Amazon Prime Video has firmly established itself as the home of the Indian comedy scene. From hosting comedy specials from almost all of India’s top comics, to sketch and improv shows, to a competitive reality show like Comicstaan, they’ve got the scene covered.
The platform’s latest love affair with Indian comedy is One Mic Stand, which could be their most innovative stand-up series yet. The 5-episode show created by comic Sapan Verma sees non-comics like Bhuvan Bam, Taapsee Pannu, Richa Chadha, Vishal Dadlani and Dr. Shashi Tharoor try their hand at stand-up in front of a live audience. They’re mentored by Zakir Khan, Kunal Kamra, Angad Ranyal, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya.
I spoke to creator Sapan Varma and mentors Angad Singh Ranyal, Ashish Shakya and Rohan Joshi about the new show, the evolution of the stand-up scene and why touring abroad is overhyped.
Where did the idea of having famous people from various fields try their hand at stand-up come from?
Sapan Varma: We’ve all worked with Bollywood people at some point in our lives as writers or comedians and we’ve realised they’re all funny people off camera. But their PR people don’t let them be funny. But they are funny and self-aware. They know the jokes people make about them. So four years ago I had the idea that it would be interesting to see these people do stand up. But I don’t think the scene was at a point where we could make a show like this. And now we have Amazon blowing money at us (laughs).
How did you go about choosing the people you had on the show?
I just looked at who would be free and jobless and who looked like their schedule would be empty (laughs). No, the idea was to get a mix of people from different fields. We always wanted a mix of different perspectives where you get to see a Vishal Dadlani or Bhuvan Bham in a completely different space.
And we wanted to make sure it wasn’t too Bollywood-centric so I also approached a lot of sports people and one or two authors. And that’s the good thing about the show and what I’m relying on it to work – if you’re not a fan of Bollywood then we have a politician for you and a musician for you so come and watch somebody at least.
Did doing the show make you feel better because you realised just how tough what you guys do is, or did it make you feel bad because they took to it so easily?
Rohan Joshi: I think it was neither of the two. It was one of those things where there was a slight element of trepidation and fear from them and you’re like obviously there is a certain amount of skill to what we do because this is terrifying for even seasoned performers. But it was also fun to be like ‘hey this is teachable, it’s not entirely outside of the realm of instruction’ and it’s easy to make that nervousness go away and go up and crush it as well. So I feel like the answer is somewhere in between.
Sapan Varma: But I think that’s where I’m glad that we got the biggest and best comedians in the country to come and mentor them because if I had to do this myself, I wouldn’t be able to. I think that’s the cheat code for me – I got celebrities to help make the show popular and I got comedians to make sure the show is funny.
Teaching stand up and performing are two very different skills. Did teaching it to newcomers impact your craft at all?
Rohan Joshi: I think more than change our approach, what it does is – you have what you think is a very nebulous skill and when you have to teach it to somebody you have to actually put it out in steps which is also very sobering because you realise this is not some artistic genius where you just pull jokes out of your ass like magic.
Ashish Shakya: And once you realise that, it’s also fun because while these people are all super accomplished, they’re doing something new which is still terrifying. It’s also such a cheap thrill to tell an actor like Richa Chadha that your ‘delivery needs a little work. And a little more energy’ (laughs).
Was there a specific person that surprised you in your respective episodes?
Angad Singh Ranyal: My episode was with Taapsee Pannu and she’s generally very funny but I was really surprised by the kind of thought process she already had and the homework she had already done about her set. It came from a very relatable space and she understood that ‘I’m an actor and if I talk about my daily life, the audience isn’t going to understand it. So I need to set that context up for the audience’.
Ashish Shakya: With Richa what surprised me is she’s a C-movie nerd. Like she’s a Gunda nerd which is very surprising. She has a folder full of shady movie art and she knows all these references. We used that in the episode.
Rohan and Ashish, you in a sense rediscovered stand-up in the last year. Is the audience the same, are you the same comics? What’s that been like?
Rohan Joshi: Not the same comic, the audience is different, and the field is different. There are 10,000 more comics than they were when we started, the audiences are more evolved, they’ve heard the same jokes, and you need to be offering them more perspectives. There was a time when we started out that we would go and stage, be in a line-up of 10 people and we would be the best two comics on that stage. But now that’s not a thing you can take for granted. It’s definitely a fuller, more vibrant scene but as a result of that, it’s also a tougher scene in terms of breaking through the clutter and connecting with the audience.
Ashish Shakya: For me, it did take a while. I remember I started getting back on stage in 2017 after having stopped doing stand-up in 2015. But before that, there were some 6 months of paralysis where I wanted to get on stage but I couldn’t because I’d seen the open mics and I felt it’s too tough and they won’t like me anymore. Then I really had to push myself and when I got on it was fine. But in the 2-3 years, we were away, everyone was so good. They’ve all stepped up their game and now there’s a higher standard to live up to.
Rohan Joshi: It feels a little like coming back to a sport after an ACL tear where at first, you’re like ‘should I put weight on this at all?’, to after about 8-9 months you’re like ‘you know what, I’m going to take this kick from 40 yards and land it’.
Is there a constant pressure to be a part of as many platforms as possible and keep developing and touring?
Angad Singh Ranyal: Yes, definitely.
Rohan Joshi: Yes and no. I feel like there was a point for me where I definitely felt like that, but I also feel like it’s taken me a very long time to realise that this is a marathon, not a sprint and you can’t run a marathon at full sprint. So if you try to be in everything at once, you’ll die. So part of it actually was how to not be overexposed, how to not be in everything all the time where people start getting irritated. Sometimes it’s okay to disappear for a bit because putting out a comedy special actually requires you to go away and do a lot of writing and working and reflecting and pulling out new perspectives. If you’re spending all your time going ‘hey guys what’s going on? It’s me on Instagram’, it won’t happen.
Angad Singh Ranyal: But a lot of platforms that actually tell these guys they have to post every day or else they’ll be forgotten.
Ashish Shakya: Yes, we are also told the same thing. But we just came into it from a different angle at a different time so we don’t feel that need. But it is quite a hectic space and attention is at a premium, so it does weigh on you at times. It’s something I’ve touched on a bit in my upcoming stand-up special also coming on Amazon..subtle plug! (laughs).
Where do you see the Indian comedy scene moving next? One thing, that’s really increased in the last year is Indian comics touring abroad.
Sapan Varma: Yes, it’s great, but I feel like we give it a lot more weightage than we should. Ultimately you’re still performing for desis and making jokes about Bollywood. I feel like we should take as much time to talk about how we’re expanding in tier 2 and tier 3 cities within India. Going to a Manipal and Patna, that’s the bigger achievement. Initially we were all so myopic in thinking that stand-up comedy is so English urban Delhi, Bangalore, Bombay, Hyderabad. But now it’s like 20-30 cites and my manager who was planning my tour said we’ve sold out in Vijayawada. I’m thought it was amazing!
Rohan Joshi: If you had told me 10 years ago I could go to Manipal and do a sold-out show I’d tell you you were crazy. But now the idea that on any given day I’m in Manipal somebody else is in Raipur, someone else is in Delhi or Jaipur so the depth and the breadth and the width of the scene is now spectacularly fun. It really challenges a lot of your privileged and bubbled presumptions about the field and the art and who you think your audience will be.