Stand-up comedians, humour, corporate background comedians, stress-buster, Neeti Palta, Vikram Poddar, comedy gig, Talking Mime

If Valmiki were an investment banker, Ramayana would have started with Ayodhya Inc. as a blue chip stock and CEO-in-waiting Ram being forced out by disgruntled director Kaikeyi. And when Sita Inc. underwent a hostile takeover by corporate trader Ravana, Ram’s Vanvas Corp. mounted a victorious defence with bandar (monkey) shareholders.

This version of Ramayana was developed by banker-turned-comedian Vikram Poddar specifically for an audience in suits, who would enjoy the intricacies of the epic when entwined with finance. “We can make everything sound boring. Even Ramayana," he says, chuckling.

It is to find humour in mundane business realities that companies invite stand-up comedians to perform at conferences and employee meetings. Some comedians with a corporate background, like Poddar, have gone on to host panel discussions and conduct customized storytelling or employee motivational workshops—all peppered with humour.

“Comedy shows are a great stress-buster for corporate employees. People are also able to relate to the jokes," says Anuj Sehgal, CEO of Comedy Munch, a talent management company based in Gurugram.

After musicians, dancers and other artistes, comedians have become a favourite at employee engagements and product launches. Many offices plan “fun" Fridays with open mics and curated shows, says Sehgal, whose artistes perform eight to 10 corporate shows a month.

A comedy gig is relatively easy to set up, unlike a concert or a fashion show. “All we need is a mic and a spotlight," says Neeti Palta, 38, who was senior creative director with advertising agency JWT before turning to a career in comedy nine years ago. At recent corporate engagements, Palta has found that in-house comedy shows by employees have preceded her act. “Everyone is trying to do comedy," says Palta.

Vikram Poddar
Vikram Poddar

Not just kidding

Companies also call in the comics for serious workshops and panel discussions. Palta has hosted awards night for cosmetic companies as well as led sessions on industrial growth for cement manufacturers.

When models take too long to get ready before a show, the comedian keeps the audience engaged with tested routines.

Comics with a corporate background are also able to bring their familiarity with the world of work to the stage—an advantage that other performers may not have.

What really makes a difference is the wealth of experience, says Anshu Mor, comedian and CEO-founder of entertainment company Talking Mime. Mor, who spent 18 years in the corporate world and was a director at Microsoft (Xbox) before switching tracks, says he is able to conduct effective storytelling workshops because he knows both worlds. “Everyone wants storytelling—HR, finance—to pitch their ideas effectively. But I’ve been in enough boardroom discussions to know that not many know much about it," says Mor.

He draws on his stage experience to tell sales, HR and marketing teams how to construct a story. “Think about a classic HR communication on how to motivate employees: Do they put mission-vision statements on internal portals or do they bring out inspiring stories about employees and their passions?"

Mor turns concepts that often make employees’ eyes glaze over into engaging stories with a dash of humour. “You have to understand the audience whether it’s a presentation or a performance, and this is something that many miss out in corporate life. As comedians, we do it every day as we know we have to use different kinds of humour to engage every kind of audience," he explains.

Poddar, the founder of BoredRoom Company, a corporate comedy consultancy, offers only corporate solutions. “We don’t see ourselves as a one-time novelty but someone who can fundamentally transform the way business is done. We do everything from customer outreach to leadership development and employee engagement—with laughs," he says. Understanding a company’s unique needs and customization are key to his solutions.

Initially there was scepticism about the idea of humour-based training, recalls Suraj Bahirwani, president and global sales head, Grasim Industries, Aditya Birla Group, which has been using BoredRoom’s services since 2014.

“Training can be very serious, the corporate world itself is very serious," he says. At the same time, feedback from employee training sessions was indicating the need to bring down stress levels. “The question was how to bring humour to corporate world without diluting the message," says Bahirwani.

Positive feedback from the first training session reinforced belief in the new approach, and the company gave more projects to Poddar. Recently, when Grasim did a customer conference, Poddar was the emcee. He used the company’s product, viscose fibre, to create a pan-India narrative linking customers from various parts of India as a family. “The story was woven beautifully; there was lots of laughter," recalls Bahirwani.

Punch lines that hit hard

It isn’t that easy to tease out laughs in a corporate setup. The comedians, most of whom are well aware of HR policies, steer clear of cuss words, race, gender, and political jokes.

Mor says there is a fine line between being vulgar and picking a topic that is adult-oriented. For instance, he would crack a “Netflix and chill" joke at some events but avoid naming the OTT platform’s popular web series, The End of the ****ing World, which would be part of his act at a club or pub. “You can still talk about things but be classy about it," he says.

Occasionally, clients’ briefs can be vague. One client told Palta to avoid anything controversial. “I asked him to define ‘controversial’ as some could even take offence about me talking about my parents," she recalls. Then there was a client who wanted Palta to inspire women employees—but “without doing anything ‘feministy’". “He’d probably seen some of my videos and didn’t want men to feel uncomfortable," she says.

Poddar invariably says no to requests to keep the bar open, and, of course, there are demands for a preview of the script. “I tell them ‘no’ as we know (the rules) better. I take inputs but it is up to us to do what we want with that," he says.

So, will the corporate demand for comedy continue to grow? It will, according to Bahirwani, who is aware of the challenges of engaging and retaining a fairly young workforce. “By 2020, the average age of India is going to be 29 years. Stress levels in our organization are also high, whether it is lifestyle changes, high ambitions or pressure to look good on social media. Humour takes away a lot of the stress."

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

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