Comedy shines as viewers turn to humour amid gloom

Comedy shines as viewers turn to humour amid gloom

Mumbai: Mumbai-based Amit Aryan, 34, is hard at work, coming up with laughs for two comedy serials and a film. The serials are FIR and Lapataganj, two popular shows on SAB TV, the Hindi language comic channel run by Multi Screen Media Pvt Ltd; the movie is Bollywood producer David Dhawan’s next.

Blame it on the otherwise gloomy economic and political environment, or an overdose of sports, game shows, and serial weepies, but viewers are beginning to prefer comedies. According to data from TAM Media Research, Hindi channels air 50 comedy shows; SAB TV itself does eight. roughly10 of the top 50 programmes on television are comedies and light-hearted shows.

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The result is, a lot of work for people such as Aryan and Ashish Kapadia, co-promoter and writer, at Hats Off Production Pvt. Ltd that has produced popular comedy shows Khichdi, Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai and Baa, Bahu aur Baby for Star Plus. “The appetite for humour is growing among audiences. It’s impossible to sit back and rest," said Kapadia. At one stage, he adds, he was writing scripts for 40 episodes a month and was almost “brain-dead". He finally took a two-month break from writing.

There’s unlikely to be any let-up.

Imagine, Star Plus, Star One and Zee TV are working on similar light-hearted comedies.

And even the news channels are beginning to pay some attention to humour. IBN 7, the Hindi news channel of IBN18 Network has started 2G, a daily humour capsule (the name is a play on the so-called 2G scam that’s currently dominating the news). “There’s dearth of good, intelligent political satire. The channel wanted to experiment with content in the humour genre and that’s how 2G was born," said Ashutosh, editor of IBN7.

CNN IBN, the English news channel of the same network, already runs The Week That Wasn’t, a spoof by popular comic Cyrus Broacha.

NDTV 24x7 and NDTV India were early movers and, for nearly five years now, have hosted Gustakhi Maaf, a spoof of news events featuring puppet lookalikes of politicians and ministers.

The problem with humour is that it is serious business— and hard work.

“It’s not an easy process given that we have to be intelligently humorous, not crass," said IBN 7’s Ashutosh who uses only one name.

“With so much demand for comedy, there are very few humour writers that production companies can turn to," added Aryan, explaining why he has to write scripts for between 40 and 50 episodes a month.

“What comedy (shows) can I produce if I don’t have writers in the first place?" said Vipul Shah, perhaps the best known name in the TV comedy show business.

Television executives and people in the comedy show business say some 50 writers are needed urgently.

Still, the shortage that results in overworked writers also means lucrative business and companies such as Mumbai based Optimystix Entertainment India Pvt. Ltd a thriving eight-year-old company are the beneficiaries. The company, headed by Shah (he is also its main writer and director), is currently working on a new show for SAB, Don’t Worry Chachu. Last month, it wrapped up Papadpol, another comedy show for the same channel. And it has previously produced stand-up comedy shows such as Comedy Circus for Sony and Laughter ke Phatke for Star One. Meanwhile, Kapadia is gearing up to script two humour shows for Star Plus and Star One, the Hindi entertainment channels of Star India Pvt Ltd. He’s also writing another film script for the sequel of Khichdi besides working on a couple of other comic concepts for television channels.

There’s clearly money to be made from humour.

Anooj Kapoor, the executive vice-president and business head of SAB TV refuses to share details on revenue, but according to a media analyst, Sab TV’s ad revenue is in the region of 120-130 crore. “Back in 2005, Sab TV’s ad revenue was not more than 30-40 crore. The revenue is growing consistently because the content is light-hearted and perfect for family viewing," added this person, who asked not to be identified. Kapoor admitted that the channel’s revenue has risen 400% over the past three years. The channel’s market share has risen to 11% in the second quarter of 2011 from 6.3% a year ago according to TAM.

SAB’s successful programming is based on research, says Kapoor.

“We offer comedy with a purpose. Most of our shows have joint family setups, linear storylines, strong characters, similar to most GECs (general entertainment channels). But we infuse the shows with laughs," he added, even as he bemoaned the scarcity of good writers. “I can’t think of more than six writers in the industry specialising in the genre."

Humour has always been a staple on FM radio, and some RJs are now making a career in television.

According to Prashant Pandey, chief executive of 98.3 Radio Mirchi, the radio station owned by Entertainment Network India Ltd, part of the Times Group, humour is critical at a time when listeners are depressed about everything from rising petrol prices to higher bank interest rates.

IBN 7’s 2G is hosted by Naved Khan, a Radio Mirchi RJ.

Nisha Narayanan, senior vice-president, projects and programming of 93.5 Red FM, says that the network’s popular RJ Mantra has been approached by Sony Entertainment Television to showcase his humour on the channel’s show, Comedy Circus.

The shortage of talent sometimes results in sub-standard programming, says JD Majethia, promoter of Hats Off Productions. Worse, he adds, Indian audiences don’t mind being served mediocrity in the name of humour. “A lot of stand-up comedy on television channels is vulgar and crass. There are gags insulting the physically challenged, women and celebrities."

Majethia’s sentiment is echoed by Rasik Chopra, promoter of Good One Yaar, a website for original content in comedy. Chopra left New York and his job and has invested 20 lakh so far in his two-month old website that has 14 short, snappy videos and a blog riding on comedy acts, spoofs and witty scripts. Up next: A production company by Chopra that will offer good comedy content to production companies on Indian television. His business proposition: “We can surely do a better job than serving just ‘poop’ jokes to audiences."

PDF by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint