Alternate forms of entertainment such as standup acts and comedy videos are now a staple for many, unlike a decade ago when saas-bahu and family dramas which dictated the day, or the evening rather.
Sorabh Pant — a well-known entertainer and one of the pioneers of Indian standup comedy in English — remembers it differently. He reminisces the days when he began performing acts in English 9 years ago.
“Back then standup comedy was not even the equivalent of an indie band. Standup then was random people playing on the side of the road. We had to start from scratch.” This meant not only explaining to the venue operators what standup comedy is, but also convince operators of what they were doing.
Cut to 2018, every funny bit and sketch are provided to consumers with the backing of a rapidly-expanding industry and more so the digital universe.
According to a report by FICCI-EY, the media and the entertainment industry hit Rs 1.5 lakh crore revenue in 2017, a nearly 13 percent on-year growth. The report, titled Re-imagining India's M&E sector, projects the sector is touching close to Rs 2 lakh crore by 2020.
The numbers don’t lie — entertainment, and its subset, comedy, is no laughing stock.
Also read: Indian media and entertainment sector touched Rs 1.5 trillion in 2017: FICCI
"People like to laugh. I think that's fundamentally true in both scripted material, standup and any sort of performing art. It was always an industry everywhere else in the world, only a matter of time before it became one here," says Anuvab Pal, one of India’s earliest standup comedians in English.
The FICCI-EY report further states that the growth was led by the digital segment. India saw the birth of the digital subscriber. They made a strong impact on the sector at a growth rate of 50 percent. Currently, over 65 percent of the 450 million internet users in India are mobile only. And comedy content is taking up a progressively larger chunk of the digital pie.
According to an official of a popular content provider, this makes it an easy choice for corporations to advertise with them, paying anywhere between Rs 0.25 crore and Rs 10 crore for advertising on their platforms.
Investors also seem to agree, and have invested in the future of digital entertainment. In 2016, leading investment firm Tiger Global invested Rs 66 crore in one of India’s earliest content providers — The Viral Fever. According to a Forbes report, TVF’s valuation increased to Rs 270 crore in 2016 from Rs 200 crore in December 2015. In FY 2015, TVF clocked a revenue of Rs 4 crore, according to the report.
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Over the top (OTT) service providers have been aggressively expanding into India’s digital content sphere. In December 2017, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix released 18 original shows in India. The country also became the largest market after the United States for original shows. At the time, Amazon’s India originals created by comedians totalled at 21 shows. Both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have pledged to spend Rs 2,000 crore on OTT entertainment in India.
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As of April 2018, there were close to 20 comedy specials available on Amazon Prime Video, roping in popular names such as Sorabh Pant, Kenny Sebastian, Biswa Kalyan Rath and Zakir Khan, among others.
“The benefit of OTT is anyone can see it anywhere, anytime,” says Anuvab Pal. This means a boost for the comedians performing on ticketed stages. Sorabh Pant takes an example of a show he did in Hyderabad. “We sold 300 tickets on a Tuesday, and at least 30 percent of the people came to watch me after seeing my special on Amazon Prime, which is great.”
He says that his videos on his “Rant of the Pant” tour garnered 25 million views on YouTube in the first 8-9 months of posting them. The reach on YouTube drew in audiences, and increased his ticket sales by 20-25 percent. His Amazon standup special —My dad thinks he’s funny — translated to greater ticket sales. Pant attests that it, “made for a greater outreach in a happy way.”
Comedy shows have started to become popular with private performances during annual events at corporates, parties that the affluent class of Indians throw as well.
Comedian Gaurav Kapoor explains that aside from doing the regular ticketed shows, comedians also do corporate shows, where they would perform at an annual event. Earlier, in such sort of shows, “They would have called a band where they would have to arrange the travel of around six people. That becomes a bit difficult for them. Now they have a cost-effective option”
Kapoor points out that comedy requires a minimal setup. It is funny and a relatively new art form, and has gained enough currency with the people as a form of entertainment for corporate entities to sign them up for their events, he says.
Like any creative profession, there are no fixed rules or entry points in comedy. One common element between all comedians is the element of struggle before they took the leap.
Some comedians decide to struggle full time from the onset, others hold on to their day jobs till they are confident their earnings from shows match that of their earnings. One comedian said he was earning close to 12 lakh per annum before taking the leap. Another said he quit his day job when he was earning Rs 50,000 a month.
Full-time standup professionals can potentially earn Rs 75,000 to Rs 2.5 lakh a show, depending on the content, virality a comedian possesses, and their ability to negotiate.
Kautuk Srivastava of SNG Comedy also notes of the opportunities that are available to people interested in the profession,
“You can do, write, produce and direct write comedy,” he says. “It is easier to survive, but harder to make it," he notes,"You would have to take a massive pay cut, but it will take a longer time to actually make it because the prime spots have been taken up by well-known people and they deserve them.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and so are careers, especially comedy. “You have to stand out,” says Kapoor. At open mics “10 replicas of Biswa Kalyan Rath and Zakir Khan” don’t cut the mustard, he says. “There will be a thousand things funny for you, and a thousand funny things for me,” he says, and the challenge is to effectively communicate that.
When Pant gets approached by newcomers eager to on release their content on YouTube, hoping to catapult them to stardom, he says,"Dude, teen saal ke liye standup karle (do standup for at least three years before releasing content online)."
“If you release 6 minutes of material online and you have 30 minutes worth of material, when people come and see you, you will only have 24 minutes of material that took you a year to make, then why would anyone come to see you?” Pant asks
That is the question which makes comedy a serious business.