Last weekend, comedian Sahil Shah attempted an experimental stand-up show to an audience of 10. He called it the 'first-ever live stand-up gig on Google Hangouts'. He later announced on Instagram that it was a 'huge success' and that we could expect more soon.
As with everything else, the Coronavirus pandemic has brought stand-up comedy to a standstill. It's an unprecedented shutdown for India's booming stand-up comedy scene which has seen a steady growth every year, with more comedy clubs, comedians and stand-up shows than ever before. But the lockdown has left comics at home with a lot of idle time on their hands.
"This has never happened before. Comedy has never stopped since it started…There's no work, I'm just at home watching movies… Most comics are cooking," laughs comedian Anirban Dasgupta. "It's so weird that for the first time since I started doing comedy, I have new jokes and no show to try them out. Normally, it's the other way around," he adds.
Founder of Mumbai's The Habitat Comedy And Music Café, Balraj Singh Ghai is worried for his business. The Habitat hosts between 50 to 60 live comedy shows a month. While there have always been seasonal dips during the monsoons or big sporting events like the IPL or World Cup, Ghai says he's never seen anything like this.
The only upside to this period is for those with comedy specials, stand-up videos and other online content. Comic Prashasti Singh, whose Netflix special Ladies Up comes out this week, believes this is a silver lining. With home viewing soaring, even her earlier YouTube videos are getting a lot more views. But she also expects a lot more clutter, now that most comics will try various things online to adapt to a period of no live shows. "As a live stand-up comic, I can tell you the kick is in live shows. Even if I do an Insta live you won't get that feeling of performing on stage. Every evening we used to hit open mics and there used to be a cycle to our day…I think I just miss the audience, a lot of us depend on the audience for sanity. We need that process," she says.
Earlier this week, comedian Karunesh Talwar uploaded a stand-up video on YouTube titled 'Random Jokes' – a montage of material from different sets – something he admits he never intended to do before the lockdown. Talwar, who had to cancel his new tour which was set to kick off in April, says he's now looking at other options to make a living while the shutdown persists. "At the end of the day the skill of comedy writing has not become redundant it's just not possible to get on stage right now…. But if this lasts a year, I'll be playing professional poker online. I know that for a fact."
But constraints can also fuel creativity, says comedian Naveen Richard who believes that this could actually be a good time for innovation in comedy. "Everyone is adapting and thinking about what they can do out of the house. That's good because people aren't overthinking. We are going to see a lot of raw, unproduced comedy for a change…you'll see weird stuff no one has done before," he says.
Like Sahil Shah's Google Hangouts experiment, the shutdown has forced comics to shift their focus online to make their presence felt, trying their hand at new formats as a means of staying relevant and engaging with their followers.
India's biggest comedy export to the West, Vir Das, also had to cancel tour dates worldwide but has been quick to adapt. On March 12th he announced a new vlog series titled CoronavVIRus – a series of daily Instagram videos of him trying something new every day, such as playing PUBG or joining Tik Tok. Similarly, earlier this week comic and content creator Abish Matthew announced a new series of YouTube live streams to engage with his followers.
But what of the full-time comics who don't have a strong online presence? Masoom Rajwani has been doing live comedy full-time for the last four years and has featured on a number of 'comedians to watch out for' lists. He says it's a worrying time for those who rely on the live circuit. "I used to depend only on live shows and now I have nothing to do… I was expecting this to die down by the end of April and for me to go back to live shows, but I don't know what I'll do now. A lot of people have been laid off and there's no writing work so I can't even sit at home and freelance right now."
Rajwani doesn't have a large online presence or a bank of YouTube videos to his name and fears that this period of uncertainty may well lead to a lot of full-time comics quitting the industry. "Doing comedy full-time is already such a big risk…After 3-4 months of not making money, I think there'll be comics who feel they have other priorities," he adds.
For now, the consensus is that the extent of the damage to the comedy scene will depend on the length of the lockdown. Dasgupta says, "If it's two months then it could be a good break for people. But if it lasts for say six months, then we're fucked."