How Coronavirus Is Killing The Indian Stand-Up Comedy Scene

As venues get shuttered and paying gigs are cancelled, many comedians are wondering how they will keep going.
Sapan Verma, SonalI Thakker and Aakash Mehta
Sapan Verma, SonalI Thakker and Aakash Mehta

“White people have realised pollution is bad.”

“Did y’all know Calcutta was the last city to get A/C metros?”

“Oh, shit, I’m getting heckled by a parrot. One second…”

Quite a lot of awkward silence, as faces in square-shaped chat boxes stare at each other.

It’s April 2020 and we are at a live open-mic comedy event on video-calling app Zoom. It’s a bizarre, innovative, necessary and surprisingly melancholic exercise. About 20 people have tuned in, six of whom are comedians who have a 5-minute window each for their act. But a comedian’s performance is a two-way street: it needs the reactions, laughter, gasps to be truly complete. There’s something eerie about watching a comedian making jokes in an empty space, with an occasional, disembodied laugh erupting from some corner of the screen.

“It’s an experiment,” said comedian Jeeya Sethi, who runs the club Comedy Ladder and is a seasoned programmer on the scene. Over the past few days, as India stays under a government lockdown imposed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Sethi has been organising online open mics every evening. On a good day, about 30 viewers log in. This can go down to 10-12 on others.

The pandemic, which has infected more than 6,000 people in India so far, has upended different sectors across the economy. In the entertainment space, among the nascent industries that have been badly affected is the business of comedy.

Most comedians start out by performing at open mic events, looking for the one break that could make their careers. As venues get shuttered and paying gigs cancelled, many are wondering how they will keep going.

Even the established names, who have contracts with streaming platforms and a source of guaranteed income, aren’t free from the anxiety and uncertainty.
Then there is that existential question: how do you make jokes when the world is facing such terrible times?

’One joke a day’

None of the comedy producers, said Sethi, have figured out a way to monetise Insta live or other online versions of live shows. But there’s one important reason to keep going.

“At least it makes us write jokes. Even if you write one joke a day, you’d have honed your craft a little,” she said.

But the consensus on virtual open mics seems apparent. It just isn’t the same as performing in the same room as your audience.

“I miss the buzzing sound of the room, the claps, the giggles, the laughter, and the silences,” said Vir Das, one of India’s best-known comedians.

In March, Das was supposed to be on a performance tour of the United States. Instead, he’s locked up in his Bandra apartment, unsure whether the US tour will happen later or not, given the state of things. All his scheduled live shows have also been cancelled.

Comedian Sonali Thakker Desai was supposed to be in Australia.
“I was expected to be at the Melbourne comedy festival for a month-long thing. Two days before my flight, Tom Hanks got coronavirus. Everything got cancelled.”

Other than the Melbourne event, Thakker also had a gig lined up at the Soho Theatre in London and shows at the Pune Comedy festival, besides several others.

Thakker explained that March should have been a busy month for comedians, with plenty of events. “There’s Women’s Day, bro!” she laughed, adding that a country-wide tour she had planned in May-June has been called off for now.

Other comedians have similar stories to share.

A little over a month ago, on March 5, Aakash Mehta landed in Delhi for a live show. In just the time it took for him to travel from from the airport to the venue near CP, six of his shows—including gigs at college festivals and private events—were called off, sending him panicking.

“March is an important month for us. I do a lot of work for the IPL, award shows etc which take place over the summer and are a huge cash cow. In fact, we mark this on our calendars as events where the cash flow will increase. Everything’s gone. I have a few thousand left in my savings.”

Mehta, who’s a popular face on live shows, runs a company called Lasoon Live that has a roster of about 14 comedians, all of whom are currently without gigs. He’s worried about paying his staff and has a corpus that can cover only the month of April. “After that, we’ll have to cut salaries and from June onwards, suspend them altogether till this clears up.”

The slightly senior comedians, however, are in a better position. “I’ve been thanking my luck that I’m at a point where I can afford to do this without a worry,” said Sapan Verma.

He and his team were about to film an episode for the popular Amazon Prime show, One Mic Stand, but had to cancel it a day before the taping. “100% of my work has been affected,” he said.

“There were a few college and corporate shows lined up for March which have been cancelled. I was also supposed to do a show in Singapore on March 20, which I thankfully called off well in advance seeing the situation there.”

