Lockdown turns stand-up shows to ‘sit-in’ as comedians start live streaming

Online live shows, quarantine special digital content and a whole lot of patience: here’s how ‘stand-up’ is becoming ‘sit-in’ comedy while adapting to the lockdown

Comic Sorabh Pant is in search of some relative peace in his house, even if for a brief while.

He asks his screaming kids to play in the corridor outside his house, and waits for the kitchen to quieten. (“Why is someone or the other in this house always washing vessels, why are there so many vessels!” — incredulity makes his voice go a pitch higher.) Only now can he begin recording.

As we approach the 38th day of complete lockdown, and third month of global social distancing, it has become clear to stand-up comedians like Sorabh that performing live shows for filled auditoriums — their bread and butter — will not be feasible for a while: at least six months, conservatively speaking.

“We anyway had one foot inside the door for digital content. And now, some of us have realised we quickly need to move online,” says the Mumbai-based comic. After experimenting with live shows on Zoom, Instagram and YouTube, Sorabh will now be hosting ticketed shows every morning from next week.

Breaking new ground

Comic Vir Das, whose dark comedy show Hasmukh is currently streaming on Netflix, has been holding a series of stand-up gigs called ‘Vir Das at Home’ on Instagram. These are ticketed, for specific cities: London, New York, San Francisco, among others, and the proceeds go towards raising funds for different NGOs providing COVID-19 relief. All of them sold out, and more At Home shows are in the works, proving that the demand for online live comedy exists.

Kanan Gill as seen on his Netflix show, ‘Yours Sincerely, Kanan Gill’

Kanan Gill as seen on his Netflix show, ‘Yours Sincerely, Kanan Gill’   | Photo Credit: Netflix

“We’re trying new formats online, streaming and live online shows, but it’s too early to say what will really work,” says Kanan Gill. He is one among over 80 comedians who got together to perform at the Stay Home For India comedy festival, which was hosted on Tanmay Bhat’s YouTube channel this month. He adds, “We can’t just adapt what we do on stage, online. We need more online content, but whether it is through live streaming or pre-recorded shows, that is the question.”

This gives way for a new art form to evolve, says Chennai-based comedian Bhargav Ramakrishnan, aka Baggy. “Everybody is on Instagram Live. But as a comedian, it is not quite the same as performing in front of an audience is. If we keep doing it, this format is going to evolve. Social media lives will move away from trying to ape a show and become a new medium in itself, with which artistes can experiment.”

Chennai-based stand-up comedian Bhargava Ramakrishnan, aka Baggy

Chennai-based stand-up comedian Bhargava Ramakrishnan, aka Baggy  

Evam, which kick-started Chennai’s standup comedy scene, and was running the SoCo club at Savera till lockdown began, is now experimenting with online open mics every week. Co-founder Karthik Kumar has just wrapped up a Zoom call with 60 stand-up comedians all across India — Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai — before this interview. “We were discussing how to optimise a live stand-up on Zoom: how to sell tickets, the optimum distance from the mic, the lighting at home that best reflects your expressions (since here you can’t be expressive with the full body) and so on,” he says.

He goes on to explain how on these calls with 40-80 people in the audience, it becomes the job of the producer, who is also the moderator, to help the comedian with the audience feedback and reaction. “He will manoeuvre whose window can be seen, and mute people causing ambient noise.”

Evam Entertainers, Sunil Vishnu (right) and Karthik Kumar during an interaction in Chennai on September 18, 2018

Evam Entertainers, Sunil Vishnu (right) and Karthik Kumar during an interaction in Chennai on September 18, 2018   | Photo Credit: KV Srinivasan

The comics are also figuring out how to change the pace with which they present, as there is bound to be some sort of lag in the audience response. “For someone like me who talks very fast, online lives are a good exercise in improving timing,” says Sorabh.

After his world tour of North America, England, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Vietnam, scheduled this May got cancelled, Sorabh held one show on a cross-country video call with a small set. Based on this experience, he says, “I am working on creating a separate one hour of stand-up, well actually ‘sit-down’ comedy show purely targeted at a Zoom audience.”

If not stand-up, what else?

“We have been in denial for a while now, but the conviction with which we are approaching online shows is strengthening. It is a question of survival,” says Karthik. Yet, it is not as if live shows are easy. “One of the biggest fears is that somebody could record the show without your permission,” says Sorabh.

Comedian Sorabh Pant performing stand-up over Zoom, uses a vegetable ‘mic’ as a prop

Comedian Sorabh Pant performing stand-up over Zoom, uses a vegetable ‘mic’ as a prop   | Photo Credit: Sorabh Pant’s Instagram

The logistics for online shows are tough as well — tickets don’t sell for a price as high as they do for live gigs, which means the number of shows needs to be increased, says Sorabh. Which is why he is putting his other skills to use: “I started out as a writer before a comedian, and so I am pulling all forces out to write a lot of content,” says Sorabh. He currently has a podcast on Audible Suno, Comedian in Quarantine ki Kahaniyaan, where he discusses his life under lockdown.

“The one thing that I keep telling people is to stop deluding yourself to think that this will end anytime soon. We need to prepare ourselves for at least a year into the future,” Sorabh says. His words of warning don’t mean much to some who would rather wait it out than worry about transitioning to online platforms. Chennai-based Aravind SA, popularly known as SA, is in fact enjoying the lockdown. “I like the peace and quiet. I think I needed this perspective.”

Despite his loyal fan following online (over 500k subscribers on YouTube and more than 200k followers on Instagram), SA believes that his energies remain the best during live stage shows. “Nothing beats that experience. The best way of supporting an artist is by going to a show and buying a ticket,” he says.

Acknowledging that it will be difficult for people to group together even post lockdown, he still maintains that online platforms are just the cherry on top of the comedy sundae. “It’s more about legitimacy and being part of that ecosystem. Putting something on an online platform will not improve you; putting yourself on a stage will.”

Lockdown turns stand-up shows to ‘sit-in’ as comedians start live streaming

The I Was Not Ready, Da comedian recently belted out short viral videos on YouTube, talking about birthdays, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and how dating is like investing in mutual funds. By doing this, he has made sure he remains in public memory, as well as provide some much-needed laughs in these troubled times.

And who knows the significance of that better than Bengaluru-based Danish Sait. The comedian’s fan base has shot up to 400K followers on Instagram the last month, thanks to his quarantine special videos parodying Bengaluru- and Malayalam-accents.

“It is a little unfair to just expect everybody to throw a special out there, if they can’t perform live. It’s expensive, and sometimes you just don’t have the material and the legs to run with,” says Danish, who did improv shows in Bengaluru during pre-COVID-19 days. “We would hold four shows in a venue like Alliance de Francaise which seats about 300 people. Post the lockdown, to sell 1,200 tickets, we will have to do more shows and reduce the duration of the show. We won’t seat 300 people in the room, maybe 150 with spacing between them,” he says.

Because at the end of the day, they all want to get back on stage. There is an irreplacable, palpable energy in the room when performing for an audience face-to-face. Says Danish, “It’s a massively different thing to listen to a band on YouTube versus watching them play live. There are some acts that you need to watch live, right?”

With inputs from Srinivasa Ramanujam, Gowri S and Aparna Narrain

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 6:19:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/stand-up-comedians-live-streaming-acts-during-lockdown/article31463563.ece

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