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04.01.2018

On Christmas Day, everyone entering Take 5 in Indiranagar is offered plum cake at the door by a smiling server - a familiar, if not very tasty, nod to the season. Turnout is surprisingly good, full of families in their festive best. The comics are milling about the very back of the room (definitely not festive-looking: jeans and wrinkled tees are the uniform here). They’re counting on the good cheer to warm up the audience for the event about to begin.

As they wait, they roast each other. Nothing is off-limits at this particular fight club. They’re merciless. The potshots are interspersed with serious critique of each other’s past performances. There is a distinct sense of camaraderie that extends to everyone just before they go on stage to try and kill it harder than anyone else in the line-up.

That’s scene one of an open mic - where anyone can sign up to do a short set - in many parts of the country. But if you’re at an open mic at all, it’s much more likely that you’re in Bangalore rather than Delhi or Mumbai. This decidedly non-filmi town hosts more open mics per week than any other city, and on any given day, there’s at least one such event taking place at a café, pub or community space.

Bangalore is churning out fresh talent everyday, making it the most interesting city in the country for stand-up comedy. It is a training ground for comics who then move onto cities like Mumbai to access larger audiences and bigger platforms. The effects have been evident for a while now. The supremacy of Mumbai-based collectives like All India Bakchod and East India Comedy may be unchallenged for sheer reach, and the appeal of Delhi comedians such as Zakir Khan and Mallika Dua has cut across Hindi-knowing India. But from the viral Pretentious Movie Reviews to last year’s acclaimed homegrown streaming hits, Laakhon Mein Ek and Pushpavalli, it’s clear that the Bangalore pipeline is producing some of the most vibrant, popular comedy in India today.

Do It With Tongue

Language is a significant factor in how Bangalore comedy develops. Comics here aren’t performing for Hindi-dominated audiences, a decided advantage for those trying to develop a voice that cuts across regional sensibilities. Standards change, too: the set-up can’t be a trope that belongs in a Bollywood comedy, and the punchline has to be more than a rude word about your mother or sister.

Of course, those jokes can be funny too, but they’re not novel. Aamer Peeran, who’s been going up on stage for about five years now, says that Bangalore allows comics to “be edgy” and take risks. “Maybe it’s because a city that has a third culture - you can be Bangalorean while still retaining your original culture. You can be yourself on stage, rather than constantly trying to connect with the audience,” he says. On stage after we speak, he talks about being half-Indian, half-Pakistani and Saudi-born and bred, to an audience as bemused as it is amused.

At open mics in this town, on the other hand, an idiosyncratic joke is more likely to fall flat but when it does well, comics know it’s a bigger winner than the dependable one. Perhaps this is why Bangalore’s English-language comedy has the potential to resonate with people around the country.

This is apparent when you see the kind of work emerging from more established Bangalore comics. The most recent example, released last month on Amazon Prime, is Sumukhi Suresh’s uncomfortable, delightful Pushpavalli, a tragicomedy about being a dysfunctional single in a Bengaluru full of oddballs. City-based Them Boxer Shorts, a collective including Naveen Richard wrote last year’s hit Better Life Foundation, a web series that took on the systemic failings of earnest do-gooders at NGOs. Even Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath’s Pretentious Movie Reviews, based on a popular YouTube format, was heavily influenced by internet subculture and became meme-worthy in itself.

LOL Of Fame

The comedy scene in other metros doesn’t function the way it does in Bangalore. Delhi has an open mic or two a week, which gives its young comics fewer chances to experiment: a comic is more likely to play it safe than to to kill with an audience in limited stage time. Mumbai hosts more open mics, but comics are constrained by a saturated market.

Unlike Bangalore, open mics in Mumbai take place at venues where performance regulations are more rigidly enforced. Sign ups often happen days in advance, and comics must bring a plus one to ensure an audience, and all open mics are ticketed. This level of dedication can be off-putting to novices who just want to try out their jokes on people other than their indulgent friends.

The audience composition for these open mics isn’t ideal, either. Almost everyday, I learned, a WhatsApp group for Mumbai comics lights up with requests for plus ones among other comics. The audience for that event will comprise comics who agreed to be plus ones for their colleagues that will return the favour next week, seated among people who are looking for a guaranteed good time when paying for an evening out. The intense competition means that you need to work fast to create a memorable brand.

In Bangalore, you are able to focus on finding your voice as a comic before worrying that you will be lost in the rush. Shankar Chugani, a Bangalore-based comic who has been publicly funny for 5 years, points out this is quintessential to becoming a noteworthy stand-up comic in, say, the United States. “Comics like George Carlin and Bill Burr spent nearly a decade grinding it out at open mics or shows - just performing - before they put out a special. When you start doing stand up, your jokes may be funny, but they aren’t very layered. If you want your joke to resonate with the audience, for it to be a joke that people come back to because it’s funny every time - it comes with performing religiously over a long period of time.”

Star Boyz & Girls

So why is everyone from Gill to Richard to Sumukhi Suresh in Mumbai now? Comics from Delhi and Mumbai have one very practical advantage: they are able to monetise more easily, according to Kjeld Sreshth, a Bangalore comic who’s been performing for 4 years. He says that a comic who has been going on stage for ten months in Mumbai has more access to job opportunities as a writer or content creator than his Bangalorean counterpart. This likely means they are able to sustain comedy careers for far longer, eventually reaching larger audiences.

“Mumbai and Delhi comics are drawing audiences that fill 1,200 seats, but Bangalore is yet to pull in audiences that are this large for local comics,” Chugani adds. “It’s a double edged sword. The city gives you space to try and fail and then improve. But it’s also a struggle to promote shows for weeks on end when you know you aren’t going to fill more than 80 seats. Mumbai is a goal for most comics because it gives you scale.”

Telling a joke is always a risk. Every comic hopes it won’t be followed by deafening silence or, in these climes, an FIR. But it isn’t just about getting a laugh, either. Comics are supposed to be able to freely speak truth to power. Cities like Bangalore may be among the few places where they can still do that without adhering to a tried and tested formula. The city’s eccentricities are what keep its comics - and, evidently, the rest of India’s comedy favourite comedy specials - weird.

Sushmita Sundaram enjoys writing about funny people and odd things. Follow her on Twitter at @sushmitas.

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