As for income, Verma added that most revenue streams have dried off and money is coming in through ‘influencer-type branded content’ work on Instagram. But even there, brands have slashed their marketing budgets, causing a further dent.

“Only a few comics have had deals with the likes of Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, which has made them a chunk of good money. Otherwise most comedians survive gig to gig, and it’s going to be super difficult for them. I’m also worried that a few comedy venues will shut shop because they can’t sustain for months without any income,” he said.

Many comedians said that using Instagram live, which has become the go-to destination for audience engagement, doesn’t nearly have the same vibe.

“I just cannot get myself to do it,” said Thakker, who has resisted the temptation so far. Mehta, who’s been rather prolific on Instagram, said, “The only thing I have to do now is what I hate about my job the most: social media.”

Looking for the jokes

Comedian Chinmay Mhatre told HuffPost India that having a full-time job, which he secured weeks before the lockdown, was a timely blessing. “Most of my jokes were centred on IPL and the Olympics. I was working on an hour-long special too, all of which I now need to rethink as much of it is stale and unusable,” he said.

That’s the situation facing quite a few professionals. Both the pandemic and lockdown have affected thousands, especially the poor. When the world around you is scary and the imminent future bleak, where do comedians go to find a laugh?

It’s difficult, but some have managed a way out.

“For every major event that occurs, there are always a few funny incidents around it,” said Verma.

He said that the lockdown has inspired a lot of unintentionally funny stuff in people. “The “Go Corona, Corona Go″ slogan, the people bajaoing thaali on the streets even thought the PM said not to, the Times Now anchor saying Taimur doing potty is an important thing to do, there’s lots.”

Mehta, however, said he’s been feeling restless and itching to get back on stage. “Comedy is the cornerstone of my life. It’s how I make sense of the world, process my issues. This virus took that away.”

Comedy is still not a popular profession in India, especially for people from small towns.

“The really sad thing about this pandemic is that people who were just starting out will stop doing comedy,” said Sethi, who organises the Zoom open mics.

“The top ones are fairly comfortable but the middle ones are suffering badly. I’ve a staff of five people but not enough funds to pay their salaries,” she said, adding that she may have to borrow money from her father to pay next month’s rent.

Struggling to survive

On March 30, comedian Nishant Tanwar put out a post, saying that he would directly transfer funds to fellow comedians who are struggling to get by. In an interview with HuffPost India, Tanwar said that he had been saving money for two years to buy a house in Mumbai so he had a corpus. “Many wrote in, I carefully went through each to ensure the money reaches the right people. This is an unorganised industry and every penny counts.”

So far, Tanwar has transferred Rs 10,000 per person to 23 comics and told them to write to him if they need more. He also pointed out that many comics who were just starting out had fought with their parents to pursue their ambitions and reach Mumbai, an expensive city. “This is for the community that has given me so much.”

While individual comedians confront this serious crisis, things are equally grim for those who run spaces that rely on open-mics for revenue. Balraj Singh Ghai, the owner of Habitat, one of Mumbai’s most popular venues for open mics, has shut shop, but is exploring ways to keep the comedy scene alive online.

“I am lucky enough to own the space so I don’t have rentals to worry about but in terms of the opportunity cost, obviously I’m losing out,” he said. Ghai had just come out of a YouTube webinar, where execs from the streaming platform engaged with several comedians on how to use their platform effectively in terms of visibility, engagement and revenue.

Ghai said he has seen a spike in the viewership on Habitat’s YouTube page and is figuring out strategies to keep his brand alive. “I am a brick-and-mortar space but like they say, necessity is the mother of all inventions. We’re figuring this out and all the comedians are very supportive.”

For now, those working on a monthly retainer for Habitat aren’t getting paid owing to the lack of any live events and the absence of a plan where online gigs can be monetised.

Verma said everybody is experimenting as nobody knows what the future holds.
“Nobody has cracked it as yet. And then of course there’s a question of monetising the online gigs. A lot of apps and platforms are working to figure out the best way forward for this.”

He was in the middle of virtually shooting the next episode of East India Comedy’s popular podcast, EIC Charcha.

“People have been calling this phase ‘the new normal’, so we have to figure out ways to stay funny and relevant.”