Why stand-up comics prefer video streaming platforms to showcase talent
New Delhi: Amazon Prime Video’s ardent followers would know of its latest offering—an eight-episode series on a female stalker, called Pushpavalli, created by actor and stand-up comedian Sumukhi Suresh. Another show, a retro horror comedy titled Shaitan Haveli, has been written by actor and YouTuber Varun Thakur.
The more popular names like Biswa Kalyan Rath and Aditi Mittal aside, over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms in India are gradually putting the spotlight on a host of stand-up comic talent that now finds the opportunity to create, write and act in shows, clearly having come a long way from the struggle many of these have undergone in their career in a country that still doesn’t see stand-up act as a conventional job.
“I’ve done stand-up comedy for 14 years, but earlier it was either television buying your stuff for prime-time slots or nobody buying it at all,” said Vikram Sathaye, creator of a cricket-based chat show called What The Duck on video platform Viu, adding that television not just worked with a standard programming format but also allowed the broadcaster to own intellectual property rights.
“Today comedians are on the web, they are doing stand-up specials, they have opportunities that I could not have thought of ten years back and OTT has played a critical role because they can now at least do what they want to do without being driven by standard operating procedures,” he said.
The advantage with OTT, Sathaye added, is that it’s a new growing platform that also wants to experiment because nobody knows where success will come from. Meanwhile, established platforms know what works for them.
“We’ve all got some sort of training in YouTube because we do a lot of sketches, then you start writing a lot, you start thinking funny, it’s just years of taking something from all that collective knowledge,” said Varun Thakur.
Manasi Sapre, head of content, Viu India, agreed that stand-up comics are a complete package—they are performers, they know how to connect with their audience because they do a lot of live shows and are attuned to the audience like classic theatre actors.
While writing challenges for the web are different demanding consistent hooks, Thakur said the great thing is OTT platforms are not just hungry for content but also open to the idea of pushing unconventional content that if he, in his own words, “went to a TV channel with, they would laugh at me”.
“The one realization is comedy is a genre that is growing and well-accepted. The other is that it has to have an enduring nature and not many in India have had long-term success with it,” said Manav Sethi, chief marketing officer at ALTBalaji, the video-streaming app owned by Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms. ALT doesn’t just have stand-up comics like Ssumeir Pasricha doing shows for them but also creates and syndicates original regional language stand-up comedy shows.
“Earlier the guy would get famous offline and then come online. Now there is a trend reversal, and you will see that a lot of people will debut online and go offline later,” Sethi said. “Offline shows require a lot of investment, theatres are not willing to take risks, you don’t know whether the guy will be able to perform or not. But a recorded show gives you the liberty to correct stuff, and remain in line with the value and ethics of the brand which was not the case earlier. Also offline, there is a limited audience. Whereas once an episode or a season goes live on an OTT platform, there are millions of people who can consume it and there is no constraint of geography or time.”
The second trend they’ve observed and pleasantly so, Sethi said, is that regional shows are not region-specific.
“It’s not like only Marathi comedy is being viewed by Maharashtra, you have Punjabi and Gujarati comedy also being consumed by Mumbai not just because it comes with subtitles but because of the freedom of movement of people. So that’s a very key differentiation,” Sethi said.
Given how keen OTT platforms are to move ahead in the game, there is no reason for other players to not latch on.
“All the big brands have realized that ultimately they also need to be content providers so my sense is that brand and OTT collaboration will be a very critical thing in this business model,” Sathaye said, adding that What The Duck collaborated with soft drink brand 7Up in the first season and instant messaging service Hike in the second as sponsors.
“The sponsor also wants interesting programming. So it was a win-win situation,” Sathaye said. “Brands also like established properties, and we have decided to build properties (with our work on OTT). Today we’re all fighting for consumers going to different platforms so if there is a defined proposition, it becomes easier.”