Laughter and Lament

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The crucible of the open mic winnows the duds from the real comics

THE MUSIC PIPES DOWN. Tonight, it’s a mostly millennial crowd—impossibly slim guys in tight shirts and pants, with a lot of hair on the top of their heads and the sides cropped close, and girls in skirts, with off-shoulder tops. They’ve descended on a fashionable performance venue-cum- bar in Mumbai. They shush when the host for the evening, a woman in her twenties, comes up to the mike and begins talking to those who were unlucky or reckless enough to take the front row. She warms up the audience, asking them what they do, where they live, and so on; only to riff up a few jokes at their expense. It works. The audience is now in the mood to laugh.

The mood doesn’t last. The host calls up the first performer of the evening, a guy who’s more bravado than ability. He cracks a joke on the perennial drought of romance in his life... mild laughter. The wisps of the joke evaporate, leaving behind a void. Our hero stumbles on. More jokes, followed by waves of non-laughter. He cracks a joke about beggars and how, in his opinion, funny they are. The crowd looks vaguely disapproving and sip their Rs 300 beers without so much as a heh. More jokes emanate. They bomb so bad that a mushroom cloud floats over the comedian’s head. Then something merciful happens. The warning light flashes from the back of the hall, meaning time’s up. The comedian cracks a joke about killing himself (even that one is lame), gathers the splinters of his personality, and steps off, grinning.

Then comes a fairly seasoned comedian. Her jokes about being a single woman in Mumbai, her body image issues, her kooky family get the evening back on its feet. About time. Maybe we’ll get our money’s worth after all.

Somewhere in Mumbai, almost every day, it’s comedy open mic night. That is, a chance for aspiring and new comedians to present their jokes for four or five minutes each. All come with the fundamental motivation to perform and be appreciated, but many are serious, so to say, and they are at an open mic to test out new jokes, to hone their material, to get their timing right. Open mic is where you can sharpen your skills, and maybe, even land the solos, corporate representation, the Netflix or Amazon Prime Video specials. The big time. Hopefully.

The open mic scene gives a stage to raw comedians, lets them better their jokes, their presentation, their stage presence, and winnows the duds from the Real Deals. In the strange crucible of the open mic scene, bad jokes fade away and good ones pullulate. “If not for an open mic ordeal, none of the good comedians you see now would exist,” says comedian Navin Noronha.

If you want to perform at comedy open mics, though, many places require you to buy a ticket. What open micers gain is valuable stage time in front of a live audience. What open micers don’t get is money for their creativity and labour. Comedians bristle at this inherently exploitative practice, which, they say, is baked into the open mic scene everywhere. That doesn’t make it right, only unavoidable.

“Each set of jokes is tested multiple times in multiple open mics, and if you can make people laugh through it all then you know you’ve got a good joke” - Sahil Shah

Or, some venues make you bring a plus-one. So, if there are 10 open micers performing at a given venue, there are at least 10 audience members who are plus-ones. Thus, the open micers are assured of having an audience. And the venues know that they will have guaranteed customers. There is also a flip side to this: “Sometimes plus-ones laugh only at the comedians who have brought them,” says comedian Masoom Rajwani.

One place not far from Mumbai makes open micers practice ‘barking’— going out into the streets and inviting people to the show. But whether paying for entry, barking or bringing plus-ones, open micers have to ensure that there are sufficient people to watch them precisely because they are not big names.

So what is in this for open micers? They get a four-minute slot in which to try new jokes, and their success is proportionate to the laughter of the audience. The tough ones will persist, either junking the jokes or tweaking them. It’s a grind and educational. Noronha, for instance, says, “I learnt perseverance [from open mics]. I learnt to respect the stage and work on my craft both on and off stage, because the process of bombing at shit open mics can be humiliating. Genuine crowd laughter is earned. And it only comes by working every kind of room in the country.”

“When I was new to comedy I used to do open mics nearly every day, for a few months” - Shreemayee Das

Bombing is hard on anyone. Comedian Pavitra Shetty remembers her early experiences of not getting laughs, three-and-a-half years ago. She says, “The first time I bombed, it was after 16-17 shows had gone well. Then I bombed. I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ But the stage is addictive.” She took tips from other comedians on how to handle failure. She says, “The second time I bombed, I didn’t take it personally. I started enjoying the process. It is not a dead end.” Shetty has developed resilience, and because she stuck to her work, today she is known in her fraternity. She has landed corporate shows despite not having an online video. Moreover, Shetty now has an hour’s worth of material, much of it run through the open mic wringer, which means she is ready for a solo.

