Comedy, well, good comedy, puts us in touch with our most base instincts — to see someone unlike us, and bring them down, drag them through plague and hellfire. The problem is, bad comedy does that too. The differentiator between good and bad, morally speaking, becomes intention sometimes, impact sometimes — phrases like "punching up" and "punching down" are being proliferated, crystallizing each human into one plot point that can be laid out vertically to see who is above, and who is below whom. There are protected categories of comedy. It's bizarre. It's necessary.
If producing comedy feels like moral acrobatics — and it does seem like that, FIRs from the moral police notwithstanding — watching it can feel like that too. To see someone make fun of someone's weight, but laugh because we know, they don't mean to fat shame as ideology, but fat shame as a Tanmay Bhat-specific, Sumukhi Suresh-specific joke, told by someone they know, perhaps have rehearsed the same joke with. It is funny. I laughed. But then did moral algebra around that laughter. Context matters, I tell myself, and move on.
The always affable YouTuber Prajakta Koli, is the host of Comedy Premium League where four teams with alliterative names — one adjective, one animal, perfect for the humour, a mix of colourful, childish characterization, feral punch lines — battle it out. Each team has 4 comedians each.
There is the Lovable Langoors, represented by a SWAG monkey with a TAAF sign (Amit Tandon, Samay Raina, Rytasha Rathore, Aadar Malik), Naazuk Nevle, imagined as a bespectacled mongoose (Mallika Dua, Rahul Subramanian, Urooj Ashfaq, Rahul Dua), Gharelu Gilaharis, a squirrel with a cape, (Kenny Sebastian, Prashasti Singh, Kaneez Surka, Aakash Gupta), and IDGAF Iguanas, with the animal draped in gold chains and headphones (Sumukhi Suresh, Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi, Sumaira Shaikh). It is cute. It is whatever.
Each team has its strongest, and its weakest, and you kind of know it — Kaneez Surkha, Rytasha Rathore, and Rohan Joshi scream too much attention to their humour, unlike Akash Gupta, Prashasti Singh or Urooj Ashfaq just letting the joke fester and bloom. Sumukhi Suresh, Mallika Dua, and Tanmay Bhat make the best and the worst of the opportunity — sometimes you see them shine, and sometimes, like Sumukhi with a unibrow and schoolgirl plaits, like Dua in heels, like Bhat doing garba, nothing works. But that's part of participating in an eclectic, demanding show of comedic chops.
There is stand-up, there is sketch comedy, there are prepared, themed presentations, debates (Akal VS Shakal), and improvs. The comedians throw everything at us, hoping something sticks. There is almost a desperation for something to work, anything to work, but most of it just slides down. It works best when they hurl insults at each other, objectifying, intensifying, because it feels like familiar people dragging each other with familiar taunts. It also feels like the joke has a landing, its intended audience being the person in front of the offensive attack. (Of course, Hannah Gadsby's public decision to not make fun of herself on stage for humour comes to mind now and then, the internalized allowance of humour at the risk of one's self esteem, but I brush this under a rug, thinking the best of these friends and their mental health. Moral acrobatics, see?)
The rest — the sketches, performances, exaggerations — have that familiar, tired quality. Not because it isn't funny, a lot of it is, but because it's too random, too unmemorable, too all over the place. I struggle to remember a single joke. What I remember, instead, are images — shirtless Aadar Jain, Prashasti Singh as Tina from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kenny Sebastian as Miss Briganza. I get that this is the show's format, what it demands, but there is a thorough disregard for storytelling here, even within the specific stories they present as sketches. Some of it reminds me of team building activities we used to do as HR exercises — put up skits, jump hoops, laugh, be laughed at. Maybe that's what they were going for — India's finest comedians, okay sorry, some of India's finest comedians laughing and being laughed at. Most of these sketches probably won't circulate among the economy of 2 minute clips or 25 second reels that go viral on Instagram, because it just isn't funny, dense or economical enough for small-form content. It'll just lie by the wayside of the streaming flood.
But it isn't like Netflix didn't try to work the format up a bit. A comedy "competition" is interesting as an idea, but even here you get a sense that the competition is the least compelling part of it. The judges are incognito — literally, they are a group of masked audience members, no more or less literate in the art of comedy than you or me. The points have an arbitrary you-win-or-you-lose quality — winners get 50 points, losers get 0. We don't even know how the judges are scoring the performances. We don't need to know. To remind us that this is indeed a competition, they try to bring in some semblance of tension — a time limit for the performances that ticks violently as it ends, or the small moment of tension before the results are announced — but nothing feels urgent or tenuous enough to hang one's hopes on. Indeed, there are no hopes at all. Just a giggle there, a gaggle here.
Comedy Premium League has 6 episodes, 4 of which are live on Netflix. The last two episodes drop on August 27.