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Two new laughter TV channels are doing well in Tamil Nadu. Similar fare awaits Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam viewers. Comedy is serious business in the south

The sun may rise in north Indian homes to the sound of religious and spiritual chants on television, but in south India it brings down the nights in laughter. Two rival channels from the Sun TV network and Kalaignar TV have recently launched 24-hour channels dedicated to comedy in Tamil Nadu. And the laughs are only getting louder.

It’s a tradition in Tamil Nadu, going back to the days of robust theatre and street activism—using laughter, wit and comedy to send home a point. It’s not surprising then that the oldest living icon of pun and wit remains the first citizen of the state, M Karunanidhi, who is admired not only for his political wiliness, but also for his ready wit.

It is a popular custom in Tamil theatre and cinema to have separate comedy tracks run alongside the main plot. In fact, comedians of Tamil cinema command a huge following, next only to the maniacal following of their superheroes. And now, they are bringing the laughter home through TV.

Entertainment channels have for long had slots for comedy clips from Tamil cinema. Vijay TV tasted success with the whacky Lollu Sabha, which parodied popular Tamil movies. Then, Vijay TV’s stand-up reality comedy programme Kallakkapovadu Yaaru (Who’s Gonna Dizzy Things Out Here?) introduced a game show for debutante stand-up comedians from the state, who spout limericks and try drag acts and cheeky mimicry shows.

The show continues to have a huge following among audiences and is credited with introducing unknown and unsung comics from small towns and districts to the glitzy world of telly stardom.

Kalaignar TV followed Vijay TV’s popular stand-up comedy game show with little invention, calling it Asathapovadu Yaaru (Who’s Gonna Gobsmack Ya’ll?). And both channels are laughing all the way to the bank.

“Actually, the shows are not outstanding, but for some reason, they are popular and have audiences cracking up,” says Chennai-based writer Janaki Venkataraman.

A year ago, Sun TV decided to promote its DTH services by introducing a special comedy channel, Comedy Thirai, for subscribers. With their experiment having netted both TRPs and advertising revenues, Sun TV has now decided to tickle Tamils with a channel that is wholly dedicated to comedy, Aditya TV. Launched on February 8 last year, this channel from the Kalanidhi Maran stable has a medley of comic programmes that include comic clips from Tamil cinema, phone-in programmes where callers exchange witticisms and jokes with the anchors as well as mimicry shows.

“Laughter is the best medicine and our channel is tapping into it for the audiences,” says programme-in-charge Jolly Vasanth. The channel also takes pride in bringing voices from the Tamil heartland. For instance, jolly-makers Devakottai Ramanathan or Erode Mahesh have now become familiar names in homes thanks to the laughs they generate in their slapstick routines on the channel. “Small-town talents are getting to shine thanks to these channels,” says Vasanth.

Aditya TV has dedicated days and special programmes that telecast clips from the most popular comedians of Tamil cinema: Vivek, Vadivelu and the snarky duo of Goundamani and Senthil. The channel also boasts of that rare breed, comediennes, read female comic stars. The most accomplished of them is Manorama, though she’s no longer in vogue in these times of grossed-out physical abuse and insults that pass as humour in Tamil cinema. Kovai Sarala, another big name in her own right, has also been marginalised in the masculine laughathon of ribald humour. However, both have etched out a niche for themselves as comedians in Tamil cinema and still find an audience on television.

Comedy in contemporary Tamil cinema is a mixed bag of slapstick humour bordering on the gross, vulgar jokes, double entendre, wisecracks, satire and social messages with a touch of lightness and plain pit-level buffoonery.

Vasanth notes that the long-time grouse of Tamil comic stars that they have not been accorded the status of industry top dogs has reduced somewhat after the launch of this strictly-fun-only channels. The big names from Tamil cinema and theatre, including Manobala, Madan Bob, Pandiarajan and Chinni Jayanth, get to hold court by anchoring their own shows on television.

If Sun TV shines, can its rival Kalaignar TV, dedicated to DMK supremo Karunanidhi in name, be eclipsed? Barely a fortnight after Aditya TV’s launch on February 22, Kalaignar TV’s new comedy channel, Sirippoli (the sound of laughter), was launched, with Tamil superstar Kamal Hassan (incidentally, a wit of no mean calibre himself) inaugurating the channel with much fanfare.

“For years, we have had channels dedicated to music, but comedy is intrinsic to our culture and we found that the comedy programmes in regular channels are hugely popular. Dedicated comedy channels seek to tap that potential,” says a programmer with Sirippoli.

The channel is putting together a blend of programmes that includes the top comedians from Tamil films, tours of small towns and districts where audiences are asked to pick their favourite funny sequences from Tamil cinema or clips from Chaplin’s silent films, and features with school and college students. “We give primacy to wit and not crude jokes,” assures a Sirippoli programming head.
Though not yet ready to divulge details, the channel’s programmers insist that both TRPs and advertising revenues have been encouraging. “Prime time viewership at nights remain high,” says an executive. The two channels have a committed audience among women, children and the elderly.

Currently, there are nearly 20 commercial Tamil channels, which have anyway had dedicated comedy shows since their inception. The typical programme format would have a flighty female anchor keeping up a steady prattle as comedy clips from cinema were telecast.
In the early 1990s, it would be clips of Janakraj, VK Ramasamy, Manorama or the monster-hit duo of Senthil and Goundamani. Over the past seven years or so, clips of the reigning funnies, Vivek or Vadivelu, predominate. And there’s always been a segment for the golden oldies, namely Nagesh, Thangavelu, Cho Ramasamy and NS Kalaivanar.

Siva Kumar, head of Social Media and Sirippoli says, “The comic programmes are a great stress-buster for viewers and hence, their instant popularity with audiences.”

Given the reception to Aditya channel, Sun network’s other regional language channels in Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam are set to follow the trend and launch their own comedy channels.

“Television is known more these days as the harbinger of bad news. These comedy channels will bring the smile back to our faces,” says Vasanth. And what a jolly good tickle that promises to be.