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Business Today

A stand-up job

Anika Gupta        Print Edition: May 27, 2012

"We were on this flight once in the early 80s. The aircraft goes to the end of the runway, turns around, and parks in a secluded area. The pilot announces: 'Ladies and gentlemen, we would like to request you to deplane. Please do not panic. We have received news that there is a bomb on the flight.'"

"Indians being Indians, and because the concept was new, nobody moved. They literally had to be herded off. On the way out, people asked the pilot: 'If the plane explodes, will we get a refund?' Incredibly, the pilot did not say: 'You'll get a refund, please get out of the plane.' …It was an Indian Airlines flight - he contacted the head office to find out if there would be a refund."

"Eventually everyone was pushed out. The bomb squad looked at the plane and said: 'Doesn't look like anyone's tampered with it. You can go.'" "But the 200 passengers and two pilots decided to play it safe. 'This is a twohour flight.

If this plane is going to blow, it's going to blow in the next two hours. We'll just wait,' was the consensus. And that's what they did: they all sat there looking at this plane, waiting for it to explode. It didn't explode, and off they went!"


As Papa CJ paced up and down narrating this tale, the audience of about 200 - mostly people in their late 20s and early 30s - cracked up. For over half an hour, CJ - 'Papa' is a stage name - told one humorous story after another in the open-air amphitheatre at Delhi's India Habitat Centre, covering everything from his days as an MBA student in the UK to childhood trips to Assam.

ADITI MITTAL, 25
BASED IN: Mumbai
YEARLY SHOWS: 120
FIRST SHOW: Nov 2009
PREVIOUS JOB: TV writer

SORABH PANT, 30
BASED IN: Mumbai
YEARLY SHOWS: 150
FIRST SHOW: Dec 2008
PREVIOUS JOB: Writer for Vir Das
Stand-up comedy is not new to India. Well-known Hindi stand-up comedians have been packing auditoriums for years - Bollywood's Johnny Lever can sell out a 900-seat theatre in hours, goes the legend.

But stand-up comedy by Indians in English is relatively new. And it has few practitioners, the most notable being Vir Das. Over the last few years, others, such as CJ and Mumbai-based Aditi Mittal and Sorabh Pant, have begun to emerge.

Video:Clips from Sorabh Pant's 'Pant on Fire' show

They are among a small group of young comedians making a living cracking jokes - something traditional Indian parents once considered a character flaw. This new crop hopes to reach an expanding urban audience that is fluent in English and eager for edgy, worldly humour. "People are tired of going out and finding nothing to do," says Mumbai-based Pant, who got his start touring with Das. Now on his own, Pant does about 150 shows a year.

Quote

Stand-up comedy has its origins in vaudeville theatre: North American variety shows that featured a number of acts, including comedy"

While audiences around the country want to laugh out loud, stand-up comedy is by no means an easy art. Mittal's first attempt, in Mumbai, went badly. "I've been to noisier funerals," she says of the audience's response. Mittal, 25, tried stand-up a few more times while living in New York, working at a job she hated. Now back in Mumbai, she has found a more appreciative audience. She does around 10 stand-up shows a month, and has a profitable sideline as a voiceover actress.

Stand-up comedy is often irreverent and deeply personal. Comedians mine politics, their daily lives and intimate relationships for material. The hardest part of the job can be getting the audience to feel it. "Doing stand-up is like having a PhD in group psychology," says CJ. "You can sense how an audience feels, what's making them angry, what's making them happy. And you have to manage that on the spot."

Despite the growing demand, however, there are few well-known English stand-up acts in India. Mittal says she can think of about 15 comedians who work full time on the English circuit, while others put the number even lower. And aside from British import The Comedy Store, in Mumbai, dedicated comedy clubs are not yet the norm in India. But over the past few years many bars have started hosting "open mic" nights, casual shows where comedians try out new material.

While open mic nights help them break into the scene, comedians make the real money at sponsored shows. In corporate India, demand for these acts has begun to outstrip supply. Although few comedians are willing to disclose their exact income, payment for a half-hour-long corporate show starts at around Rs 30,000 and goes up to Rs 3 lakh for an established act. The average hovers between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh.

Samar Singh Sheikhawat, a senior Vice President of Marketing at United Breweries, started booking stand-up comedians for the company's Kingfisher-branded events in response to requests from invitees. "Our audience is very Internet-savvy, very aware of trends, so for them humour is a part of life," he says. CJ says he has convinced reluctant bar owners to host open mic nights on Sundays or Mondays, when business is slow. "I tell them: 'Sunday night you normally have five people. I'll have 80 people spend 3.5 hours.' It works."

Meanwhile, Delhi-based comedy group Entertainment Engineers thinks it might have solved the language puzzle. "It's obvious that the future comic star from India will have to be multilingual," says Vardan Kabra, who handles marketing for the company. "You will have to change the topics you touch, the language you choose and the references you make according to the audience you address." Founded in late 2009 by an IIT Bombay graduate - ergo the name Entertainment Engineers - the firm has revenues of a little over Rs 50 lakh. It has 11 employees, including four comedians, on its roster. The plan, says Kabra, is to expand into Tier-II and even Tier-III towns, with a brand of comedy that he describes as "Hinglish" or even "Hindi 2.0".

"Indians want to see Indians do comedy," says Pant. Even in English. And going by the crowds turning up at bars and auditoriums, they want to see it often.

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