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The Era of the Special: Evolution of Stand-up Comedy in India

The democratisation of the internet has in a sense led to the democratisation of stand-up comedy.

Art and Culture
4 min read
The Era of the Special: Evolution of Stand-up Comedy in India
Hindi Female

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How many stand-up comics can you name right now? Now compare that to how many you knew about a decade ago. Major changes have taken place in the last few years that have led to the boom of stand-up comedy in India. Comedy has always been as diverse as the country itself – from the comedy of geniuses like Johnny Lever and Kader Khan to the slapstick comedy shows on TV to the funny videos our relatives forward to the family WhatsApp groups. But stand-up comedy has always taken a backseat in the larger scheme of things, it has always been an urban phenomenon with a niche audience – up till now.

The democratisation of the internet has in a sense led to the democratisation of stand-up comedy. As data and smartphone prices have plunged, the number of Indian internet users has shot up. A video revolution is sweeping across India and OTT players like Amazon Prime Video have big plans and shows already lined up for the Indian market.

In the early noughties, this would have been unimaginable. Most comics from that time relied heavily on mimicry or slapstick for their on-stage acts. Shekhar Suman’s wildly popular talk-show Movers and Shakers used stand-up comedy as a filler, not the main attraction. But slowly Hindi stand-up comedians found a platform on The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. And thanks to the internet, we found Russell Peters. Finally, there was a stand-up comedian who looked like us and killed it on-stage. But stand-up comedy still remained a small-fry in the vast cauldron of Indian comedy. It was still seen as a hobby and not a career, an alternative and not the norm.

Comics Abish Mathew and Sumukhi Suresh were the hosts of Amazon Prime Video’s Comicstaan.
(Source: Amazon Prime Video India)

Just when the stand-up comedy scene in India was evolving, comic collective All India Bakchod happened and gave it a major shot in the arm. This was followed by the rise of several other comics such as Aditi Mittal, Abish Mathew, Biswa Kalyan Rath and Kanan Gill. More and more open mics started happening across the country, giving wings to the aspirations of budding comics. Finally, stand-up comedy found its spot under the sun. That OTT players such as Amazon Prime Video have placed their bet on stand-up comedy is proof enough.

Reality shows, until now, have produced singing and dancing sensations and normalised a career out of these talents. Shows like Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, India’s Got Talent and Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, all had contestants who went on to become famous playback singers, choreographers and even Bollywood actors.

Prashasti Singh, an engineer and MBA-turned stand-up comic from Amethi, is already making waves.
(Source: Amazon Prime Video India)

Finally, the focus seems to have shifted to stand-up comedy. Winner of the recently concluded Comicstaan Nishant Suri and another top contestant Prashasti Singh are already headlining shows and amassing a fan base of their own. In a recent interview, Suri said that, “People have started recognising me, and for the first time in my life, I’m selling out shows”. Now the comic gems hidden in tier-II, III cities and women stand-up comedians are finally breaking into the erstwhile exclusively male and urban scene. In fact, Prashasti, who is an engineer and MBA, is from the small town of Amethi. Who would’ve even thought?

The journey for all these comics only gets better from here. If you’re doing a 10-minute spot on stage today, tomorrow you could have your own ‘stand-up special’. Zakir Khan is the perfect example of this, his phenomenal Sakht Launda set propelled him to fame and got him his own special. OTT players too are displaying their conviction in promoting Indian comedy by having more and more desi specials.

More and more comics like Sorabh Pant have their own stand-up specials now.
(Source: Amazon Prime Video India)

And as for the audience, they’re loving it. Stand-up comedy venues are cropping up in smaller cities and towns. Developments like these are bringing in an entirely new pack of stand-up comedians into the limelight.

As the stand-up scene in India evolves further, so will the audience. When they get exposed to different kinds of comedians, their taste will get more refined. With Season 2 on the way, Comicstaan is similar to what shows like Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Dance India Dance were for other art forms on television – a one of a kind platform for young people to express themselves. This is a special time for stand-up comedy in India indeed, as Comicstaan is just the beginning, there’s much more coming our way!

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