Updated July 2019
Note: If you’re not Indian, most of this stuff still applies across comedy scenes in the US, Canada, Australia the UK, Singapore and beyond.
I moved to India almost six years ago, when I was just a year into stand up comedy. My main experience at the time was from the small pubs and coffee shops in Southern California, whereas the song goes we all “Started from the Bottom.”
After having done thousands of open mics, pub shows, theaters and corporate events in the country as well as having worked with, mentored and shadowed hundreds of other comics, familiar patterns start to emerge.
Since comedy is booming in a place that can benefit greatly from laughing at ourselves, I thought I’d take a second to jot down a few conversations that repeat themselves almost daily with fellow comedians pan India.
If you’re new to comedy (or even a few years in), I hope some of this advice can resonate with a few of you. Because while comedy is funny, there is nothing funny about the funny business.
It’s pretty damn serious.
1.) Not Recording Your Set. And then WATCHING IT.
We’re very lucky that we live in a time that allows us to have a computer, camera and tape recorder in our pocket. As comics this is invaluable, since you need to be listening to your sets to know what worked and what didn’t. It also gives you a word for word record of how you did a joke in case it destroyed, so that helps you figure out how to recreate the magic later rather than trying to play it from memory.
So many comics don’t do this, but there is honestly no reason not to.
It’s painful, but while you’re stuck in traffic on MG Road on the way home it only takes 4-5 minutes to listen to yourself and make your adjustments to get better.
What else are you really doing with that time anyways?
Chances are you’re gonna smoke up and do the exact same set the next day, so you may as well hear what the audience did to give you a few ideas on what to change next.
Comics in New York/LA often record their sets from a 7PM open mic, listen to it on the way to an 8PM showcase, and then repeat that as they go to a 10PM show and have already made 2-3 adjustments to the joke. Since stage time is less plentiful in India, it’s important you at least try doing the same here to maximize your progress.
People will say “But Bro it’s so hard to watch myself.” or they’ll ask the host (who is running around doing 20 things) “Dude can you stand still and record my stuff for 5 minutes.”
If you can’t bear to watch yourself, how do you expect others too?
And aside from the host, asking other comics to record you and vice versa is also a great way to network amongst yourselves, help each other out and build comradery amongst your ranks.
2.) Insulting the audience for no reason/Doing Crowd Work Before You’re Ready
Did you bring the audience to the pub or cafe you’re at?
Did you promote it on Facebook, invite people, and organize the event with the manager, DJ, etc..?
If you didn’t you’re probably being given a chance to try your interest by the person who did and you have no place being a dick to someone who is supporting the comedy (whether audience or comic who organized).
If you get heckled, learn from the experience rather than acting like you’re doing anyone a favor by being up there. It’s a great way to look unprofessional since early on you won’t have adequate comebacks and will burn bridges with the other comics who are now going to have to deal with an uneasy audience.
Russell Peters can do it because the audience knows him for that, he’s famous and he’s spent 20+ years getting to deserve that. You haven’t. And honestly, as Indians we are generally very polite and well-mannered in these upmarket bars and cafes where most comedy is currently taking place, and 90% of the time I see an open micer or newcomer go after an audience member it was an overreaction stemming from the comics insecurity of being up there rather than a malicious audience member.
Learn when to do it, but more importantly learn when not to.
3) Using Celebrities (e.g. “Name Dropping”)
“Man, the new Hyundai i20 is terrible. It’s like the Tusshar Kapoor of hatchbacks. Am I right people?”
Was that a joke about Hyundai’s or driving or was it just the equivalent of “George bush is stupid.” as a punchline?
It’s ok to talk about celebrities and use common references, but when trying to explore a topic, look for obvious problems and funny/ironic things about the situation. These jokes might get you easy laughs but they’re not going to stretch your comedic mind to think about things from a different perspective.
Nobody is going to be waking up in the middle of the night thinking “hehe, man, when that comic said the situation in the middle east was more complicated than Anil Kapoor’s chest hair, wow, what an insightful comedy yaar.”
If you have a joke about celebrities or notable figures, keep it about that. What did they do, why is it weird, what really bugs you about the situation. But if you have no opinion on the person and are just using their name to get a laugh from the audience, is there any honesty or originality in what you’re trying to say?
4) Only Sticking to Stereotypes
Gujus are cheap, Punjabi’s are drunk, South Indians are dark (although, not really), Guys named Sanjay are so handsome…yada yada.
