As coronavirus lockdown hits India's comedy scene, many faced with financial crunch, uncertain future

On social media, comedians are finding ways to make followers laugh during the lockdown, but for them it’s no laughing time.

Pooja Bhula April 13, 2020 09:38:53 IST
As coronavirus lockdown hits India's comedy scene, many faced with financial crunch, uncertain future

On social media, comedians are finding ways to make followers laugh during the lockdown, but for them it’s no laughing time. Stand-up comedy, which enjoys 75-80 percent of the comedy pie, epitomises the gig economy. Comedians earn show to show. Newbies start out with open mics, which seldom pay. “It takes minimum one year to get established in the circuit. I define established as someone who has built at least 10-minutes of tight material,” explains Balraj Ghai, founder of Mumbai’s famous comedy destination, Habitat Café. But the hustle period, according to comedian Nishant Talwar aka Joke Singh, lasts four-five years. Traditionally, stand-up comics aim at progressing to one-hour set over time and then announce tours.

While public shows and tours are important to build a following, moolah lies in corporate shows. Top comedians boasting viewership of 7-mn can fetch Rs 5-6 lakhs/show, but the mid and lower segments, which form the bulk, fetch Rs 40-50k and Rs15-20k respectively. Mid-level comedians are also versatile professionals with a solid one-hour set, but somehow haven’t managed a crowd-pulling appeal. And in comedy, market rates are indicative of brand value. It also determines the frequency of gigs. 23-year-old Tushar Gupta says, “Since I’ve started 1.2 years ago, I’ve only got two-three paid gigs. But I’m fortunate, many don’t even get this.” Registering for open mics is equally challenging. Bangalore comedian G Bindu Rao, who does clean comedy and non-political shows, shares, “People reach by 2 pm for an 8 pm gig. I always worry someone else will hustle more than me and I won’t get a spot.” The funny industry is so competitive, the top keeps changing too. “You could be doing back to back gigs and suddenly things change with a new kid on the block; we see lots of new entrants. Or you’re not as popular anymore,” says Midas*, a producer who moved to Mumbai five years ago. This isn’t an Indian phenomenon alone. “In the West, where it’s far less informal with comedy clubs, contracts and agents, you’re still never assured a stable income for two years. Contract renewal isn’t guaranteed; comedy clubs run losses and close down too. Stand-up is a very stormy scene. That’s why lots of comedians have day jobs,” adds Midas.

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Representational image. Via WikiCommons

That’s also why, though Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and to an extent Kolkata are great for stand-up comedy, Mumbai, which opened India’s first comedy club in 2009 – The Comedy Store – is considered the ‘Tier 1’ city. Besides a mature audience and daily open-mics, it also offers opportunities for side-gigs such as writing assignments for dialogues, awards, web series, etc – that fledgelings and many professional comedians depend on to make ends meet. Tanwar adds, “OML, which manages most comedians, is in Mumbai. Lots of shoots happen here and it’s also better for doing branded content by the side. Comics from other cities, who’ve tested themselves in home ground and know what they’re good at, move here for exposure.”

There’s no official count of comedians in India, but Tanwar gives us a rough idea: “After WhatsApp got popular, a comedians group got created. As the app allows only 250 per group, [and] two more sprung. So there’re at least 750.” Baljeet pegs ‘established’ ones at 250; Habitat lists amateurs, professionals and veterans on its website. As for Mumbai’s migrants to locals ratio, Tanwar estimates a 40:60 split, adding that “minus the veterans and it would be 10:90; many local college kids get into stand-up.”

Around since a decade, Tanwar has witnessed the entire arc from stand-up comedians performing just for the love of the art (and free) around 2009, to realising getting paid (Rs 5,000 for 15-20 minutes) a couple of years on, to now, where at least the top 15-20 can sustain on a full-time stand-up career. Therefore, anticipating how the lockdown-led loss of earnings would impact hustlers, he decided to support open-micers from across the country. To start with, he is giving those who reach out Rs 10,000 for keeps, promising anonymity.

“Honestly, my initial worry with the lockdown was boredom as you’ll be unable to do anything, eat-out and party. But hardships faced by migrant workers made me realise how being home is a luxury. Unsure how and when my contribution would reach them, I decided instead to help open-micers. I know what they make, what they’re going through, especially those who’ve quit jobs to do this full-time or have migrated to metros to follow the passion. In a way, I’m helping me in 2012,” says Tanwar, who moved from Delhi to Mumbai in 2015.

