Career Focus

Stand-up comedy is serious business

The demand for stand-up comics in India is booming with market size likely to challenge the US and UK in the next few years - Sruthy Susan Ullas

Stand-up comedy is a live stage performance by a solo artiste committed to keeping her audience in good humour by relating wisecracks, memes and jokes drawn from her own experiences, popular culture and occasionally poking fun at the powers-that-be. Stand-up comedy is all about eliciting laughs from audiences in the mood for levity.

Historians trace the origins of stand-up comedy to New York City’s burlesque shows that flourished in the turn-of-century vaudeville theatres, featuring fast-paced comedy routines with ragtag crews of white Americans and immigrant workers for audience. Standard vaudeville gags focused primarily on “the female chase, money troubles, gold-digging wives and harping mothers-in-law”. With the advent of radio and television in 1927 and closure of many theatres, comedians moved their acts to intermissions of live musical stage shows and into nightclubs. 

In the 21st century, stand-up comedy has re-emerged as a popular form of entertainment worldwide and in India as well, with performances not merely restricted to pubs, bars and theatres but featuring in award functions, corporate programmes and private parties. Stand-ups are also sensations on social media, the Internet and television. An estimated 500 stand-up comedians are plying their trade in the Indian media and entertainment industry. Among the more popular are Kanan Gill, Kenneth Sebastian, Vir Das, Radhika Vaz, Aditi Mittal, Satish Perumal, and Rubi Chakravarthy. Prominent comedy groups include All India Bakchod and East India Comedy.

Study programmes

Obviously, comedians are rarely employed on the basis of their formal education qualifications although a liberal arts degree is useful. A good sense of humour, improvisation and quick wit, excellent scripting and communication skills, good memory, on-stage confidence and the ability to think on the run, are some attributes of a successful stand-up. A background in extra-curricular activities in school or higher education is also useful. Informal theatre workshops and online tutorials such as Stand Up Mastery by the late American comedian Ralphie May are recommended by most stand-ups. 

Inevitably, some American institutions offer courses in comedy, voice modulation, etc. Among them are the American Comedy Institute, New York, San Francisco Comedy College, University of South California’s Comedy at the School of Cinematic Arts.


Pay and progression

Newbie artistes usually start by charging Rs.5, 000 for a 30-45 minute performance. While lesser known local comics can expect to earn between Rs.20,000-50,000 per show at private events, veteran artistes demand — and get — Rs.4-5 lakh per show. 

Professional profile

“Comedy is serious business these days. The demand for stand-up comics in India is booming and over the next few years, we will be competing with the US and UK in terms of market size. But, it’s a challenging job — good scripting requires wide reading, patience and commitment. A four-minute joke can take over three months to perfect. Moreover, in India we also need to take extra care not to anger numerous religious, caste and minorities champions,” says Satish Perumal, a Bangalore-based stand-up comedian. 

An alum of the Bangalore-based Commits (Convergence Institute of Media, Management and Information Technology Studies) with six years’ work experience in the advertising industry, Perumal was attracted to this laughter and fun infusing vocation after watching an inspirational stand-up comedy show in 2013. He began by performing at open mic events staged in restaurants, pubs and coffee shops which encourage amateurs, to gauge public response and acceptance. Enthused with positive public response to his gags and gigs, he began performing at bigger events even as he continued to work in advertising. In 2016, he entered the comedy business full-time. Today, he charges Rs.50, 000 for a 30-minute show and performs over 100 shows per year. 

“My advice to aspiring stand-up comics is to devote time to scripting and thoroughly practicing lines before going live. Start by performing at open mic events before uploading memes on the Internet or performing live onstage. In this line of business timing and context are very important. Therefore time your quips, puns and word play, comic exaggerations and actions to perfection. To avoid audiences from filing defamation suits or extremist groups threatening you, play safe and stay away from taboo subjects such as religion and sex. Initially, this career may not guarantee a steady income but once you build a reputation it will more than pay the bills and you’ll love the public adulation,” he says.