Comedy Premium League, a new series on Netflix set to stream from August 20, brings together 16 of India’s top stand-up comics in a battle of wits. Divided into four teams, these artists will compete with one another in multiple formats – from skits to improvs – in their quest to become champions. Co-participants and creators Rohan Joshi, Sumukhi Suresh, Amit Tandon and Prashasti Singh talk about their upcoming show, finding a sense of joy in the worst of times and how comedy has gone from being a ‘fraternity’ to an ‘industry’.
Suchin Mehrotra: What is the aim of the Comedy Premium League?
Sumukhi Suresh: It was created to teach us our own lesson. In our previous shows, we were not competing with each other, but here we did; we all were casual about it initially and then got really competitive (laughs). In Comicstaan, Prashasti and all were competing and we were saying, ‘There’s nothing called competition.’ In One Mic Stand, it was like, ‘Look at us giving you gyaan.’ And now, it’s all ours! I think that’s the difference.
Rohan Joshi: Remember how on Teacher’s Day, teachers had to do things for the students? It felt a little bit like that. We thought we had worked hard enough in our careers to never have to go through a cut-throat open-mic environment ever again. And yet here we were. I remember there was a point where I was talking to Sumukhi and said, “It’s like all those insecurities, all over again! What is happening? I could have sworn we were past this. How is this happening?” So that’s kind of how it felt like, but it was also a great opportunity for a bunch of us, who occasionally get to perform in small groups or cross each other on smaller shows, to get together in the same place and just really have a good time.
Amit Tandon: Plus “Agar tum comedian ko mic ke alava thoda aur production aur thode aur paise do to kya wo kuch zyada kar sakta hai ki nahin? (What more can a comedian do if, other than a mic, you give them a little more production and a little more money?)” is the question that was kind of answered.
Anupama Chopra: The last 15 months have been so hard for everyone at some level or the other. And for you, your profession is to be funny. How do you find that ability to find humour, to find joy, when there is so little of it outside?
AT: As it is, most of the time, comedy stems from tragedies. Most of the things you talk about in comedy are things that bother you. I think that the number of things that were bothering us increased during the lockdown. It was more a question of whether you are in the mood of writing a joke [about it] or not. That was a challenge a lot of us faced. We faced that challenge a lot more especially during the second wave. In the first wave, at least we saw some light at the end of the tunnel, but the second wave took the wind out of whatever was happening.
For me, it has been tough writing jokes. But when we were with each other, when we are in a room, it all works out. Whenever you’re working with comics, the green room is more interesting than the stage.
SM: Another impact of the pandemic on the comedy scene is: because live comedy wasn’t up and running, most comics were focusing on digital content, on creating content for YouTube, social media, doing Zoom shows. Do you feel like this is a permanent shift even as live comedy is up and running again? And is that a good thing?
Prashasti Singh: The beauty of Zoom shows is that you also find an audience that typically sometimes cannot come to your live shows. There are towns and cities where there are no live shows held or will not be held till about the next 5 years. That audience also gets captured, corporate shows are easier. On some levels we know it’s working but we love live shows and we are on that team at the end of the day.
AT: I’ve heard stories about open-mics (because now they are open and anyone can join from anywhere), of people from tier-3 cities, getting on the third floor of their houses and performing there under the light of their mobile, because of mobile network unavailability elsewhere. They are performing in an open-mic, from the roofs of their homes while it is being organized by someone in Bombay. And it’s beautiful! I mean one guy was telling me that now he is ashamed of giving excuses for not performing in an open-mic, because he saw the dedication of the guy who performed for five minutes on the roof of his house. That’s beautiful, that’s what’s happened to comedy. That, hopefully, should stay.
AC: Would you say that there is more camaraderie in the comic world? How would you describe it?
PS: I feel that even pre-pandemic, comedy has been a very ‘anti-stardom’ industry. I’ve struggled to reach out to people and network, and I’ve suffered because of that in my previous profession. But that never happened in comedy. My induction into comedy and growth has been very heavily supported by a lot of mentoring and people pro-actively trying to be inclusive. That’s something I’ve seen only here.
AT: I think comedy was a fraternity till 2015. After that, we became an industry. Till then, most of us were making some income from it but it wasn’t great money. Between 2014-16, a lot of money started flowing into comedy, people started making money. The difference between people who started together grew – the ones whose videos became viral versus the ones whose videos didn’t, grew wider in terms of the amount of money they made. And suddenly, anybody joining the industry could see that the benchmark was XYZ, not someone sitting next to you. In the last 5 years, I have seen more insecurity or competitiveness increasing in the industry than what it was when we started.