As a fan of stand-up comedy, and someone who enjoys studying the craft almost as much as watching a comedian kill on stage, it’ll take a few months to recover from Hannah Gadsby’s recent Netflix special, Nanette. We’ve been thoroughly spoilt. Almost single-handedly, and in just an hour, she pushed the boundaries of the art form further than it had been taken in at least a year, a year that also produced fearless sets from comedians such as Hasan Minhaj, Patton Oswalt and Tig Notaro.
It’s slightly jarring then, to watch Amazon’s new stand-up reality show, Comicstaan, and be rudely reminded just how far we have to go. In all fairness, at no point do any of the contestants – or even the judges – pretend that this show is the final word (or punchline) in Indian comedy – it isn’t – but it’s all about perspective, right? To watch a bunch of aspiring comedians flail about on stage, so rusty that the mere sight of them makes you want to get a tetanus shot, is often unpleasant. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s sort of the point – bombing on stage is a rite-of-passage that every comedian, and their audience, must experience. And half the fun – as cringeworthy as Comicstaan can get – is in watching the contestants as they noticeably improve in every new episode.
Four were made available for preview, and if things continue on this trajectory, then by the time this is done, we’d have a very fine winner.
The problem, however, is the manner in which this search is being conducted. Of course, the obvious dilemma here, as someone who is reviewing the show, is to wonder whether to address the comedy or the programme itself. The answer, I feel, is to have a mix of both, because neither would exist without the other, and each contributes almost equally to the viewing experience that is Comicstaan.
It unites seven of India’s most prominent comedians – Tanmay Bhat, Kaneez Surka, Kenny Sebastian, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kanan Gill, Sapan Verma and Naveen Richard – as judges/mentors to the 10 handpicked contestants from all across India. Hosting the show, (and overcompensating for the general awkwardness in a manner that reminded me of Anne Hathaway hosting the Oscars opposite a zonked out James Franco) are Abish Mathew and Sumukhi Suresh. True, these guys are some the most acclaimed (and rightly so) comics of the country. And their collective talent is almost enough to make you forget that they’re all repped by OML, who’ve struck a deal with Amazon – hence the reason several of them have other projects in various stages of development on the platform.
All this backroom wheeling and dealing is fine, as long as the show’s good. No one cares if Dave Chappelle is making hundreds of millions of dollars on Netflix, but they would’ve had his specials been terrible. They weren’t. His two hours were some of the most abrasive and brutally honest specials of the last year. But there’s something so outdated about this entire exercise – Comicstaan, starting with the damn name – that it almost makes you feel for some of the judges, whose enthusiasm visibly fluctuates from episode to episode.
For example, instead of designing a set that resembles a comedy club, or better yet, actually filming inside one, the Comicstaan set brings back unsolicited memories of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, which, unless you’re Navjot Singh Sidhu, isn’t a Kraken one wants unleashed in their minds. And in what they must’ve surely thought was a nifty feature that would set Comicstaan apart from say, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa or the dozens of other Indian reality shows, even the judges are judged. That’s cool and all, but once you take a step back, away from all the scores and leaderboards, you have to wonder, is this really the best way to find honest, talented comedians?
One of the hallmarks of a great performer, especially in comedy, is how well they handle rejection. When a joke bombs, the crowd’s silence has been known to bring some of the greatest comedians to their knees. A good comedian must embrace the deafening quiet, they must acknowledge it, because in acknowledgment there is learning, and in learning there is progress. Failing to land a joke is no big deal, it happens to the best. But God forbid anyone in Comicstaan doesn’t get a laugh for every word that comes out of their mouths. That being said, let’s all agree that canned laughter is the worst, and because Comicstaan relies so heavily on it, in addition to being reminded of Sidhu paaji, it’s likely that you’ll also be reminded of Kapil Sharma now, too.
Comicstaan is a show that in its quest to appease to every sort of audience member, fails at cultivating an identity of its own. It also doesn’t help that Comicstaan plays it so, so safe. Not a single act mentions any names – no under trial businessmen or absconding tycoons, nor incarcerated godmen or dicey politicians – and this is especially jarring when Amazon’s direct competitor, Netflix, has just had a complaint filed against them for the fearless Sacred Games.
Will Comicstaan’s rather hit-or-miss concept and lack of knockout contestants ensure viewers return for every episode? It seems unlikely, especially when there’s no shortage of excellent stand-up available online – there’s a reason I mentioned all those names up above. There are a couple of contestants who are honestly the show’s saving grace – they’re truthful and funny and have a unique voice, but alas, if only the show did as well.