Having joined the comedy circuit a bit late, Tamil stand-up comedy is still in its infancy stage in the state. Yet, in the age where social media and online streaming platforms are becoming household staples, stand-up comedians in Chennai are carving out a niche for themselves in South India, particularly in Tamil Nadu.
Names such as Aravind SA, Karthik Kumar, Alexander Babu, Praveen Kumar, Jagan Krishnan, Annamalai Lakshmanan, Mervyn Rozario, and Guru Nicketan have become synonymous with millennials across Tamil Nadu, given their active presence on social media and constant references to pop culture and modern India in their stand-up comedy acts. The art has found its popularity with shows like Comicstaan Tamil and Asatha Povathu Yaaru.
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In a conversation with theatre actor Vinodhini Vaidyanathan, stand-up comedians Annamalai Lakshmanan, Jagan Krishnan, and Guru Nicketan discussed Tamil stand-up comedy culture in “Madras Uncensored,” a panel discussion which was conducted as a part of the ongoing week-long Madras Week celebrations in Chennai on August 19.
While the origin of Tamil stand-up comedy as a brand can be traced to three years ago, Annamalai Lakshmanan, the founder of Tanglish Comedy in 2016 observed that stand-up comedy in Tamil Nadu began through patti mandrams (a humourous debate between two teams in front of an audience) and is still evolving today in the age of modern stand-up comedy.
The type of comedy among Tamil stand-up comedians can vary from slapstick humour to satirical and self-deprecatory humour.
“Over the years, giving importance to a comedian and the laughter that he brings to the table through his acts has transformed into the Tamil stand-up comedy that we see today”, said Jagan Krishnan, a stand-up comedian with Evam Standup Tamasha.
“Earlier, people would just laugh at the jokes that we make. These days, they want to understand why they found the joke to be funny. So what works for one audience cannot work others”, added Jagan.
Guru Nicketan is popular among millennials for his Instagram handle, Nicketronix, where he uses pop culture references for memes catering to the young audience, particularly among those raised in Tamil Nadu. Speaking about using pop culture as a source for his memes and shows, he said, “I look at how relatable it is before I take something up. People who look at the meme get invested in it as they try to understand what it says and that is where the pop culture reference comes up.”
The artists went on to explain that providing Tamil humour can be a challenge while performing in front of a mixed regional audience, given the language barriers. In such situations, the artists perform in English for a while to cater to a section of the audience and then switch to Tamil for the resident crowd, thus bringing together a winning act and satisfying to all members of the audience.
How lucrative a profession is Tamil stand-up comedy though?
According to Jagan, most corporate shows prefer an English stand-up comedian over a Tamil comedian. “In the Tamil stand-up scene, the only way of earning is when people really want you. These days, the distinction between English and Tamil comedians have come down since more people understand the language and enjoy what the comedian presents. There has been a slow shift from English to Tanglish to Tamil stand-up comedy shows today.”
He further said: “Humour is tightly woven into the language. More often than not, things get lost in translation since there are certain emotions that cannot be translated into English. A joke that works in Tamil will not elicit the same amount of laughter when it is translated into English.”
According to Nicketan, it is important for the audience to support the art that the artist is presenting for an art form to grow. “People who attend shows these days want to know what they can get out of the experience, especially given that this generation is caught on validation trap on social media.”
“These days, tickets are being sold for the comedian and not the act. Having a genuine comedy fan who goes everywhere that the artist performs to see what the comedian is presenting is still evolving”, said Annamalai.
The artists all agreed that Chennai right now is at a place where the audience goes for a show because they know the person. “While the city has shed its conservative image, we will eventually get to a point where the people will go for the art and not just the artist”, said Nicketan.
How are expletives received among the audience?
“When we use swear words, the audience definitely feels uncomfortable, especially since a Tamil word hits a little closer to home. The first two times will be difficult but the third time, we forget about it and continue using the words. The audience too enjoy the show despite the expletives. It is purely an artistic choice”, said Annamalai.
According to Jagan, we, as people, develop humour in dark places. He added that most artists maintain a clean set for about 15 minutes into the show, following which they add in expletives to elicit humour from the crowd, especially if the crowd comprises college students.
“Rather than looking at it as a hindrance, I look at it as an avenue to expand. Moreover, the onus is on the artist if the place where they are performing requires a clean performance”, concluded Nicketan.
With stand-up comedy gaining popularity amongst youngsters for addressing politics, news and mental health in a satirical and lighter vein, it comes as no surprise that the art form is booming into a viable business today.