The changing content
Comedy as an art form is fluid. Every performance by a comedian is a navigation of a new terrain. Unlike other art forms that usually have a set script, comedy evolves on stage. A comedian serves as an artist and entertainer and often enters into a friendly relationship with the audience.
So what are audiences in the national capital region like? What do they find funny? Apparently, they are quite easy-going when they’re in the mood to have a good laugh. And they don’t need marquee names to get themselves to restaurants offering standup shows.
When Aditya Kaushik, a 25-year-old comedian, frames his jokes around societal issues like patriarchy, he keeps the city and audience in mind. “Delhi treats comedy as a form of entertainment”, he tells Patriot. “Although the gist of the matter remains the same, the way the jokes are delivered differs between cities. If I am making a joke on sexism in Delhi, I have to be casual about it, unlike Mumbai that likes an intelligent approach”, Kaushik says.
Kaushik’s day job is in the media. For the past four years, he has spent evenings performing in restaurants whenever he gets a call. He believes that the audiences in Delhi understand cerebral jokes but don’t really welcome them.
“They just come to enjoy the show”, he explains, “And this is what we keep in mind. For people in Delhi, comedy is not an art form that has its own history.” He prepares different sets of scripts for a variety of audiences. He has developed the ability to analyze the mood of the audience within 15 minutes of the show, and tweaks the script to prompt laughter.
For Arpan Khosla, another comedian Patriot interviewed, audiences here have become mature with time. Khosla has been in the comedy scene for the last six years and has also performed on international platforms. Originally from Delhi, he prefers to crack dark and personal jokes – sometimes writing scripts around Hitler and suicide.
Sharing his experiences as a comedian primarily working in the capital, he says, “Comedy in the region has grown significantly. People have been exposed to a variety of content through social media and YouTube, and they have become more accepting towards jokes which may otherwise sound offensive.”
According to him, cafes and restaurants add standups to the ‘menu’ as a marketing strategy. Then there are corporations who want to give their executives something to laugh about. So even within the city, the content has to match the demographic.
“Suppose I am at a corporate event, I will not crack a dark joke. But if I see the audience is young, my comedy will entirely change”, he explains. Asked about the rewriting of script depending on which city he is in, he says, “Hyderabad doesn’t like engineering jokes, but Delhi does. So apart from household and relatable content, much of it remains the same.”
Much ado about humour
There has been a rise in the number of comedy shows in Delhi, as is obvious from the fact that almost everyday, there is a show in some corner of the city. It is clear that Delhi is lapping up the fare on offer.
“One of the prime advantages of being a comedian in Delhi is that the number of Open Mic shows have increased to an extent, especially after the pandemic”, says Kaushik on an upbeat note. “Earlier, this was not the case. Comedians who came before us used to collect people to attend their shows for free. But now the scene is changing.”
Kaushik believes that Delhi’s audience welcomes all kinds of comedians. “Even if you are a budding comedian, that really helps. Firstly, you are getting shows every day; secondly, you are welcomed by the audience.”
Echoing the same experiences, Mahima Bhatia, who has just started her journey as a comedian, says, “I have a lot of friends who come from small towns to make a career in comedy. Delhi’s audience plays a major part in these changing dynamics. Now people have different sets of comedy. They welcome all, irrespective of whether the comedian is new or not.”
Bhatia teaches accountancy at Takshila Institute and sees herself as a professional comedian in the future. She started stand-up comedy on digital platforms during the pandemic and took to the stage after the lockdown lifted.
Sharing her experiences as a female comedian in a male-dominated environment, she says, “Although it is comparatively easy to be a comedian in Delhi, there is not much representation of the comic situations women find themselves in. When I am performing, my audience is generally male, and my comedy is naturally female-centric. So the first thing I do onstage is take a look at the audience and calculate the ratio, and then I modify my jokes accordingly.”
By and large, even the niche audience that prefers famous comedians is opening its arms to budding ones. With the emerging understanding of comedy and maturity among people, those who are starting their career in this gig economy find themselves facing new challenges at every turn – honing their skills in every show because the audience wants it better with each passing day.
Smiles all around
Probing deeper into the state of standup comedy in Delhi, Patriot reached out to organizers of the shows. According to Vishal Dubey, a comedian-cum-organizer, the comedy scene in Delhi has changed dramatically. Between 2010 and 2014, performances were held only in bars and restaurants, and people would visit by themselves – generally audiences with no particular interest in comedy. Two minutes were given to each comedian and this was also followed by music and other stage performances.
However, with changing times and money flowing in, comedians have started to host their own events. Usually, they rent a place and invite budding comedians for a nominal entry fee. The main attraction of the show is usually an ‘open spot’, a place reserved for senior comedians who perform without any fee to draw the audience.
During pandemic restrictions, audiences were reduced to a trickle. To tackle this situation, Dubey came up with an ingenious situation. “Although I did not personally want to trouble comedians regarding the audience, I had no other choice but to ask them to bring someone with them. So it was a one-plus-one situation for a comedian. This is how we brought back the scene in Delhi after the pandemic.”
Dubey has been in the comedy scene in Delhi since its inception. He believes that the audience in Delhi is the hardest to crack. “If you can make people laugh in Delhi, you can perform anywhere else in India easily. The script always has to stand out in Delhi as people in Delhi do not laugh so easily. And this also makes it hard as an organizer because you constantly have to bring new talent to the stage to keep the business running”, he says.
Sharing his experiences as a comedian-cum-organizer, Dubey says, “It gets very difficult because you have to think like a businessman and an artist. Moreover, being an organizer gets so overwhelming that you can’t think much about your performance. Responsibilities of an organizer seem easy but they are very difficult. You have to take care of the audience, comedians, stage, finances, and occasional hecklers.”
Clearly, while comedians may not be laughing all the way to the bank, those who keep their wits about them are keeping themselves and their audiences in good humour.
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Mohd Shehwaaz Khan
Shehwaaz covers community, sexuality, gender, and other social issues for Patriot.