Tanwar’s assessment about migrant-woes is on-spot. Three years ago, 29-year-old Rao, whose parents reside in Agartala, left a reputed bank to pursue comedy full-time. “Throughout school and college, I was always on the stage, but my job left me no time for stand-up.” It took Rao two years to start earning Rs 10,000 from public gigs and Rs 40,000-50,000 for corporate shows. She and her partner, Namit Jain, who manage the label Hasyaaithun, split the money. She tries doing two open mics/week, two corporate shows and two paid weekend gigs at restaurants, etc every month. “I’ve returned to Bangalore just a few months ago, after a year’s break due to health issues. Luckily, I got two corporate gigs in March before the lockdown and don’t have expenses apart from groceries and essentials as I’m living with my sister. But if things don’t look up by May, I’ll have to start finding alternate sources of income like writing workshops. But with everything available free right now, it might be tough convincing people to pay.”

Gupta, who had originally moved from Delhi to Mumbai for a job in a production house, but got hooked to stand-up comedy, has it worse. He recently took a month’s sabbatical to focus on stand-up. “The idea was to make my 12-minute set stronger and hit open-mics every day. I’d saved enough to survive a month and then join another production house. But now I’m back to Delhi; it’s best to save whatever’s possible. I’m still paying rent and my maid’s full salary for Mumbai just as we’re paying our help here. Frankly, I’m only saving on commuting and weekend spends. It’s not an impossible situation, but cash-crunched, I’m taking support from friends and family.”

Tanwar too couldn’t have supported fellow comedians if it weren’t for his savings for a house. “For a year, I’ve not been putting down any gigs so I can buy a house in Mumbai. We didn’t like any place, else I’d be unable to help. Maybe it happened for a reason.” Since 30 March, when he announced support, 55-57 comedians from Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Dehradun, Bombay and smaller cities have reached out. Most are “20-25-year-olds and some in their early 30s, who have quit jobs to do stand-up. Two had families too,” says Tanwar.

On the other hand, Midas points out, “No one’s crazy to enter this profession for money, there are far less traumatic ways for it. Highly-paid comedians would have also entered it purely for the love. The major difference between people stand-up attracts versus Bollywood is that here, unlike in the US, stand-up comedy isn’t mass. It’s high entertainment and those hitting the stage aren’t blue-collared; it’s a middle- and upper-class aspiration. Therefore, though the current situation is bad for comedians, it wouldn’t be as dire as for many others.”

The consensus is that it is producers like him that have it the worst. “We’re a different breed from comedians. We spend a lot more time in this – organising line-ups and everything for shows. The more serious the producer, the less time s/he has for side gigs. Some even put in their own money. Most work on a revenue-share model, but producers who have rented venues or turned a place into a live-events space... rent won’t get suspended though all shows stand cancelled. So much would have gone into organising the Pune Comedy Festival (planned for 14 and 15 March)… More than the informal sector, the low-risk, low-margin guys organising open-mics, trial shows, etc, the big guys with people on payroll would be seeing greater economic repercussions. For artists it’s a gig lost, producers would’ve lost money, gone into negative. And that’s bad.”

Rao seconds him. “Producers have really taken a blow. Namit does comedy and another business that’s into making different parts. Right now both his businesses are hit. Comedy-only spaces like Counter Culture (Bangalore) would also be losing revenue. They have tough decisions to make – do I lay off staff or pay salaries from my pocket?”

Who would know better than Ghai. Of Habitat’s team of 20, “the social media guys are working from home, but we had to have tough conversations with cameramen and others, who work with us on a project-to-project basis, about paying only till 15 March, the last day events happened. They too were supportive as they understand how thin the margins are.”

What do they anticipate post-lockdown? Midas is worried about the recession expected to follow. “Corporates, the F&B industry… all spaces that tie-up with comedians may be strained and we are heavily reliant on everything happening around us. Veterans were able to charge certain amounts because people could afford it, but now we don’t know.” As stand-up is a live art-form with jokes, comedians also worry about getting rusty. Several Indian and international comics are trying to keep going with Insta Live, YouTube podcasts, etc, but those like Rao think it isn’t worth bothering. Gupta’s committing himself to writing three jokes a day and we are told Karunesh Talwar is writing too. Rao hopes things will look up by season-time in winter, but Ghai’s thinking, “One would like to be positive, but we don’t know what mental impact people will have undergone, how it will alter social behaviours and comfort with gathering at places.”

Midas rightly notes, “The outbreak has taken out the smugness from anyone who thinks s/he has it sorted.”

*Midas (name changed. The producer spoke on a condition of anonymity).

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