am a professional stand-up comedian. This is a fact that’s hard for most people to swallow. I’m constantly faced with, “But, full-time kya karte ho?”, “Yeah, it is a hobby only, na?” and, “How do you make money? Join a call center or something on the side, OK?” And, when that line of questioning ends, the bombardment only exacerbates, “Where do you get your jokes from? Internet and all? Do you have writers?” and, of course the ill-fated, “do you want to hear a joke you should use?” Now, I love talking to people after a show – but, telling comedians internet jokes is like reading out a list of random numbers to a Chartered Accountant or giving Swiss bank suggestions to UPA MPs.
Where do comedians get their jokes from?
Answer: Booze, drugs, a little fairy who whispers in my ear like Gollum, ‘Food Security Bill (free jokes for all)’ and of course, ‘Google’.
Real Answer: While the rare comedian does rely on the powers of Google and in fact the power of the jokes of other comedians which they pass off as their own – most comedians get their jokes from themselves. The ones that don’t are cast off into the wild and looked down upon with more suspicion than a Pterodactyl in a flight of swans.
We get jokes the hard way: From writing. We make notes all the time and we write. Constantly! We’re driven by different motives, as comedian and hair gel aficionado, Sapan Verma says, “I write every night due to fear. Fear of being left behind. It’s like: if you don’t write this joke tonight — someone else will.” Sorry, Sapan — I was up the night before and already wrote that joke — whatever it was.
Who writes it for them?
A: Rahul Gandhi — he’s the funniest comedian, though he doesn’t know it Corny drum roll, please). Pick out his speech to the Indian Chamber of Commerce and you have material for nine solo shows.
R.A: Every English comedian who is not on TV (i.e. all Indian comedians) writes for himself/herself. Nobody understands your POV like you. We’re also greedy. We don’t want to share the little money we earn with someone else. We’re the anti-thesis of the BCCI.
It doesn’t come easy for any comedian. Sahil Shah – comedian and Lasith Malinga doppelganger – describes it worst (best), “I write continuously until I find a joke. Then I stop. Then I feel proud of myself. Then I realise the joke is not funny at all. Then I cry hoping my tears magically make the joke funnier. Repeat.”
It’s medically proven that tears can make jokes funnier. Or, make you come off as a total wuss.
Your move, Sahil.
Atul Khatri, the Simi Garewal of Indian comedy – because of his age and ability to seduce Kapoors belongs to an entirely different school of thought says, “I don’t write anything. I just tell stories about my life or my wife whichever came earlier. See I forgot that too.” As I said: total Simi.
One of India’s most respected comics and playwright, Anuvab Pal says, “I come from a theatre background, so I think in sketches. I think of a funny scene in dialogue, where I’m almost playing two characters.” This also explains why Anuvab suffers from bipolarity. We’re with you, Anuvab.
Get it? OK.
Every comedian gets to a joke in a different way: as long as it’s funny — no one cares about the journey.
How much of it is improvised and innovated especially with the audience?
A: All of it is improvised. I just get up there and it flows from the top of my head. For I am a genius. Bask in my glorious punch lines.
R.A: While a lot of audience interaction is improvised and all the best comedians do a bit of that, there is a template of responses that most comedians use. Whether it’s insisting someone who is discreet about their career is a drug dealer or asking late comers if they’d like a watch or making 405 thepla jokes about anyone who is Gujju – this is staple fare (like theplas). But, maybe I’ve revealed too much! Maybe I’m making it sound simpler than it is. Maybe I’m putting myself out of a job!
Barely four minutes of a 90 minute show will be truly ‘improvised’. The rest is smoke, mirrors and punchlines. Anyone who pretends otherwise is a liar. A rich liar but, a liar all the same.
How difficult is it to be non-stop funny for 60 minutes, without tripping up?
A: I’m tripping on every show. I can make a bong out of anything. Including a mike. Try me.
R.A: It takes considerable writing, rehashing, rewriting, self-loathing and self-doubt to have a 60 minute stand-up comedy set. It also takes years to have a set that appeal to all audiences. Even now there are probably sixcomedians who have such a set. I’m lucky to be counted as one of them though, the fact that I’m writing this alleviates my status on that list by about 59 minutes.