I understand you’re nervous just looking for approval, as I’ve been there and done the same. You should talk about what you want to talk about, but don’t make community jokes basis for your whole performance. It’s getting laughs because everybody already knows it, and since it was so easy for you to write and talk about these stereotypes it’s going to be just as easy for the next person.
How are you going to perform your set in Mangalore about drunk Surdy PJ uncles to a crowd of all South Indians? Do they care about Punjabi culture or would they instead like to hear humor about marriages, corporate life, filter coffee or who knows?
And what are you going to do when the last 5 guys before you did similar bits about Air India is all fat aunty air hostesses and now you have nothing new to add for the crowd?
Stereotypes are fine if you have a fresh/original twist on the idea, but don’t ONLY do them.
They’re a good tool to have when you have a certain audience that just wants to hear that stuff, but try to write jokes about life in general also. India is such a unique place with a bunch of cultures mashed together, so it’s fine to talk about these things if nobody has pointed them out before, but try to just keep this in mind as you push forward and want to stand out.
5) Putting out your first whole clip online
When you start doing comedy, you probably start posting about comedy.
You change your profile picture immediately to that DSLR shot your friend took holding the mic, you post senti status updates about being an artist and your friends start saying things like “Machaa YouTube clip pls.”
While this can be exciting, you forget the fact that you probably still suck.
Your friends will naturally be supportive and probably laughing in the audience, but that’s probably where it will stop. Chances are your jokes aren’t finished, the false ego-boost will make you think this is easier than you think (How many shitty cell phone clips of a first time performer on stage do you see go viral?) and the whole thing probably belongs on SnapChat rather than youTube.
Where it will delete on its own.
Enjoy the attention and support but if you care more about comments than comedy (and we’ve all been guilty at some point), you will be setting yourself up for failure.
If you want to get feedback from others share a private link amongst your friends, but you will need support/shares/fans to come to your shows once you really decide to do this long-term, so don’t stretch yourself thin too early.
Only start inviting your friends on Facebook after a year, so they actually have something worthwhile to see.
6) Taking Notes on Stage/Not Rehearsing
You’ve spent all day at work, and then braced hours of traffic, parked your car and are now waiting an hour at the venue before you perform your five minutes of jokes.
Why the hell are you reading off a piece of paper in front of audience members who did the same? What were you doing in the cab the whole time that you couldn’t remember 5 bullet points?
If you’re willing to do all the previous things, not taking five minutes at home, in your car or in the bathroom to practice/memorize your set is inexcusable.
So many comics who are not doing well then looking at their paper just makes the audience thing: “Oh God he has a list and is not gonna finish.” It’s like when your CEO has 20 pages of notes and you know for sure he ain’t cutting that speech short.
Oh the horror!
I still do this and I know it’s completely wrong, but in your first few years you need to ensure you do not do this. You will weaken your memory skills and set yourself up for failure.
The sooner you memorize, the sooner you give more lift/performance to your jokes and the sooner you’ll get better.
If you can’t memorize 5 minutes as the first step into this business, just stop now.
7) I don’t want to Give away my material (e.g. Not put it out online for free)
A lot of comics I know don’t like releasing their material (as if they’re signed to Sony Music) because they either don’t want people who come live to see the same jokes, or they want to get paid in some form.
But when you’re first starting out, this is one of the best assets at your disposal.
Putting out short clips (1-4 minutes) on a certain topic is a great way to reach people who otherwise will likely not know who you are (if the clip is good and shot well, of course, see the previous point).
Even if a video “fails” at only 1,000 views, that’s probably 10-20 times more people than who saw you perform the joke live.
It also gives you accountability and ownership for a joke, allows feedback so you can hear the harsh truth from people who aren’t your friends, and forces you to write new material for the fans who you do make online.
Above I had mentioned not to put out your first clip, but once you get into the hustle and grind of comedy, putting out material that is tested and ready to be retired is arguably a game changer in a country where 99% of the population still hasn’t seen a comedy show live.
So make sure you get your stuff out there and don’t hold on to the past.
8) Dressing Like a Slob
One thing I’ve noticed as I get older is how I see myself in younger people.
And then I cringe at how stupid I was.
And then I laugh cause now they’re stupid and I’m probably only stupid to 40 year olds.
But I get it bro. You’re jaded in your middle-class lifestyle. You’ve seen YouTube clips of Bill Hicks, Mitch Hedberg, and Bill Burr and you think you got it all figured out. Absorbing 30 years of their careers while smoking a joint with friends, you understand this comedy thing right?
And so a good chunk of you come to the shows or open mics, wearing slippers and looking like you just woke up. And if that was part of your routine (e.g. if dressing sloppy or looking stoned made your jokes better ) I would be all for it.
