If one were to look at the state of English stand up comedy in India, it would appear to be in great shape. In five years, it has risen from a state of oblivion and grown into a relatively mainstream cultural commodity in every metropolitan city. Venues from auditoriums to small bars have become receptive to the idea and it is a common inclusion in their event roster. Stand up acts have become an integral part of almost every corporate event or party. Big international acts like Russell Peters and Gabriel Iglesias visit often and sell thousand of tickets.
All of this seems to mask that there is still a serious shortage of full time English comedians and that the demand for comedy is far outstripping supply. Comedy has only just gone from amateur hobby to a professional industry in India, so this is to be expected. However, for it to continue to grow at its current pace and become truly mainstream, the groundswell of comedians needs to double or triple its current strength in the next two years. This year in January we saw India’s first three-day English comedy festival, with 70 comedians from across the country coming together to perform for thousands of people. As thrilled as we may be by its success, it’s a sad reflection that in a country of a billion people, there are only 70 comedians that can hold an audience’s attention. It’s even sadder that we’re already creating unnecessary rivalries and competition within this tiny community that’s decided to take the business of making people laugh seriously.
Roughly six months ago, AIB (a comedy collective I co-founded) decided to extend its activity from live shows and podcasts to sketches on Youtube. We became one of the few online channels to produce sketches consistently. The comparisons with The Viral Fever started immediately, with audiences starting to compare each sketch, every joke and even production styles in a bid to pit one against the other. With mainstream media taking note of these Internet sketches, there was more exposure and more responses and you can see fans from each “camp” go at one another in the comments’ section.
I find all this most amusing. It’s like a throwback to 2009, when English stand up comics emerged in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, and audiences (as well as journalists) loved comparing one city’s comics to another city’s. The myopia of making the growth of an art form hostage to a few people’s competitive spirit has mostly been broken now, but I’m seeing the same thing happen with online sketches.
If stand up comedy is at its toddler stage, then comedy on the Indian internet has barely standing on its own. We have our version of The Onion in Faking News, which has spawned a clutch of knockoffs. Jay Hind became the first Internet only show, based on the late night talk show format, and The Viral Fever (TVF) was the only channel that produced sketch comedy. In each of their chosen categories, these remained the biggest draw for Indian users of the Internet. Other than these few examples, comedy surfaced in the form of Indianised memes from 9GAG and badly photoshopped images of Bollywood stars on other peoples bodies. Basically, it was a criminal waste of the platform that the Internet provides comedians and satirists (which is now under attack, after the new IT Act was passed).
Fans and audiences that reduce what’s being done online to “TVF vs AIB” need to understand that this isn’t a contest, but an industry. The success of both these groups is crucial to getting more people on board, which will hopefully make for better and more comedy. For those still stuck on TVF Vs AIB, dear readers, I’m afraid to tell you that we all get along pretty well.
The reason you don’t see Saturday Night Live and Key and Peele fans in the United States going to their pages to type, “You suck, the other guys are way better” is that there are hundreds of other options to choose from for the audience. It is perfectly okay (and normal) to like one more than the other. Instead of asking “Is AIB better or TVF?”, why not think about the reasons that there aren’t more people creating the kind of work AIB and TVF present online? What can we do with comedy? How can we challenge the current IT regulations to create content that is edgier, without landing in litigation? How do we use the space to react to things the mainstream media doesn’t ever highlight?
There should be hundreds of channels like AIB and TVF to cater to different audience’s tastes, expose more people to live comedy and convince them that comedy is a voice in this country. Instead, in a country of more than a billion people and in a creative field that regularly draws live audiences by the thousands, we’ve got two.
So here’s a request: think bigger. The stakes are much higher than you realise.