Photo Credit: Abheet Gidwani/Amazon India
"I remember when I performed to warm up the audience, I felt intimidated on that stage,” says Mumbai-based comedian Sapan Verma, a co-founder of the comedy collective East India Comedy. "Holy shit, this is completely different from performing for a show. The studio is a much tougher room than say performing at a pub. Because the audience that comes in, first of all, they've come for a shoot. They're a little on the back foot already. They're like 10-12 cameras around. Fifteen production people are running around throughout. It's not like a comedy club, which is intimate."
Verma is talking to Gadgets 360 about Amazon's upcoming original Comicstaan, which premieres July 13 worldwide on Prime Video. It's the fourth 'Prime Original' from India, and the second reality TV show after the music-driven The Remix earlier this year. The nine-episode pre-taped series – shot mostly in a studio with a live audience – is about finding the next stand-up star, and Amazon has assembled seven established names to judge the whole thing: Tanmay Bhat, Kanan Gill, Kenny Sebastian, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Naveen Richard, Kaneez Surka, and of course Verma. Two others – Abish Mathew and Sumukhi Suresh – will serve as hosts.
For Amazon, and its producing partner Only Much Louder (OML) – the latter also manages the aforementioned comedians – Comicstaan essentially brings together a bunch that has created stand-up comedy specials in the past year for the former's streaming service. The two were looking to extend their partnership, says Prime Video India head Vijay Subramanian, and they settled on a reality TV format to bolster their offerings. "You're able to use the judges as a big draw but they're paying it forward," he adds. "They're actually mentoring new talent and helping lift the overall standard of comedy and bring a lot more people into it."
A big problem with those specials was the overlooked gender bias, with not a single one of those 14 announced at the beginning featuring a female comedian. (Amazon's first stand-up special with a female comedian – Sumukhi Suresh – will air later this year. Netflix, on the other hand, currently has a much better gender ratio among Indian comedians.) Comicstaan is only a notch above: only two of the nine big names are women, and just one of the seven judges. The problem lies with the slate at OML, which managed only two female comedians as of last year, when we spoke to its COO Ajay Nair.
The show fares only slightly better when it comes to its 10 contestants, of which three are women. Though they were picked from across India, with the judges touring comedy clubs and looking at video entries, most of them are from big cities, with nearly half from Mumbai itself. Unlike other reality shows, there will be no "eliminations" in Comicstaan. Instead, the chosen few will tackle seven different sub-genres of comedy – from improv to sketch – across episodes, with the scores being accumulated over time to crown a winner who takes home Rs. 10 lakh (one million).
"The idea is that every week, these guys will come on stage and perform a different art-form – sub-genres of comedy – which is very tough because normally you excel at one or two," Verma says. The seven judges will also serve as mentors, guiding and providing pointers on the genres they favour themselves best. That's topical comedy for the All India Bakchod co-founder Bhat, comedy of errors for Gill, storytelling for Rath, sketch comedy for the Bangalore-based Richard, and observational comedy for Verma, among others.
Being both judges and mentors requires having a healthy distance, which is why the seven only spent time with the contestants during the so-called 'mentorship week'. For Verma, that included a full-day workshop on observational comedy, teaching them how to develop jokes and then going through their bits individually, and giving them feedback after they performed at an open mic event in Mumbai. These moments will form a part of the episodes as two-minute vignettes, with the rest of it being the footage shot in the studio.
Most of the contestants had never even acted on stage prior to Comicstaan, says Richard, and stand-up itself was new to them. And on the show, they had to switch sub-genres every week, making it all the more challenging. "You can almost call it a nine-week crash course in comedy for them, because it was intense,” concurs Verma. Despite the herculean task, he adds, they saw them grow over the 2-3 months of filming.
The growth "is visible and tremendous," says fellow comedian Gill. "As an audience member, you can see like 'Holy shit! Week to week, these people are getting better!'." Verma is quick to note that it was an up-and-down curve since someone who is good at improv comedy might not be as good at sketch comedy or vice versa and then remarks: "It wasn't like someone was killing it throughout."
But it's not just the contestants who learnt from the process. "We went in thinking, 'Eh, we're just going to judge a bunch of shit, and it's going to be easy'," Richard says. "But we're also comedians, we can't help but empathise if someone doesn't do well. We know how hard it is." For Gill, it was realising that a pre-filmed production – as opposed to the live sets that he's used to doing – requires you to think before you talk and keep your feedback to a minimum.
There's also a learning aspect for the audience, both Verma and Richard feel. Comicstaan integrates a variety of art-forms, and the former thinks most viewers don't really know about the seven sub-genres. But if you watch the show, "you'll learn how these forms work. If you watch American Idol, you're not going to learn how to sing [or] get a theory on singing," Richard adds. "Here you'll get some theory. You'll get to see what each of the genres mean, and how each of them works."
Comicstaan premieres Friday, July 13 on Amazon Prime Video with the first four episodes, with a new episode airing every week thereafter.