In 1979, Don Ward opened a small club in London to provide a stage for the best of Britain’s undiscovered comic talent. After 30 successful years, he now wants to do the same in India.
Papa CJ’s views on stand up comedy
Ward is taking The Comedy Store out of Britain for the first time, opening a branch in India’s cosmopolitan entertainment capital Mumbai to give audiences a taste of the best of international stand-up and to foster home-grown talent.
“There’s a tremendous comedy scene in the United Kingdom, which has just 60 million people,” Ward said over phone from his London home. “India has 1.2 billion people. It’s easy to do the maths,” he said adding: “I think there’s going to be a comedy explosion (in India).”
In India, comedy in Hindi and other indigenous languages still tends to see comedians delivering pithy one-liners on television shows or theatre satires lampooning politicians and society’s quirks.
Its English-language comedy scene is small in comparison, although Indian comics such as Vir Das and Papa CJ or Canadian Russell Peters, whose family is of Anglo-Indian origin, have attracted a loyal following.
Like Ward, Papa CJ and Peters believe India’s stand-up scene can be developed and, as in business and technology or outsourcing, unleashed on the world.
“I strongly believe there is phenomenal potential for high quality stand-up comedy in India,” Papa CJ, who has performed at The Comedy Store in London, wrote in an email.
“There is a dearth of entertainment in India and The Comedy Store fills that gap very well,” he wrote.
Peters added: “In the (United) States and Canada there’s a lot of Indian comics and quite a few of them are pretty good. I also know that there are a few local Indian comics in India, which is a good thing.
“There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be successful. I know there’s a market for it,” he said by email from Canada.
The new Comedy Store, a 1,400-square-metre (15,000-square-foot), 300-seat venue at central Mumbai’s High Street Phoenix shopping and leisure complex, is due to open in early December.
Ward and his Indian business partner Amar Agrawal have both invested one million pounds to get the project off the ground.
Preview gigs in the city in June, featuring comedians Sean Meo, Ian Stone and Paul Tonkinson, were well-received. More are planned before the opening.
Ward, 67, said that he is well aware of India’s “sacred cows” — subjects that are still off limits in what is still a deeply conservative society.
But he promises that the material — and even performers such as Paul Sinha, an openly gay British Bengali doctor or British-Iranian comedian Shappi Khorsandi — will push boundaries.
“Safe comedy is boring comedy,” he said. “There has to be an element of risk. My mission is to make you guys feel uncomfortable and to make you think — and of course entertain you.”
Just like 30 years ago, Ward is planning to reprise his role that found the stars of Britain’s ‘alternative comedy’ scene in the 1980s including Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Alexei Sayle and dozens of other British household names.
He says that he’ll be happy if he can find half a dozen new Indian comedians who can eventually work alongside the international talent flown in for weekend gigs.
“I’m sure that around the ‘Slumdog´ areas you have got guys and girls who have got something to say about life in India,” he said, referring to the city’s Dharavi shantytown seen in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. “This is where the humour comes out of everyday life,” he added.
After Mumbai, there are plans for branches in the capital New Delhi and the southern city of Bangalore as well as stand-up nights in Hindi and other languages.
“India and Indians are ripe with comic potential and could soon take the world by storm,” he says.
“The British were here for 200 years. We gave you fantastic buildings and we left you with a great sense of humour,” he joked.