As these acts gather momentum beyond the metros, aided by platforms like YouTube and Amazon Prime Video, people who have always wanted to laugh at themselves are finally finding spaces to congregate and have a good time.
In recent years, stand-up comedy artistes have travelled to at least 60-70 small towns and cities for live shows. This number is expected to expand to over a hundred cities, including first-time venues such as Agra, Siliguri and Jodhpur, this year.
Vijay Nair, chief executive at event management firm OML, said that the revenue accruing from these shows has reached Rs30 crore from a negligible amount three years ago. “Among music, theatre and comedy, comedy is the fastest-growing segment," Nair said. He added that most of these shows are in English, although some states like Gujarat have a strong tradition of stand-up comedy in the local language.
According to Rohan Joshi, co-founder of comedy collective, All India Bakchod (AIB), the biggest reason for the growing popularity of these shows is YouTube. “YouTube has helped activate audiences in these towns. It’s not that these towns have just learned to laugh at themselves, because that assumes that this audience didn’t exist earlier. They always existed. There was just no way to reach out to them," he said.
Joshi added that artistes can now use metrics to deconstruct their YouTube audience. “They can actually see that so many people are watching their show in Vadodara, etc," he explained.
But there has also been a genuine expansion of interest in and access to the genre. “There was no way for comics to access the crowds and vice versa. It’s being aided by platforms like Amazon Prime and WhatsApp. It travels from a one-hour special on a streaming service to a three-minute clip on WhatsApp that reaches my phone," said Joshi, who has been performing in cities such as Vadodara and Nashik in the last few months.
Both artistes and organizers agree that while India may be learning to laugh at itself, there is still a big chunk of the population that takes offence at such humour.
“For every one person that likes a video, there are five people who get offended by it. This has also led to artistes indulging in self-censorship, which veterans like Jaspal Bhatti never did," said Nair.
To be sure, the people who come to watch these on-ground shows are the top 3% in these towns and cities. For them, a joke is a joke. “I didn’t change a word of my material for the non-metros. One of the great things about performing in these cities is how much your assumptions are challenged. In a way, they make for a better audience because they are less jaded than your tier I audiences," said Joshi.
For sociologist Dipankar Gupta, social media has led to a state of virtual urbanization where one begins to talk to people they don’t know. “In this conversation, the other is seen as relatable or a lot like yourself... Therefore, certain jokes, states of mind, and metaphors get currency beyond local confines."
According to Nair, the deeper penetration of these shows is also to do with expansion of regional language comedy. “Gujarat, for example, has come up as a really big market for comedy. Artistes can easily travel to about 6-7 cities there." It helps, then, that cities such as Ahmedabad and Vadodara have their own local comedy scene. Manan Desai’s company called Comedy Factory, which specializes in Gujarati stand-up comedy, organizes its own gigs and trains comics.
Stand-up comedy is also picking up in Maharashtra, with cities like Nagpur and Nashik lapping up a thousand tickets per night for these shows. “These numbers are comparable to shows in Delhi and Mumbai," Nair said.
Comic Suresh, fresh off the success of Pushpavalli, an eight-episode series on a female stalker streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is enjoying being in front of a live audience. Suresh said that while they have a large following in the metros, the tier II, tier III cities are the future.
“Metros have seen stand-up comedy so, to be honest, the audiences come to have fun. In tier II cities, the eagerness to come in is a little higher. It’s a first-time experience for them," she said.
Typically, the audiences in these smaller towns and cities take a little longer to warm up since they are not aware that they can participate and engage with the hosts. “They don’t know that they are allowed to talk. But once they start responding, the show really picks up," Suresh said.
She recalls having a great time performing to a live audience of about 300 in Kozhikode. “Kozhikode was a great audience and I had a blast performing there. There was a good mix of students and locals. The audience also didn’t expect us to perform in Malayalam," she says. Suresh performs her shows largely in Tamil and English.
Joshi said he is taking the work put in by colleagues like Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kanan Gill, Kunal Kamra and Kenny Sebastian forward. “While AIB has its own reach across India, it helps that a lot of comics are now travelling," he added.
Gupta also pointed to some structural changes taking place in small town India. “We must not undermine the extent of urbanization in our country. A large number of white-collar jobs are now available in smaller cities as opposed to the metros. In addition to that, rural graduates tend to migrate to small towns and not big cities. These shows are a great source of entertainment for those who are lonely and find themselves in new places," he said.
The extent of urbanization in small towns cannot be taken lightly because it’s more vivacious and filled with optimism. “The urban state of mind is quite comprehensible in this context," he explained. The levelling of status rarely happens in India, but when that changes, stand-up comedy will aid more Indians to laugh at themselves, Gupta added.