It’s also a challenge to be funny for an hour while being relevant and giving a fresh angle, As Anuvab mentions, “It’s harder in the age of the internet where pretty much everything has been explored, for comedians to say stuff people haven’t read somewhere.” Exactly. You don’t want to be at a show where someone screams, “Internet joke!”, or, “Russell Peters did that” – which is about the same thing.
The simple solution is to have a 60-90 minute show with two or more comedians. The show is more varied, the green room is more fun and there is always someone to share a drink with if you have a good show. Or, 10 drinks – if you have a bad show.
This comedy thing is a hobby, right? There’s no way you would make money off it?
A: Of course not. I get paid in beer and burgers. My bank account is my cholesterol.
R.A: There are probably 25 comedians in India who make money off stand-up. Some are even happy and pretend to be well adjusted citizens. There are also about 40 comedians who continue to try but, haven’t quit their day jobs yet. Some will make it, some won’t. It’s up to them.
Kunal Rao, who quit a lucrative job as a Chartered Accountant to do comedy says, “The money is less but, the job satisfaction is immense. I love doing this. Also, number crunching rarely gets you groupies.” I may be paraphrasing liberally but, it’s more interesting than what he said. Poor C.A. – he just can’t shed his corporate baggage.
You can only make money off stand-up if you have a reputation. The only way you have a reputation is if you kill almost every show you do. The only way you can be that good is by doing it obsessively. It’s like any other job: you have to be consistently good. It’s really not rocket surgery or brain science or whatever smart people call it.
Is stand-up comedy an industry that has arrived?
A: Where is our small-scale industry subsidies? Come on Manmohan, help out some poor joke farmers.
R.A: There are a bunch of comedy companies, venues, auditoriums, event companies and agents making money off comedy. Yet, there are still barely a hundred careers affected by stand-up. It’s a growing industry but, not yet. As much an industry as Goregaon is a tourist destination – which is not at all. Give it a few years before you give us Robert Vadraesque benefits.
What is the difference between audiences in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai Kolkata?
A: Alcoholic levels.
R.A: Alcoholic levels.
Alcohol is shockingly important. Regular socials drinkers of Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Bangalore are the best comedy crowds in India.
But, there’s so much more – there’s social upbringing, educational levels, the industries you belong to etc. The South prefers more nuanced jokes. Delhi loves Hindi and a delicate sprinkling of cusswords. Chennai doesn’t enjoy sex jokes (as an audience, I don’t know otherwise). Kolkata crowds used to silently judge you with an appropriate Nietzsche quote but, have now gotten much more raucous.
Audiences change depending on how much comedy they see. Which is why Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Bangalore – who have seen the most comedy – are the best crowds. Or maybe it’s the alcohol. I don’t know the truth anymore. Was it our jokes or was it the C2H5OH? As long as people are laughing – who cares?
Who are the most famous comedians?
A: Me. Just me. Everyone else sucks. (Never ask a comedian who else is famous, we are famously self-involved and every comedian’s favorite comedian is himself/herself.)
R.A: Comedians have now had Bollywood hits, written box office films, made tons of viral videos and sold out houses across India. To name seven comics would lead 18 comics to stab me in the face. But, since my face isn’t that precious anyway: Anuvab, Sorabh, Vir, Rohan, Sorabh, Aditi, Abish, Sorabh, CJ, Tanmay, Kunal, Ashish, Varun(s), Khamba, Sapan, Sahil and Sorabh are all very popular. This list is based on one simple paradigm: comedians that are capable of selling out a house. If they’re famous, you would know their surnames. It’s Pant.
How do I become a comedian?
A: Years of rejection and unhappiness coupled with a desperate yearning for attention.
R.A: You just become one. You write jokes and you hit open mikes. If you don’t have an open mike – start an open mike. None of India’s top comedians have made it by being lazy. OK, we’re lazy but, we’re also venturous. My company, The East India Comedy, has Open Mikes every month.
Laugh Factory, Comedy Store and tons of others do too.
Sapan puts it best, “You are your own boss so you need to push yourself. Nobody will ask you to work, but if you don't work the results will show.” Comedians are indeed their own bosses – it is up to us! Which reminds me: I need to ask myself to give myself better HRA and hire me some cute interns.
It’s simple: you want to be a comedian – you become one. Don’t quit your day job just yet. Strap in, enjoy the process and do it because you love jokes not because you love the attention.
And, come for our shows – help make us a real industry! And, if you already do – drinks are on me. And, consequently: the laughs are on you.