The serious business of stand-up comedy
Indian comedians Sapan Verma, Daniel Fernandes and Neeti Palta talk about their stand-up sets at Bengaluru Comedy Festival Showcase as part of MICF
Comedy is serious business in contemporary India with many artists making a career out of manufacturing humour and concocting fun. With a deluge of comedic talent flooding the Indian market, new stars are in the making, some of them unquestionably engaging.
That’s why we were so excited to watch a good mix of Indian stand-up comedians recently, all under one roof, providing a ‘legitimate Indian perspective’ to Australia.
Classified as the pioneers of the Indian revolution of comedic relief these youth stars are currently Down Under as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017 (MICF).
Featuring millennial Sapan Verma, satirist Daniel Fernandes, naughty Neeti Palta and energetic Sumit Anand, the Bengaluru Comedy Festival Showcase at MICF piqued our curiosity.
Not long before they geared up to deliver the gags, three of these talented comedians spoke to Indian Link about the intricacies of stand-up comedy and their excitement at the opportunity to create laughs for the funniest chuckle festival ever.
Neeti Palta was the first to arrive in Melbourne, along with Sumit Anand, to perform at the Comedy Zone Asia segment of MICF. She has fond memories of her last trip where she won the inaugural RAW comedy India Competition and performed as a special guest at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2013.
The talented young comedian from Delhi admits that her style is yet to evolve.
“I honestly haven’t figured out my style as I am still developing one,” Palta said. “I am not the type of performer who enters the stage with a bang. I tend to use sarcasm and subtlety instead of histrionics and my topics are more slice-of-life or observational by nature.”
Before she ventured into stand-up comedy, Palta used to work as a senior creative writer and then a head writer for Sesame Street USA’s Indian venture called Galli Galli Sim Sim. She also co-wrote the screenplay for O Teri, a Bollywood film that was produced by Atul Agnihotri and starred popular actor Salman Khan in a cameo role.
Stand-up comedy came to her when she attended a Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood show and volunteered to do their spot sound effects. The effects proved to be hilarious and were well received by the audience.
Soon after, equipping herself with “a really thick skin”, Palta set out to conquer the world of laughter. Many pub appearances, corporate events and comedy gigs later, today she is considered to be among the top Indian female comedians who don’t hold back.
“As a female comedian, my point of view will obviously be from a female perspective, however I do not brand my comedy as chick comedy,” Palta said.
According to her, the pay structure for comedians in India is mostly based on experience and quality rather than gender.
“I am living in this happy bubble thinking that I am being paid fairly for being funny, irrespective of my gender,” she said.
She disagrees that you need to be badass or potty mouthed to be successful in comedy.
“If you are connecting to your audience with your content, you do not need to use foul language,” she said. “If you think it will help out your point then by all means go ahead as long as the intent is correct.”
Having said that, Palta admits she has found people are a lot more open to men using racy jokes or foul language on stage as opposed to women.
“I avoid using expletives, however, if I use one occasionally, for a punch line, I can feel the waves of judgement from people thinking, ‘OMG this woman swears!’” she said with a wry smile.
Is comedy the last bastion of free speech we asked? “I hope not,” Palta replied. She is of the opinion that all forms of entertainment, not just comedy, should be released from the shackles of political correctness. According to her, telling the truth is controversial but comedy often tells the most truth.
“Comedy is the most honest and brutal form of free speech,” said Sapan Verma, echoing similar sentiments. “It’s blunt, honest and questioning things in the system or society that no one else will. You say it as it is.”
“It’s an important role that comedians play everywhere in the world,” Verma continued. “If you look at the US, you have John Oliver, John Stewart and all these late night comedians who are so heavily inclined towards news comedy and they are constantly talking about Donald Trump, his policies and attacks on Syria. That’s the level that comedy should reach, even in India.”
According to Sapan Verma, for this to happen in India the censorship levels have to be reviewed and intolerance levels have to change.
“In the Indian context we are going through this weird socio-political scenario right now where even as comedians it is scary to talk about certain things,” he said. “You are worried about the heat or implications that might attract, including FIRs and death threats.”
Verma feels the shift towards news comedy has not yet happened in India, but will happen soon.
“Right now the masses in India are more inclined towards mimicry and light content like the Kapil Sharma Show,” he said. “[But] the comedian will soon be a mix of journalist as well as a comedian and that’s the type of comedy I love.”
It’s Sapan Verma’s first trip to Australia as a tourist as well as a performer.
“For every show, in India or overseas, I customise my content accordingly and that is the reason I am in Melbourne a week earlier to get the feel of the place and figure out what to present.”
Verma is a co-founder of Mumbai’s East India Comedy, a collective of Indian stand-up comedians that has more than 500,000 followers and over 80 million views on YouTube.
Their speedy trajectory, from inception in 2012 to being India’s busiest and most sough-after comedy company, is mainly due to their online presence.
