Comedy standing up in India

New Delhi: They are brash, funny, young and are deadpanning their way to the bank. Meet the new crop of standup comedians whose rib tickling humour is becoming a staple at cafes and hangout zones across the country.

Armed with staccato wit sourced from everyday life and delivered in both English and local lingo,these entertainers are regularly dishing out comic relief at "open mike nights", a trend that seems to be picking up across metros.

"We started around three to four months ago. Now we have two comedy nights per month. If the response is good, we plan to increase the number of these nights," says Harsingh Patwal, manager, Shooters Bar and Grill restaurant here.

In a followup to popular comics such as Vir Das and Papa CJ or Russell Peters, who have built up a loyal following in the country, cafes and other eating joints are increasingly conducting "open mike nights" usually on a monthly basis where upcoming artists including college-goers get a chance to display their talent at comedy, poetry, music etc.

While Cafe Oz has `Krack you up Nights` organised by Bombay Electrik Projekt, a group that advertises itself as an alternative nightlife entertainment solutions company, Lodi – The Garden Restaurant has been hosting comedy nights for quite sometime now.

"We had hosted Papa CJ in 2008, Weirdass Ham-ature nights twice last year, and we had a turnout of 150 – 300 guests during these events. In the recently held comedy rock evening on 27th May by Alien Chutney, Vir Das` comedy rock band, we had a turn out of over 200 guests" says Inderpal Singh Kochhar owner, Sewara Hospitality and Development who runs the Lodi Garden restaurant in the capital.

Moving ahead of jaded one liners that often centred on picking on politicians, stand up comedy is found to be exploring even taboo subjects.

Young comedians are delving into local material and real-life observations to pack an original punch to jokes.

"Observational humour is popular besides the regular community based jokes. Political humour though falls flat in Delhi circles. Stereotypes make for good joke material but we are careful about being offensive to anybody," says Abish Mathew, a standup comedian.

However, established and younger comedians seem to differ on content. While sexual humour seems to find more acceptance in metros, where comedy acts are mostly in english language the approach of older generation is more wary.

So is comedy becoming obscene?

"Look at comedy shows on television nowadays, even young kids in it are saying embarrassing things. Vulgarity is creeping in comedy," says Pradeep Pallavi, a particpant of "The Great Indian Laughter Challenge" a popular reality TV show.

While Pallavi disapproves of too many "double meaning" jokes, several others say they depending more and more on double meaning jokes to elicit laughter.

"Sexual humour is an easy bait and as long as the audience responds to it, such jokes will be cracked. It is all about the audience after all. Society is more open minded now," says Mathew.

Mathew says one liners such as "My wife worships me like God. Did I mention she is an atheist?" are an instant hit among the cafe audiences.

Raghav Mandava, who launched Cheese Monkey Mafia, in January 2010 to give comedians and musicians in Delhi and NCR a platform to showcase their talent has an interesting take on sexual humour.

"If it is funny, it belongs on stage. But when comedians take a holier-than-thou attitude, they don`t," says Mandava.

The big daddy of them all, Papa CJ, who initially began the tradition of "open mic" nights in Delhi in 2009, also has views on the subject.

"It is perfectly okay to talk about sex after all we are a nation of 1.2 billion… But when you tell a coloured joke you have to tell it well while simultaneously also managing the hypocrisy of the audience."

Audiences also seem to be largely supportive of such jokes. Jasdeep Khurana, software engineer and a regular visitor at a cafe in Delhi says, "Of course all kinds of jokes are are okay, as long as they are a bit sensitive."

Stand up comedy is growing rapidly, but the quality of the comedians will grow only with time says Papa CJ. "When I began 8 years ago I did 250 shows in 10 months. Here, in India you don`t have that kind of opportunity. But audiences are loving the live stand up form" he says.

Siraj Khan, who was a finalist in the first edition of "The Great Indian Laughter Challenge" attributes the changing comedyscape to comedy shows on television.

"I have been 15 years into this profession. Before I use to earn a meagre amount of 500 to 1000 per show but since the advent of laughter challenge six years ago it has all changed. Now the income is much high."

Siraj Khan who has performed in New Zealand, Dubai, Singapore says that NRI population abroad is willing to shell out more for these performances.

"Most shows abroad are sold out first and then the date is fixed" he poitns out.

Most young comedians say the opportunity to gain a loyal following is more important that earning a few quick bucks.

Some cafes charge a small cover charge of as much as Rs 250, redeemable inside while others do not charge any fees.

Comedian Mathew says `open mic nights` are more of a testing platform for amateurs. "We don`t get paid to perform in open mike nights. But it`s not about the money, it is about testing the waters."

Comedy tickles not just the capital but even small towns attract these comedy champions.

According to Pradeep Pallavi, who recently performed in Itawa, says, "Comedy has its roots in small towns.

Nautanki, maskhara are art forms that were popular here much before stand up comedy got established in metros."

He categorises performers into three categories, the professionals, the semi professionals and the open mic guys.

"The number of professional performers has to grow just like in any industry. People need to get paid, else it remains more of a hobby, not a viable career option."

While it is a challenge for any comedian to understand the intricacies of a culture and shape the content accordingly the biggest challenge for stand up comedy in India today, according to Papa CJ is that "it is the same faces, same jokes".