Most talent-based reality shows have a similar structure. First, a whole bunch of aspiring contestants audition, post which a final set of them is shortlisted. And then they’re judged across a series of tasks within the field, until one emerges as a winner.
Now picture this template with upcoming comedians aspiring to make you laugh, who are judged by acclaimed comedians in a reality show hosted by - wait for it - comedians.
In short, Comicstaan on Amazon Prime has all the ingredients to be a really fun reality show, and it definitely succeeds at that.
I mean, what does anyone look for in a reality show?
A bunch of talented contestants?
An interesting format?
Cool, charismatic judges who are experts in their field?
Check, check, check!
And to top it all, the hosts, Abish Mathew and Sumukhi Suresh, are also acclaimed comics who keep the show fun and engaging, while seamlessly guiding you through the procedure of the competition.
In episode 1, the seven judges - Biswa Kalyan Rath, Tanmay Bhat, Sapan Verma, Kaneez Surka, Kanan Gill, Kenny Sebastian and Naveen Richard - split up and go to various cities in India to listen to aspiring comedians perform open mics. They then sit in a panel and deliberate on who the top ten contestants should be.
Unfortunately, this episode is pretty dull, and a lot of the applicants (who obviously didn’t end up being selected) are really bad. While you can’t blame the show for a few poor applicants, especially since it’s a part of the template to show the process of selecting the final contestants, I do wish that portions of bad stand-up sets were edited more crisply and replaced with either more interesting discussions among the judges or more of the good stand-up sets, if nothing else.
Yet, this initial lag is quite forgivable. The first episode is decent, and by the end of it, you’re fairly excited to watch the next one, hoping that it picks up and it does.
In episode 2, the hype begins. There is now a full stage and an active audience. The atmosphere is filled with excitement and energy, which is further complemented by the peppy background music throughout.
This is where you are introduced to the format of Comicstaan. Since the judges are all experts in different genres of comedy, they each mentor the contestants in their respective genre. Every episode is a different genre: Biswa (anecdotal comedy), Tanmay (topical comedy), Sapan (observational comedy), Kaneez (improvisational comedy), Kanan (comedy of terror), Kenny (alternative comedy) and Naveen (sketch comedy), in that order.
In each episode, the contestants perform a set each in the particular genre, and are scored by the remaining six judges (excluding the mentor for that episode) along with the audience.
This format works very effectively, because it combines the judges’ technical criteria-based assessment with the judgment of a general audience. It’s also kind of fun because you too start judging the sets and seeing how your opinions compare with those on the show.
To make it even more interesting, the total points of the contestants on each episode are added, to give a score for the mentor of that episode. At the end of each episode, not only is this score announced and compared across the judges, but each mentor also has to perform a stand-up set in the genre of that episode.
What I like about this aspect is that it creates a sense of accountability, and does not place the judges on a pedestal.
In fact, a major criticism against the show is that the judges themselves are not well established or credible enough to have the authority to determine who the next best comedian is. This format indicates that the makers are aware of this point, as the judges constantly have to justify their position through the show, both as mentors and “experts” at comedy.
The truth is, stand-up comedy just isn’t as legitimised as an art form, like singing or dancing is. Legends in singing and dancing have been in the industry for years, have carved a strong place for themselves, while these judges are all young and still trying to establish themselves.
But this is less a testament to their ability than it is to the fact that comedy as an industry in India is still in a nascent stage.
While the judges may appear juvenile as they constantly make jokes and mess around, I think their camaraderie and banter is the best part of the show. I don’t have a most favourite or least favourite judge because all of them are given equal importance and the combination of their personas contribute effectively to the vitality of the show.
Unlike other reality shows, these judges do not take themselves too seriously. They are all too willing to be made fun of, and recognise their flaws and limitations.
In fact, they are introduced in the first episode through a roast, and they have advertised on Instagram that in upcoming episodes, the contestants roast them as well. I look forward to that. Watch this one of Kaneez, to get a glimpse of what I’m saying:
But don’t let this chilled out and funny vibe fool you. The contestants really do respect and look up to them as mentors in the field.
What Comicstaan indicates is that “respect” in our generation is no more about touching feet and putting seniors on a pedestal. Respect can also expressed through some gold old insult comedy.
And the judges do make some really insightful points about comedy. You start thinking about the “setup” of a joke, whether or not the jokes are “landing” and how “tight” a stand-up set is. What this show essentially does is, it attempts to depict the technicalities and finer concepts of comedy to show it as a skill and craft and not just “being funny”.
The editing is also very tight - you don’t get bored during the judges’ feedback at all as it’s kept pretty short.
However, while all the feedback was about how to make the sets more effective, there was no discussion whatsoever about the ethics of comedy. Contestants joked about a wide range of topics, right from death, weddings and wars, to social media, feminism and classism.
Most of them were reasonably well addressed, but I missed seeing discussions about the ethics of joking about certain things, some do’s and don’ts, if any, etc.
How can we joke about serious issues without being offensive and insensitive? How important is it for stand-up comedy to be socially relevant? Can it all be “just for fun?”
The only remote mention of these questions came in episode 3 on topical comedy, which by the way, is the best of the first four episodes. Tanmay taught the contestants “how not to get into trouble” for their jokes (I’m hoping the irony of this is not lost on you), but this was inadequate.
Most often, though, the contestants performed bold and provocative stand-up routines and delivered them fairly well. My favourite contestants are Sejal Bhat, Shankar Chugani and Saurav Mehta. One of them can definitely be India’s next best stand-up comedian.
All the contestants noticeably improve through the first few episodes itself, and that evolution too is nice to watch.
Overall, Comicstaan is definitely worth a watch. It has some fun stand-up routines, witty and clever judges and (not very, but more so than other reality shows) funny hosts. Forgive a few cringe-worthy moments here and there, and you’ll definitely have a good time. Comicstaan is good fun, and a great start to a bright future for comedy, but we do have a long way to go.