“Social media is extremely important,” emphasised Sapan. “YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other internet options are where people can watch your content. Before we started on YouTube we used to have a couple of hundred people attend our shows. But since our YouTube following went up, we can easily fill a show with over 1000 to 1500 people, at least in India.”
According to Verma, comedy has become more sophisticated and the phase when people only identified call centre jokes and head nodding from Indian comedy has gone, thanks to the Internet and its wide reach.
Verma is called the ‘good boy’ of comedy and laughed aloud when we asked him why.
“I guess it must be that I am not an aggressive type of personality on stage or it could be that my content is not too edgy and my jokes appeal to all ages,” he said with an amused smile. “I am not into dark humour so maybe people think that I am friendly enough.”
Verma agrees that stand-up comedy alone is economically viable only for the top few stand-up comedians in India, whereas most comedians still need to have other means of income to sustain themselves.
“Many comedians also work as script, copy or other content writers,” said Verma who has scripted the IIFA awards and Life Ok awards, twice, as well as the Filmfare Awards, Star Guild awards and other events for Wizcraft and Cineyug. “I believe, that writing comedy is a great learning experience to write on any other topic.”
As one of the pioneers of English stand-up comedy in India, Sapan Verma finds his work both exciting and challenging, “not just a job”.
“You end up inventing things that work for you with no guidance from a senior comedian to look up to,” Verma said. “By the same token it is exciting as we are literally creating the comedy scene ourselves and we are privileged to be the first few in this burgeoning industry in India.”
Daniel Fernandes also thinks that comedy is more than a job.
“It’s a lifestyle, it’s something that consumes you. I cannot imagine doing anything else anymore,” he said. Fernandes quit his job in advertising film production to take up a career in entertaining through social commentary.
Fernandes takes up controversial issues like suicide, marital rape, capital punishment and Syrian Crisis and puts them in perspective, with humour. His dark humour has earned him a massive fan following both in India and abroad.
He has certainly moved away from the comedic traditions of India, of the slapstick showcased in movies and television.
“Slapstick is the lowest common denominator in comedy – the gags are more physical, the punch lines are aided by sound effects and you are literally telling people when to laugh,” he said. I feel stand-up is way more evolved and it is entertainment for the mind not just the eyes.”
Fernandes is proud of the progress that the stand-up comedy scene has made in India and went on to mention the variety in styles, from observational, satirical, political to musical, that are continuing to emerge.
“[The scene now] is far removed from anything that an Indian audience has seen before in movies or films, so it’s a great value proposition for people to come and buy a ticket.”
Fernandes claims that he has learnt the art of nuance and picks topics that have him sometimes walking on a very fine line in these oversensitive times.
“I am quite surprised that I haven’t gone to jail at least five times by now, but thankfully I haven’t” said Fernandes with his characteristic cheeky smile.
“It’s very easy to get on the wrong side of the fine line. I still get people who do not like my work but they are in the minority. One thing that is working for me is staying on the right side of the issue. For example if the topic is marital rape I am not beating on the victims but I am taking on the oppressors whether it is patriarchy, society or law. The other trick is to keep it funny,” he said.
Comedy is 100 per cent the last bastion of free speech according to Daniel Fernandes. “Sadly, journalism today is no longer about news, it is purely about entertainment, so when people want the truth they watch comedy,” he said.
“That’s why comedians have suddenly found themselves in a position where they are representatives of truth. They are honest and they will call out the bullsh** with no holds barred, telling the truth like it is,” said Daniel, the passion in his voice unmistakable.
“I have fans who have quoted me in their exam papers and thesis and are apparently scoring well,” said Daniel with a grin. “I had a teacher who told me she uses my comedy videos in her classroom as a teaching tool. In that sense comedy is becoming the last bastion for truth and that is why it is very important that this art form thrives. If you take away stand up from the world all you will be left with is propaganda.”
With so many points to make and so many reflections is there a danger that the stage turns into a pulpit and the comedian starts preaching?
“There is that danger as you are talking about things that affects people directly and that is something as a writer that I am consciously aware of,” he said. “And that’s why punch lines are very important.”
“Every now and then you may have a poignant bit in your script, but I follow it up with a punch line to lighten it up a bit. If you are not getting laughs every twenty to thirty seconds then it is just a speech and not comedy.”
So enamoured is Daniel Fernandes with comedy that he has invested into the business side as owner of a comedy production house. He also works as head of programming for two comedy shows.
It’s very important to connect Australia to India, says Fernandes, because Australia is an evolved market in terms of performers and India has this massive market in terms of consumers who have not been exposed to stand-up – from either Australia or India.
“That is why we are bringing a piece of our comedy festival to Australia,” he said. “To connect with the Australians and the many Indians who we hope will be there to support us and watch us.”