From Live Stand-up Comedy to What ‘Feels’ Like Live: Will It Work?

Can standup comedy sustain through this pandemic? 

Published11 May 2020, 07:34 AM IST
7 min read

Stand-up comedy isn’t just a profession. It’s a routine or a way of life for some.

“Performing at least two if not three open mics events a day was a routine for me, and this is something I have been practising for years,” says Sapan Verma.

Verma is the co-founder of East India Comedy and has been an active part of the comedy circle for years now. Recently his show One Mic Stand on Amazon Prime Video turned out to be a hoot. It featured guests like Taapsee Pannu, Shashi Tharoor and Richa Chadha. But in the present times, when everyone’s daily routines have gone for a toss and an open mic gig seems like a dream too far fetched, how are standup comedians like Sapan dealing with the crisis?

“I used to do this every night and now I don’t know when it will happen again,” Sapan Verma wrote on Instagram. 
“I used to do this every night and now I don’t know when it will happen again,” Sapan Verma wrote on Instagram. 
(Photo Courtesy: Instagram/Sapan Verma)

All Shows Cancelled

Sapan Verma told The Quint that he was supposed to go to Singapore on 20 March for a ticketed show which he cancelled in advance owing to the spread of COVID-19 in the city-state and he was expected the bear the cost of tickets. But he says he faced a bigger issue with the filming schedule of one of his shows.

“I was shooting the second season of One Mic Stand when lockdown was announced. For me the bigger problem was that we stalled that show. In fact by now, in May, we were supposed to wrap up the shoot and now we don’t know when we will resume.”
Sapan Verma, Comedian
Kaneez Surka in her latest show , <i>Ladies Up</i>, on Netflix.
Kaneez Surka in her latest show , Ladies Up, on Netflix.
(Photo Courtesy: Netflix)

Comedian Kaneez Surka says she had to cancel an India tour she was planning for April. The Circuit Comedy Festival where she was doing six shows was also cancelled. But Surka says she feels writing jokes, for her, is easier now than before. “I’m enjoying writing my jokes, I’m more relaxed and also some really interesting thoughts and perspectives are popping into my head,” she says.

Supriya Joshi, who made her entry through the last season of Comicstaan as an official comedian in the space and has also been a content creator for years, was also a part of the line of the same Circuit Comedy Festival.

Only Much Louder media organises comedy festivals across India. The organisers were prepping for a three-city comedy festival in April which got cancelled. “Out of precaution and concern for the safety of artists, fans and partners, we had earlier called off the first edition of The Circuit Comedy Festival which was due to take place across Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore from 6 March - 15 March last month. At a time like this, taking The Circuit Comedy Festival online in its digital avatar #SitDownComedy was an opportune pivot for not only for us and artists but also fans are drawing some comfort from being able to interact with their favourite artists, from the comfort and safety of their own homes – and not just those restricted to those three cities, where the festival initially slated to play in March,” says Gunjan Arya, CEO - OML.

Can Comedy Work in an ‘Online’ Setup?

Sapan Verma included, comedians and event organisers are trying to work around a format that can keep stand-up comedy alive in these times of the coronavirus outbreak. Alick Bailey, a comedian and event organiser, is one of the few who has been doing online trials for comedy shows.

“With all venues for live shows locked down, moving online is the only way to go. People need to be entertained and online videos have already been ‘repeat watched’ multiple times and have become predictively boring. Live comedy shows are the need of the hour, we need to bring in new content to keep the audience satisfied. The idea is to liberate peoples mind from “I am trapped alone” to “we are in this together”, also help the audience rewire their mind from “live” to “feels live”. Most comedians are full-timers and need to generate revenue one way or the other, online shows are the way to go. Secretly, online shows help producers/organisers bring down the recurrent cost,” says Alick.

Comedians are also trying to figure out the best practices for online performances. Sapan Verma says, “I have been a part of some fundraiser shows done by YouTube and a bunch of comedians. Initially, I was averse to the idea of doing it online but I think this is the way forward for a couple of months at least. Some of us also got on to a zoom call to share experiences and learn from each other. There’s constant learning happening on that front.”

Verma says they hosted a trial for EIC recently where they asked people to wear headphones for a better experience, urged the people who joined the show to laugh when a joke cracked them up so the team gets the feedback and knows what’s working with their audiences. “Sometimes when you’re in the confines of your home, you tend to hold back and not laugh as you might with your friends in a normal setting. So we kept telling people to engage as much as they can. Apart from this, we also understand that the internet lag can be a huge problem and we try to make up for any glitches that might occur,” he adds.

Alick Bailey says the hardest part, however, is to decide the ticket pricing when it comes to these online show amongst other logistical issues like internet speed, camera angles and production. Talking about ticket pricing, he says, “This is the hardest part of taking the shows online. Getting an audience to pay for each show/experience is a little tough. They still see the show as “something online” and compare it with the pricing of a monthly Netflix/Prime account. Costing of a live show is easy, (artist cost, logistic cost, venue cost, overhead and profit) \ number of seats available. With online shows it's not that easy, we are still working on a formula to calculate the ideal ticket cost. Currently are working on ticket value in the 100 to 400 bucket, this is still a hit and miss system. We have had sold-out shows for 300 and a low turnout show at 100 for the same artist.”

Can Comedians Help Out Fellow Comedians in this Time of Crisis?

Kaneez is one of the few comedians who has hired a few junior comedians under her so she can financially support them. “I’ve hired two comedians as part of a writing team for my web series development. I have also hired one comedian who helps me with my brand work - writing concept notes and scripts. So we’re all trying to use resources within the community to get stuff done,” she adds.

Sapan Verma says that we are trying to work around shows where there’s one popular comedian who can open the show and host a platform for some others who desperately need the money during this time. “Even when ‘Me Too’ happened there was a discussion that took place about having a union. But unfortunately, the comedians don’t have one. Everyone’s trying to do the best they can to help out other comedians at an individual level,” says Sapan Verma.

At the beginning of the lockdown, Nishant Tanwar took to Twitter to offer support to comedians who need help. He wrote, “I wish to offer support to all the hustling comics. Share your contact details and I will transfer funds to as many comisc and as many times as I can, in my capacity to ensure that you have funds for essentials like groceries and your basic needs.”

Nishant told The Quint that he helped quite a few people from the ones that reached out to him but he couldn’t help each one of them. “People from the comedy circle and others reached out and I did the best I could,” he says.

In a conversation with us, Vir Das spoke about how he felt “ashamed” when the man who washes cars in his apartment was forced to go from flat to flat asking for food. Talking about the man, Vir said, “He told me he swore to himself that he’ll never beg. The reason why I am crying today is that I have to beg. Donation is a start but anyone who has a large social media following or a large platform, let’s not pretend like that’s not income and that we cannot continue to earn. I’ll try and do one show a night and send the money somewhere. At the end of the day, I am still getting to do what I do.”

Until Next Time...

But what is a comedian without the laughter of his audiences? A human standing with a mic, wanting to laugh at their own jokes...

Kaneez Surka says she misses performing at live shows, “Seeing people’s faces light up, hearing the laughter, feeling the energy of the room go up or down and playing around with that. Talking to people and connecting the way humans are supposed to connect or have been connecting.”

Sapan Verma agrees with her and says, “The whole live experience is so gratifying. You perform and you get a laugh right there. Standup is not a job, it becomes a part of you. You don’t hang out with friends. You hang out with fellow comedians backstage and make friends with them. So that becomes your ecosystem and that’s your group. But going by the situation right now looks like standup will not resume for the next three to four months and entertainment is the last priority right now, given what’s happening.”

We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated.

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