In a year when everybody needed a good laugh to weather the pandemic blues, the country’s nascent stand-up comedy industry rose to the challenge, even if it was more of sit-down comedy through digital rectangles. A month after the country first went into lockdown, unsure of what would happen to their beloved profession, stand-up comics drew up their chairs, opened their laptops, turned on their digital savviness, and began cracking jokes into the ether that is the internet. “Even the best of the best have to keep at the craft so that your machinery is oiled. So, we all jumped on to the Zoom bandwagon,” says Mumbai-based stand-up comic Varun Thakur, referring to performing shows on the video-conferencing application. Delhi-based Papa CJ is no stranger to a global crisis as a stand-up comic. He was an upcoming artist when the 2008 financial crisis ate up entertainment budgets all over the world.

He adds, “If we liken the pandemic to cancer, the 2008 financial crisis was a pimple in comparison.” While firms may have had a budget crunch in 2008, when you got a gig, it was still a live show, he says, adding, “With Covid, we have had to adapt to a completely different format of delivery, which, in turn, has changed the very nature and dynamics of stand-up.” A stand-up comedian feeds off the audience’s laughs and energy. It’s why most of them say they do what they do. Bereft of a stage and a live audience, it hasn’t been a smooth ride. “Honestly, I do not like doing shows online,” says Thakur, known for moving around a lot on stage and enacting scenes during a set. “The minute you put me in front of a laptop on a chair, it’s a little weird at first. The first few Zoom shows, I wasn’t enjoying them. They’re just not the same,” he says.

There are technical glitches to contend with, too. Comic Sahil Shah from Mumbai narrates an incident when he once did a show where someone flushed a toilet in the background. But, with time, they adapted to the new format. Viewers learnt better than to talk to their folks at home with their mics on during a show. The comics learnt to engage with their viewers instead of just doing their bit, and walking off. Looking past the obvious restrictions, many comics even focused on some new-found benefits. “One show of mine had somebody from the US, UK, Delhi, the northeast, and Singapore. This has never happened when I did a live show in Mumbai. Because of digital shows, we reached out to a lot more people simultaneously across continents,” says Thakur. He says viewers tuned in from smaller cities, too.

For Chennai-based stand-up comic Aravind SA, however, the only geographical barrier being broken is South Indians living in the US also being able to click on a link and watch the show. “It’s hard for a comedian to have an international profile where people from different backgrounds show up. In India, comedy works the way it works only because of the relatability factor. Few comedians can claim to have different races and ethnicities sit in their shows,” he explains. The 33-year-old, known popularly as SA, is one of the few comedians to have a solo special show release on Amazon Prime Video during the pandemic, bringing him enough audience engagement automatically, even without having to do many online shows. But staying in public memory is paramount for a comedian, and several of them have experimented with short videos, character bits, live-streamed chat shows and podcasts to engage with their fan base on social media platforms. Danish Sait’s viral series on lockdown conversations, and Abhishek Kumar’s ‘Mrs Janaki’ videos, a hit with the southern viewers, are prime examples. They have also had a creative outlet in OTTs, with many of them testing the waters for a career in the larger entertainment space even pre-pandemic. There is no doubt that newer avenues are opening for comedians, given the explosions of social media, OTT platforms, and media consumption.

Thakur, who appeared in the 2020 Netflix Hindi comedy series Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, says he always wanted to act. “For me, both comedy and acting journeys started simultaneously, and I won’t give up either. He continues, “You have a phone in your hand. That itself can make your career, like we have seen with so many TikTok or Instagram stars. Auditioning is not the only way now. All these clips are essentially an audition for something else.” Opportunities aside, SA says there is also openness among people to accept stand-up comedians dabbling in different things, because the viewers are also stuck at home all day, consuming all possible content on the internet. “But is that enough to sustain and survive, and will it convert into something more feasible? There’s no guarantee,” he adds. Dhruv Sheth, CEO of comedy management firm OML, says TV shows and digital avenues were always open for comedians. “The timing has been the difference. A lot of our comics have come out of the pandemic with scripts written, which they are now trying to get commissioned by a platform. And a lot more of them have converted to these mediums now.” OML manages over 60 comedians in the country. Sheth says they always encouraged their artistes to do multiple things, giving examples of web shows like Pushpavalli and Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare, starring Sumukhi Suresh and Zakir Khan, respectively. “This is the way comedians in the West also work. Standup is the nucleus that holds everything together. Everything is fed in by stand-up, and feeds back into stand-up.” But the comics are raring to go back on stage again and they are unanimous that despite all avenues, stand-up comedy is not going anywhere. “The second things start opening up, you’ll see all comedians out there doing shows. Once more people are inoculated, the demand will bounce right back up,” says Thakur. Several of them are already back on stage, more so in Delhi and Mumbai than in other cities. “Now, the audience has also dwindled on digital shows, as things are opening up,” says Shah, who is back to doing live shows. Comedy clubs have also opened to partial occupancy, and are accepting bookings a few weeks in advance, as compared to months in advance pre-pandemic.

Owner of Mumbai’s The Habitat and Above The Habitat comedy clubs, Balraj Singh Ghai, says he lost out on hosting more than 280 shows from March to October. The two venues can accommodate 210 people totally. But when clubs opened between October and mid-January, the venues have hosted 120 comedy shows, he adds. “Only four shows were cancelled for a lack of turnout. Most others were sold out at and only a few were at 50 per cent of the capacity we expected,” Singh says, adding that comedian Zakir Khan did 12 shows, all sold out, 75 tickets per show. OML’s Sheth also says that Khan has been the artiste with the highest turnout so far — 100 people showing up in a 350-seater venue. He expects the turnout to go up to 250-300 a show by February once auditoriums also open up. Big guns like Khan, who has a 20-city tour planned, will attract even more numbers once they start touring, he adds. Clubs are also experimenting with show formats and ticket cost structure to attract more audience. Ghai says he removed the food and beverage cost from the ticket price and, instead, lined up more acts to give the audience more bang for their buck. For the performers, too, it’s a good time to be back on stage, says Shah. “The audience is desperate to laugh. So far, all the live shows I’ve done have been phenomenal because they laughed really loudly. It’s a relief for them. For us, it’s a bigger relief.” He says performers now carry their own mics as a precaution. Chennai’s SA says that there are hardly any open mics or comedy events in the city. But in February, he hopes to workshop the material for his next show, which he wrote during the pandemic. But comedians are realistic about 2021, with the Covid-19 vaccination drive only just beginning. It’s going to be a year of transition, with a hybrid model of live and digital shows, they say.

“I will definitely continue doing digital shows because after a year of doing it, I’ve become better at it. It is also super cost-effective as compared to a live show,” says Thakur. He says it’s also a good way to test material instead of going to open mics, where there are many performers vying for space. “Of course, practising on Zoom is very different from practising live. Still.” The pandemic has certainly disrupted stand-up comedy for good. “Earlier, the audience used to come to our shows. Now, we have to take the shows to the audience,” says SA. He now prefers touring with his special only for six months or 20 shows in whichever country allows him to, and releasing it online as quickly as possible, instead of touring for two years and doing 100 shows. “This is pretty much a sign of our times. This just means that we are going to get more material out of our system faster, because the turnaround time is short,” he says. “The first time I performed after venues opened, the adrenaline rush I felt after being cooped up at home — if I could bottle every laugh I got, I would have taken it home. I won’t take my audience for granted anymore, even if it’s just five people,” says Shah. Pandemic or no pandemic, the resounding refrain is that digital shows are no replacement for performing live.