I am still reeling from a line in the first season of One Mic Stand. Shashi Tharoor, everyone’s Twitter nudge towards Merriam-Webster, was confounded (not confused, dear reader) by millennial lingo, “Say if a millennial finds somebody attractive, they say she’s a snacc. Snacc?” With Tharoor’s hands gesturing, ‘Why?’, he clinches, “I mean, since when was it a compliment to say to somebody — you look like a sabudana vada.”
His comedy mentor, Kunal Kamra, looks pleased at the applause, as does the show’s host and creator Sapan Verma. Pleased, not just because the set works, but the format, for a glimmer of a moment, works — of getting a high profile celebrity, an actor or a musician or a politician like Tharoor, to perform a roughly 10-minute stand-up set for the first time. It can go spectacularly wrong — and it does, both this and the previous season — but it is the stakes that are laudable. To get people to not just perform but appreciate stand-up as an artform. That it is not just people throwing jokes, but throwing carefully confected moments.
The show’s challenge is to morph this charm into humour (and provide camouflage where none exists) and to nudge natural wit into performed punchlines, but not too much.
The five guests this season — actress Sunny Leone, writer Chetan Bhagat, journalist Faye D’Souza, rapper Raftaar, and filmmaker Karan Johar — have varying, but easily slot-able, from most to least, degrees of charm. The show’s challenge is to morph this charm into humour (and provide camouflage where none exists) and to nudge natural wit into performed punchlines, but not too much. The illusion of stand-up comedy — where it is written, edited, rehearsed, workshopped, tested, re-edited, but shouldn’t show the effort — must remain. (I am thinking of the various snacks Tharoor must have listed before finalizing sabudana vada, a six-syllable dish.)
We don’t see the labour that goes into the stand-up set. This makes sense because when we hear the joke for the first time, we react to it like it was intended. Afterall, we are also the audience of the stand-up, not given exclusive access to the zoom chats and sessions during which they honed the punch lines with their mentors — Sumukhi Suresh, Samay Raina, Neeti Palta, Atul Khatri, and Abish Mathew. The show keeps us out of it, but it makes sure we know it exists — that the labour took place.
The big difference between season 1 and season 2 is the audience. The first episode with Sunny Leone, who laughs at her own jokes, pleased with her charming self, has a full audience. But the remaining episodes, shot during the lockdown, have a socially distanced and thus sparse audience. The applause that felt thunderous now feels like a trickle. I wish this didn’t affect my appreciation for the set, but it did. The applause sounded reluctant, not because the jokes weren’t landing, but because there weren’t enough hands, and it was so easy to mistake one for the other.
Most of the guests seem self-aware, and this helps smooth the rough edges. Chetan Bhagat provides an accurate self diagnosis of “fake overconfidence”. (There is a segment in each episode, a “role reversal” where the guest star teaches the comedians something. This segment is missing only in Bhagat’s episode.) Faye D’souza’s sincerity makes it so easy to love what she does, even when she stumbles, forgetting her lines, going back to her notes. When she calls Urmila Matondkar “that Rangeela chick”, I was so stunned by the suddenness of the tonal swerve, I couldn’t stop laughing. What Abhish Mathew said in an episode is the total truth of comedy — that it is not just the comedy writing that should sparkle, but also the performance of it and the personality of the performer. You must balance the three out, overcompensating for your lacking, injecting charm to cushion the dwindling wit.
It is in this context that Raftaar and Chetan Bhagat’s performance, anchored by a lazy know-it-all personality, suffers. Bhagat’s ease with an audience — given his years of motivational speaking — helps him coast through, but Raftaar struggles. He notes early on that stand-up and rap are not that different. He seems reluctant to take any advice, hoping that his rap persona will translate in front of the mic. It doesn’t. Sunny Leone goes on a charm offensive, addressing members of her audience directly — something that comes with confidence — knowing fully well the jokes aren’t landing. Karan Johar, featured in the last of the 5 episodes, crackles. He is so sinisterly honest about his failings — his mid-life crisis as evidenced by his questionable perspective on fashion and his forceful thrusting into youth groups — it is funny but also deeply tragic. That knowing your failings might be a step towards getting over them. Or it might just make for excellent comedic self-aware fodder. That being so aware of our failings might make the inner turmoil unbearable, but as long as the laughter beckons, we trumpet our flaws, one crafted, crafty joke after the other.