Desi stand-up comics on the rise in India and beyond
Papa C J takes the idea of making people laugh very seriously. “I am moving on from the comedy business to the happiness business,” he says.
So, in addition to his regular stand-up gigs, Papa C J now performs at hospitals to give the patients and doctors a few minutes of relief from sickness and stress. He also manages a charity for underprivileged children and gently guides wannabe stand-up comics with butterflies in their tummies – “mentoring is too strong a word,” he says.
He has been part of the comedy scene for 10 years, racking up close to 2,000 performances, half of them outside India. He has performed as far away as Edinburgh and Singapore, via NBC’s top 10 acts of the world in the hit TV show Last Comic Standing.
Papa C J – who refuses to reveal his real name – cut his teeth in England’s tough comedy circuit, four years after earning an MBA from Oxford University. Once he caught a whiff of stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the appeal of a job in management consulting faded fast.
He tells of driving for three hours from London to perform in remote towns for five minutes. Yet, he says: “I am lucky because I didn’t really know how tough it was going to be and I just jumped in.”
Today, this desi doing the rounds in the global comedy scene uses his very Indian-ness to raise laughs from – and to laugh at – sceptical foreign audiences.
Then there is Neeti Palta, who gave up a career in advertising to write scripts for a popular children’s television channel. She took to the stage as a volunteer during a Whose Line Is it Anyway? improvisation show in Mumbai five years ago and never looked back.
“At that time, I didn’t even know stand-up comedy existed in India,” she says.
She started off thinking of it as a hobby, something to do in addition to her day job. Offers came in quickly.
“People initially noticed me because of my gender, but they obviously don’t pay me just because of my gender, so I guess they like my humour,” she says.
Palta became the first stand-up comedian from India to perform at the Melbourne comedy festival. She also has a Bollywood screenplay on her CV with O Teri.
It seems as if there has never been a better time to be a stand-up comic in India. Comics are being hired to perform at pubs and clubs, in auditoriums and at cosy birthday parties for corporate bigwigs. They are being invited to give motivational speeches to students with stars in their eyes and uncertainty in their minds. The world of business has also suddenly discovered them, roping them in to conduct workshops for everything from emotion management to effective communication.
Little surprise, then, that Mumbai-based Vikram Poddar describes himself as India’s only team-building humorist. At public performances, this former investment banker works the audience with jokes about wretched interns and clueless human-resources managers.
He says he does not change the script much when he is hired by the very people he makes fun of.
“I don’t have to customise anything in a corporate gig,” he says. “I find that people everywhere laugh at the same things. I just keep away from profanity and do some prior research to understand the audience.”
Unlike the others, Poddar, who has an MBA from a leading Delhi institute, had no great discontent with corporate life. He seems to have drifted into stand-up comedy and then used his management skills to arrive at his ideal vocation.
“I knew the corporate space well because that is where I was for more than seven years,” he says. “And I thought, why not combine humour with teaching and create a differentiated niche?”
To millions in India, stand-up comedy still evokes images of small-town hopefuls making bawdy jokes on prime-time television shows such as The Great Indian Laughter Challenge.
But people such as Papa C J, Palta and Poddar have been ruling the urban comedy circuit for a few years, thanks to a new generation of Indians ready to laugh at themselves.
So long as they steer clear of a few sacred cows, such as religion and death, these humorists are laughing all the way to celebrity status and international gigs.