Every profession went the extra mile to fight the lockdown blues. This came with a low appetite to take risks and keep work as normal as possible. Among these, stand up comedy, however, was one of the most challenging. Comedians had to reinvent their ways of entertaining. Today, one wakes up to news of disaster and despair every other day. Comedy is often the only place of solace. The only corner in the abyss, where there’s happiness to be found. Even the darkest saddest scenarios need a laugh periodically, and that folks, is comic relief. Abbas Momin, tells us how stand up comedy had to revamp its game. This stand-up comedian has produced two of India's leading podcasts. 'Cyrus Says' - hosted by funnyman Cyrus Broacha and 'The Seen and the Unseen' hosted by award-winning journalist Amit Varma.
The lockdown: a game-changer for stand up comedy
It is safe to say that the lockdown stumped comedians. This genre of artists is habituated to a room full of applause and laughter. Abbas Momin who has performed at renowned venues such as The Canvas Laugh Club, Blue Frog and NCPA in Mumbai, recounts just how much of a turn-off the lockdown was. “In the first month and a half since the lockdown, it was seemingly difficult to come up with new thoughts or jokes since pretty much everybody's lives turned upside down within a matter of days.”
“Over time, however, I started venturing outside my comfort zone as far as the show business was concerned. Comedians and stand up comedy programmers had started organizing some shows on Zoom. I decided to participate in these and the feeling was amazing!”
The wheels of comedy got clacking again
The Zoom shows were great and while Abbas was getting comfy with the whole ‘digital’ show experience, a new tricky bit emerged. “The audiences that were logging in to Zoom shows were repeat audiences. This meant writing about 60-70% new jokes every time since they'd heard the older jokes in the previous shows. Thus, I pushed myself to write new material. Once I gave myself the chance, newer observations and thoughts started developing in my mind regarding our lives in the last 4 months.”
So what about the times he hit a creative block! “There was one quote I kept thinking of "It doesn't need to be perfect, it just needs to exist".”
Being politically correct v/s entertainment
The impending question every comedian has felt daunted by multiple times in his career, is how much is too much. Deciphering the fine line that exists between entertainment and political satire. While the term ‘political correctness’ has caused upheaval in the past, it is important to understand what this refers to. A pejorative term, it is used today by targeted groups to play the victim card. The likely synonym today for political correctness is human decency.
“If you were to ask me about this said political correctness 3-4 years ago, I would've said there should be no self-censorship from the comedian for anything. But the reality is we live in a country where people, political parties, authorities etc. take offence at the drop of a hat. Add to that the media, that almost always takes the side of the offence taker. This because by and large mainstream media in India does not have any principle.”
Abbas, who has written articles for publications like Rolling Stone India, Conde Nast, Man’s World and J.A.M. says that it is a taxing fight for the artist. “I think comedians in India have to try even harder to write material that gets their point across, while at the same time being able to skirt away from controversy.”
He speaks of the scepticism he faces while writing scripts. “Apart from the risk of getting into legal hassles and becoming a part of the media circus, my views and opinions about things change as I learn more about them. When I am writing material where I feel something might be problematic, I try and run it by someone who belongs to that group or knows that subject well.”
The future of stand up comedy
Abbas has been a part of the line up at the Weirdass Pajama Festival and the Masala Mayhem Comedy Festival. He is accustomed to being out there, in the middle of the madness! Watching the crowds erupt in laughter and doing a live show that goes well into the night. Now, this comedian finds himself in his space at home, in front of a screen. And it is safe to say, this will be the new norm, at least for a while.
“I think the entire creative community has no other option but to adapt to the digital sphere, given that there's really no clarity when live performances will be back. Artists perform as much for the audience as for themselves. We can't really stifle ourselves for a year or more. I am not the most tech-savvy person but even I am slowly starting to realize the opportunities that doing shows over a laptop or a phone, provides.”
Comedy goes digital
Speaking of the opportunity that technology offers, he recounts when he was doing a digital show a couple of nights back. A comedian friend used the 'share screen' option on Zoom by making a humorous powerpoint presentation to go along with his jokes. “It's quite fascinating!” he chivvies.
Having written for live shows including the GQ Men Of The Year Awards and Event & Entertainment Management Awards (EEMAX), Abbas has also worked as a senior producer at IVM Podcasts, and been big in the business for a long time. He says so far things have been good. “Audiences have surprisingly adapted very well to the online shows, but I think artists will have to keep updating and reinventing themselves. The only thing I am certain of is that the online live comedy show format is here to stay. Even when live shows come back, I believe a certain section of the audience who have experienced comedy shows from the comfort of their homes, might not opt to go through the ordeal of travelling and traffic for the live shows.”