At the beginning of this decade, when Facebook and Twitter were just starting to share happy moments, some saw potential in tickling India’s funnybone in an untested way.
“The rise of standup coincided with the rise of social media. Comedians used social media to get people to gigs. Suddenly the gatekeepers were gone,” says comedian Kautuk Srivastava.
”We were also the first people that harnessed the power of the share button. Comedy was one of the first things that went viral,” he adds.
And viral it went. India’s soaring internet and smartphone penetration made it an opportunity one could not afford to lose. As of December 2017, Google said India crossed
400 million Internet users and
had 330 million connected smartphone users, who consume an average of 4GB data every month.
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“In 2010, comedy was a hobby, and five years later, it was something that people were making money off. Now it is becoming a profession; there are several jobs in comedy,” Kautuk says.
As comedians began sharing likeable, topical and relatable material in their unique styles, they began to garner a steady fanbase and other players began to notice.
Over-the-top (OTT) platforms, like Amazon Prime Video, offered India's most popular comedians their own hourlong specials. "The attraction of OTT platforms is that comedians come with their own fanbase. Biswa [Kaylan Rath] comes with his legions of fans, Varun [Grover] too."
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“We are the first generation of people to achieve some sort of tepid fame, by putting no makeup on,” says Srivastava.
For veteran comedian Sorabh Pant, he does note that these OTT platforms have been helpful in expanding his outreach, but acknowledges the role that Facebook and Youtube played throughout his career.
“I have had my successes, and I also have my failures, which social media allows you to do,” he says. For Pant and others like him, social media was the place to experiment, and see what clicks. The ephemeral nature of the content means mistakes are quickly forgotten, and so are successes.
This is the dichotomy of social media. Getting exposure to the millions of netizens means that each creator is looking to grab eyeballs. If they fail to make an impression, the consumer moves on to the next tab.
“I released about 35 standup videos over nine years which is excessive, because back then it was volume game, as people didn't really know what we were doing. It wasn't an intentional thing, it was more like trying out everything,” says Pant.
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“The day we stop making good stuff is the day people will stop watching TVF,” says Sameer Saxena, Chief Content Officer of The Viral Fever (TVF). “Honestly there is no formula. If we are excited about the characters and the setup among the others, we go ahead with it. They key is to be very sharp in your writing. Writing is everything.”
But before a comedian posts something on Youtube, a lot of work goes into it. Comedian Anirban Dasgupta, who has been doing standup since 2012, explains the journey behind a five-minute Youtube video.
“Before recording, I presented it [the material on the Youtube video] for a year.” That meant Dasgupta would present the bit at least 300 times in various forms before he finally released it on Youtube.“People have their material out there for two years and we shoot the video for 6-7 times before finally putting it up on Youtube, because we would want the best version out there,” he says.
The bit itself was a one-liner for Dasgupta which he developed over two years. “It took me at least 30 open mics to actually make it polished,” he says. “It is a full time job.”
So what is the future of standup comedy and its practitioners?
Taking stock of the OTT explosion in content, Pant sees untapped potential. “I think the next trend for OTT platforms is non-fiction,” he says.
“In the UK , there was progression from standup comedy to panel shows. And that is the next step,” He says.
Anirban also looks to past trends in the US and UK. “People like Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock move on to become big TV and film stars,” he says. “But people always come back to standup as it was the source of their career.”
Kautuk believes new players will soon be on the horizon “The internet was just with metros and urban population and they were the creators. Now, you will have a new bunch of creators, and they will have keys to the kingdom.”
Despite these comedians and content creators carving out a niche for themselves in their style, there is a common element that drives their routine.
“You have to tell an interesting story,” says Sameer Saxena. It was this wish to tell a certain kind of story, but with no appropriate platform in place at the time, that drove TVF to go on Youtube.” We have an insatiable need for good stories,”says Kautuk. “It doesn’t matter what form or medium it takes, what really matters is what you’re trying to say and how does it make a difference to people."
In an era where page views, shares and other forms of interaction have become the ultimate metric for success, Kautuk says success for a creator is when he says things that he truly wants to, and finds an audience for it.
“Because anything else is just a path to unhappiness,” he quips.