Behind The Mic: The Serious Business of Stand-Up Comedy

Shows like Netflix’s Bhaag Beanie Bhaag make it look easy. But the reality is years of hard work
Behind The Mic: The Serious Business of Stand-Up Comedy

In the last few years, India's stand-up comedy scene has gained major prominence. Comedians such as Biswa Kalyan Rath, Zakir Khan and Sumukhi Suresh have not only become stage personalities, but have also branched out into creating their own web shows. Series like Netflix's Bhaag Beanie Bhaag make this kind of success seem like an overnight phenomenon, but that takes away from the years of grunt work comedians put in before they can reap any rewards from the profession. 

In the show, Beanie (Swara Bhasker) quits her corporate job, moves in with an 'influencer' friend and conveniently bumps into a representative during one of her open mics who gives her a spot on a comedy showcase. In real life, however, it's not that easy. "Getting a spot at a showcase is quite important in a comedian's career, but there is an entire process that no performer can skip," says Sonali Takkar Desai who has been a performer since 2012. She started by accompanying her now-husband to open mics and then began performing herself. 

While there's no fixed timeline before a comedian gets a spot on a showcase or goes on tour, it does involve a lot of practice. "Someone who has never done stand-up may do well during their first open mic because they're raw, and have no expectations of how it's supposed to go, they're their natural self. The challenge is to keep your audience laughing each time you go on stage, which takes work," Desai says.  

How it usually works is that amateur comedians get a 4-minute slot to perform in front of an audience. If they're good, this gradually gets extended to 6 or 7 minutes. The next stage is a 15 to 20-minute slot, and finally a 30-minute one. Bhaag Beanie Bhaag skips over the process by giving Beanie a paid gig to perform at a wedding almost immediately after she publicly talks about an embarrassing intimate incident that took place in a public bathroom. We don't see her struggle to write jokes or even practice the same set multiple times in front of different audiences. Instead, she uses the corporate tactic of distributing feedback forms among the audience to ascertain what went wrong with her set.

"During the lockdown, I wanted to learn to play the drums. How long do you think it would take me to learn the instrument before I could perform in front of an audience?" asks Sumendra Singh who runs Mumbai's That Comedy Club and also organises tours for comedians. "A comedian gets only 4 minutes onstage a few times a week. There's no other way for them to practice but there. So how long do you think they need before they're able to perform for more than 30 minutes in front of a large crowd?" Most industry experts say it takes more than two years. Amateur comedians have to juggle constantly refining their old material and coming up with new jokes with holding down full-time jobs.

The costs of comedy

According to Singh, it's difficult to sustain a comedy club, despite its relatively inexpensive nature. "A comedy club is not expensive to run, compared to a pub, because all you need is a mic, a light, a stool, and a few chairs. But money can only be made through by selling tickets," he adds. In the US, where standup comedy has been a sustainable culture for more than 60 years, many clubs and open mic nights give comics the chance to perform for free. Club owners there  supplement their ticket sales by also selling food and drinks.

"India's comedy clubs could add bars but then the investment costs really shoot up. We need to have multiple shows running at full capacity almost every day if we want to sustain the bar and the club. Shows do not run at full capacity unless it's the weekend because watching a comedy show then becomes an alternative to missing out on a movie. It's still not the audience's first choice for entertainment," he adds. Increasing ticket prices would mean pushing it further down the list of choices.

Currently, most clubs are running at half capacity owing to the Covid-19 outbreak, which means ticket sales have taken a hit. Club owners say they rent out their venues to the organizers of shoots and workshops during the day, and then conduct comedy events in the evening, to offset costs.

How to make it big?

The emergence of companies such as OML Entertainment has given comedians an organised way to climb up the ladder. Many of its clients, including Biswa Kalyan Rath and Rahul Subramanian, have gone on to perform comedy specials for OTT platforms and create web shows.

The company's artist managers hire comedians by scouting comedy clubs, scoping out social media platforms and taking recommendations from their family and friends. "A talent can pop up from anywhere. There isn't a specific amount of experience they need to have, but we definitely look for multiple talents in a comedian. Can they act? Are they good writers? We try to propel their careers through mediums other than the stage," says Raica Matthews, vice president-creator management at OML Entertainment. 

The company also helps comedians get live shows, brand endorsements and tours. The first two give them a regular source of income, while touring is a great way for them to reach audiences in other cities and smaller towns. "Tours usually have a very thin profit margin because the costs of booking the venue, paying the artist, travel, stay and food, all add up," she adds. The only inflow of cash is through ticket sales.

Becoming a successful standup comedian is a serious business, say experts. There are endless nights of bombing on stage, picking yourself back up and performing all over again. And this does not end once a newbie becomes a seasoned performer. Bhaag Beanie Bhaag would've benefited greatly from a more realistic portrayal of the unpredictable comedy scene. Instead, it drops paid gigs and tours into its main character's lap.

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