But in reality, let us call a spade a spade. You’re performing stand up comedy to a group of strangers because you obviously want to be there and you care about their opinion.
Hell, you need their opinion. Their validation (laughter) is your only metric of progress.
And since you’re a human being like the rest of us, you obviously want to do well. And since you admire the comedy greats who also looked like they didn’t care (even though that whole act is filmed in front of thousands of people with mega-million dollar budgets), you try to emulate it forgetting that everybody in the history of comedy calls their set “their act.”
Be yourself, be who you are, but unless your jokes are just so good and you have the fan following, don’t try to look worse than your audience. And on the flip side (I’m guilty here), don’t spend all your time doing your hair and wearing those designer jeans instead of practicing your jokes.
9) Only Doing New Stuff
So many comics in India (and I don’t blame them) watch a Bill Burr or Louis CK or whoever and reverse engineer the process and churn out joke after joke at the same rate these guys do.
These folks spent twenty years building the ability to write a new hour each year, and while I’m sure it can be done easier this year with technology and the nature of entertainment, the mentality of quantity over quality can creep in.
I’ve seen newer comics who were so nervous to perform in Bombay because they had performed at the same venue six months ago, and they assumed it would be a 100 percent repeat audience and then proceeded to try out new jokes and tank horribly.
While you should always be writing new bits, you should recognize the lucky platforms you sometimes receive and not over think the situation.
Even if there was 1 person out of 100 that saw you before, disappointing 1/00 with an old joke is better than bombing for 99/100 with new bits.
As more venues appear in the country, with more diversification in performers and audience alike, remember when to bring out your tried and tested material and when not to. In 2019 as I update this article, Canvas has shut in Mumbai and Habitat is the main comedy club there. If you have a viral clip performing there, then don’t perform those jokes again. But if you don’t, feel free.
A joke is also never finished, and repeating it for fresh faces over time gives you additional tags, ideas, and ways to make it better.
10) Using Hindi (e.g. When to do it)
The modern stand up comedy scene in India (which started almost entirely in English) is moving towards a more mixed/Hinglish model, and after years of seeing the evolution, it’s sort of time to accept it.
I didn’t grow up here so that obviously it doesn’t help me with my terrible NRI Hindi, but this is India and I have no right to crib about it. Part of comedy is learning to accept things you can’t change, and in India, this is one for me. But it may be a strength for you so lean into it! (And also don’t get angry when your full Hindi set tanks in Chennai).
The point I’m trying to make is regional comedy is just getting started. Even the Comicstaan trailer’s I’m seeing online are almost all Hindi, even though a few of my friends judging it barely speak it.
Earlier on most English stand up comedy venues in the country would ask the comics to focus on English, but after a while you realize, they’re just some things way funnier in Hindi. Or Tamil, or Kannada, or some mixture of it all.
If you get cut off in traffic you’re probably gonna think “Fu*king Chutiya” versus “Oh that jerk!” and as someone who has tried telling both versions on stage, I think you can see how an Indian audience would relate.
Every country has its own style of stand up comedy that branches off in its own unique way from the art, so India is no different.
In Delhi Hindi is king, followed by a more mixed model in Bombay and I’d say in the South it’s still focused on English.
If you’re comfortable speaking in Hindi, then do that.
If you mainly speak in English, then do that.
But don’t be fake to yourself.
A common theme over the last few years is to have a setup in English and then deliver the punchline in Hindi.
And boy oh boy, does it kill like anything when the joke is actually funny.
So as you progress through and watch hundreds of comics, take stock how each person uses language to their benefit. If you think in English and express yourself in Hindi slang, then, by all means, do it.
But if you try to pander or lecture in one language or the other, the audience can often times see through your inauthenticity if that is not how you really speak.
The beautiful part about India is since there is so much culture and people from all walks of life, people will enjoy your comedy in one style or another. Just keep at it and play to your strengths.
Another side note is on swearing. If you have a joke that is about watchmen or elevators, and the only time you get a laugh is on using the MC or BC’s, ask yourself if the joke was actually funny or the audience just laughed on the adult stuff.
It’s an exciting time to be a comedian in this country, and it’s only going to get massively bigger and bigger as comedy penetrates the tier two cities and people start voicing more opinions using humor to affect social change. But the industry is still in its baby stages and has some amazing things ahead.
I hope the above was helpful, and I’d like you to know I’ve made (and will probably repeat) all of the mistakes above. So please let me know if I missed anything and/or you have any other feedback, and happy open mic’ing.