Amazon Prime’s first Indian original, Comicstaan, a talent hunt show for the next big names in the Indian comedy scene, returns for a second edition in July. The eight-episode show will feature 10 contestants try and impress some of the biggest names in the Indian comedy industry — Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kaneez Surka, Kenny Sebastian, Sumukhi Suresh, Neeti Palta, Zakir Khan and Kanan Gill. After a press conference announcing the season, Rath, Surka and Suresh sit together at the Marriott Hotel in Juhu and chat about what India finds funny, mentoring young talent, and whether vulnerability has a place in comedy. Excerpts:
The show is returning for a second season, with new contestants and a few new judges. Is there anything that has surprised you?
Biswa Kalyan Rath (BKR): I’m amazed by how fast people can grow when they are put under pressure. Typically, a comic spends the first year producing five minutes of good content; the second year, it’s a little more. Here, the contestants are producing five minutes a week.
Kaneez Surka (KS): Yes, and how they’ve adapted to so many different genres so quickly — from stand-up to improv and sketch — and doing it so well. They got it in one week and performed.
What does this show tell us about what India finds funny today?
Sumukhi Suresh (SS): We’re moving away from the standard jokes about sexism or cities, and the show is a chance to discover that there are a range of neutral topics to mine from.
BKR: There are two ways to answer this — one, by looking at the audience reaction, and the other from the judge’s chair. The upcoming comics are the voice of India. Having said that, India is a very big country, it’s very hard to say what the entire country finds funny. But we’re lucky to be able to perform here, there’s a fanbase for everything.
Can comedy be taught? If not, what is the mentor’s role?
SS: I don’t think it can be, but my role as a mentor is to help them further their skill set.
KS: The show is about the craft of comedy, which can’t be taught. But something like improv can be taught — there are rules and guidelines.
BKR: You can’t teach comedy as a concept, but you can debate a joke and elevate it. As mentors, we’re mostly figuring out as well; it’s mostly fixing, editing, restructuring, simple things like hold the mic closer.
Almost exactly a year before, Hannah Gadsby’s special, Nanette, broke the mould in stand up — it cut through the fat and showed us the white of the bone. Can that sort of intensely personal and visceral comedy work in India, a country that traditionally celebrates success and not our failures?
BKR: This is a tough question, because we have to try it first. I think it can work because people are the same everywhere, and the Indian audience is as good as the audience anywhere in the world. We don’t need to wonder about what genre that will be, because it will be its own thing.
KS: The trend in comedy, globally, is changing and moving from being a showman to something more vulnerable. It’s in vogue. When I do comedy, I’m not getting hung up on the laughs per minute, but it’s something that I want to say. I think comedy should be more layered: the jokes must be funny but also try and tell you something at the same time. Nanette is important because for the first time, we saw a woman bring something new to stand up — men have dictated the genre since the beginning. Gadsby’s show had a very female energy to it, and it is stand up, and that’s what I would like to achieve as a stand up comedian.
SS: Nanette is also a show that is based on a narrative of over 12 years or so. There are shows that explore that kind of vulnerability, but in stand up, to get to a point where you can do that, will take some time.