The newbie or occasional open micer is terrified of failure. He sometimes tries to rig the game by bringing multiple plus-ones along to laugh at his jokes—an entourage, if you like. This is risky—what if you flop in front of them? This happened at an open mic last year. I counted no less than five plus-ones with a first-timer. He bombed so monumentally that even his entourage forgot to laugh. Imagine his humiliation.

Occasionally, established comedians will attend open mics to try out their new jokes. For instance, comedian Sahil Shah, who recently came to an open mic, says, “Each set [of jokes] is tested multiple times in multiple open mics, then multiple cities and then multiple age groups, and if you can make people laugh through it all, then you know you’ve got a good joke. Some jokes work in places where some don’t, so it’s quite subjective.”

Most open micers are, of course, not established comedians. While a few are working professionals pursuing their passion for comedy on the side, many open micers are young people with light pockets and no income. Typically, they are in college and can barely scrape together money to support their passion. More likely than not, their families are sponsoring it.

“If not for an open mic ordeal, none of the good comedians you see now would exist. Genuine crowd laughter is earned” - Navin Noronha

Rare is the open micer with ample means. Most open micers aren’t rich and privileged. They function in the routine, unfunny world of college or day jobs or sucking up to their parents for pocket money, making ends meet like any artist starting out, slogging in a direction that is hopefully up.

New and upcoming comedians hit the open mics with zeal, sometimes more than one a day. “When I was new to comedy I used to do open mics nearly every day, for a few months,” says Shreemayee Das, a comedian and comedy show organiser. Travel, food and other expenses mount up, especially for those few brave souls who believe in all or nothing, who have quit jobs to make it big in comedy. They pay Mumbai rents and live on a small budget. That is why comedy open mics are not inclusive.

Even for those with means, being a new or an upcoming comedian means sacrifice. Some people even travel long distances to perform in Mumbai. Recently, I met a comedian from Kolkata, Aakash Singh, who comes to the city for a few days every year to absorb the comedy culture here and to do open mics. In Kolkata, he says, he and other comedians have to put up comedy shows themselves. They go to cafes and other packed venues, and ask to perform there. This comedian, a qualified engineer, is trying to get a job either near Mumbai or in Bangalore, because these cities have sizeable open mic scenes (besides Delhi).

Some comedians, besides performing, become show organisers and put up open mics for others. Organisers book the venue, handle ticketing and do social media publicity. Nowadays, a few venues such as The Cuckoo Club and The Habitat work with comedians who organise shows for them. But some organisers prefer to work differently. For instance, Das and Rohan Desai, her co-organiser, run their own outfit called Grin Revolution and collaborate with a range of venues. Grin Revolution gives open micers a titbit for their performance, and is probably the only outfit in the city that pays. It’s a token amount, but at least, as a comedian says, “a few of these and I have enough to drink”.

OPEN MICS ARE NOT lucrative like movies or TV, or, to a lesser extent, shows by established comedians. What is the economics here? Let’s assume that 10 comedians are performing at an open mic. Counting open micers, plus-ones and ‘organic’ audiences, say, that’s 30 tickets sold. Assuming that a ticket costs Rs 200, which is typical, tickets worth Rs 6,000 have been sold that night. Quite slim pickings per show, particularly when the earnings are divided between the organiser and the venue. (Of course, this is true only for open mics. Trial shows and main shows by established comedians make much more.)

More ‘mainstream’ entertainment industries have a spectrum of roles ranging from elite to middle to bottom- rung. Not stand-up comedy in India. There are stars at the top, who make a good living from comedy, and then there are open micers at the bottom, who don’t make a living from comedy at all. “There’s no middle,” says a comedian. There’s no chance for a guy to earn the equivalent of a monthly salary doing stand-up comedy—jobs are vanishingly few for writers on comedy shows on streaming services. So, open micers, fuelled by hope, dreams and desire for approval alone, often occupy a more vulnerable position in their industry than junior artistes do in the film and TV industries.

Yet, the comedy open mic is the place to be for the newcomers. Comedians see that there is no alternative to these. They say that open mics are vital for the health and growth of the stand-up comedy scene, which is about 10 years old in India. But it is clear that comedy open mics are also places that feed off new and upcoming comedians. It’s how the world of comedy works right now. The funny business is serious stuff.