specials, Kenny found himself stuck. It was at this time that he decided to travel to the United States to enrol in a writing course. The trip, in retrospect, was eye-opening for the comedian who has now performed all over India, as well as in Canada and the USA. “I saw that comics over there were really struggling because the industry is far more saturated, and came back with a little bit of hope.” Kenny uploaded another video, one that he’d been sitting on for three months, and everything changed for him. You may have watched it; it’s called ‘Middle Class Restaurant Problems’ and has close to 10 million views on YouTube.
Sumukhi is a firm believer in manifesting your own success; the actor/stand-up comedian/writer who has previously worked at a food safety lab and as a chef, says “No one was writing a lead for me; I’m the quintessential fat best friend and I was really tired of that. But I also realised that the reason I was being given these kinds of roles was because I wasn’t doing anything about it.” So, she wrote season one of Pushpavalli, pitched it to Amazon and starred as the lead of the web series that will, in all likelihood, be coming back to the streaming platform for season two. “That was a huge turning point for me because I gave myself the chance to show people that I could do more.” And it paid off.
Open mics are sacrosanct
“I wish someone had told me “Don’t stop going on stage.” when I was just starting out,” Abish says. The stand-up comedian who wears many hats believes that it’s important to remember where you come from and what you’re really good at, despite the appeal of creating video content that gets millions of views or hosting the city’s most popular podcast. “When Son of Abish started happening, I was involved in the everyday running of the show, I was looking after all aspects of it. And I felt like it was worth my time because it was getting me noticed—far more so than stand-up was at the time. So, I focused on that and lost touch with my live skills,” he confesses. Now, Abish is at an open mic every night after which he heads to a cafe to make copious notes about his set over a cup of well-earned coffee.
Look out for each other
“A sense of community,” replies Kaneez, when we ask her what her favourite thing about the industry is. Everyone is willing to help and open to collaborate, without a sense of cut-throat competitiveness. Sumukhi agrees and adds, “It’s us sort of having each other’s backs.” Whether that means writing up a part specially for another comic or giving their ticket sales a nudge. Sumukhi continues, “Each of the comics is very aware of what the other person is looking for, and helps them try to find it. Plus, comics in the industry actively work to ensure that their colleagues are not boxed in or typecast into just being a comic; it’s about encouraging each other to explore and showcase different facets of their personality.”
Improv expert, Kaneez makes going up on stage without a prepared set (or any idea, really, about how the show will go) look really easy. The host of The General Fun Game Show, however, admits that she used to have a hard time just going with the flow when it came to sharing content on social media platforms. “I used to sit and write out one tweet and send it to people before I could put it out—sometimes, it would be two days! —because I thought it wasn’t funny” she says. But it’s about taking that first, scary step after which you start trusting yourself.
That, and looking at things a little differently helps. Kaneez explains, “I do this because I have fun doing it; I have fun when I make videos or when I go up on stage and perform. I keep reminding myself not to take things too seriously but instead to just have a good time with it.”
Comedy is here to stay
When he was just starting out, all Kenny heard was that comedy was a bubble, and that its end, inevitable. Nine years’ later, he wishes he hadn’t spent as much time worrying about its longevity. Rather than thinking about the unlikely time when stand-up comedy is no longer around, he suggests, “Focus on what you have to do, enjoy the ride and celebrate each day.”
For unrestricted access to this guide on making it as a comedian in India, make sure you tune into Comicstaan 2 that is now streaming on Amazon Prime.