'Women comics face more pressure than their male counterparts'
Sumukhi Suresh, Prashasti Singh and Urooj Ashfaq on the ‘women in comedy’ tag and being on Comedy Premium League
Comedy Premium League streamed its final episodes recently. The six-part show, on Netflix, cycled 16 comedians through multiple comedy formats. They mimicked, trash-talked, and poked pungent fun at each other. While audience experience is divided, the contestants seemed to have a good time. Three of them—Sumukhi Suresh, Prashasti Singh and Urooj Ashfaq, all distinct voices in the Indian comedy scene—spoke to Cinema Express about their experience on the show and standup culture at large.
Excerpts from a conversation…
There was little camaraderie to be seen in Comedy Premium League. The game got really aggressive at times.
Prashasti: We never thought of it like that going in. But during the course of the show, we certainly got there. Also, since we were in teams, we could be aggressive together.
Urooj: In the environment of the show, I did get a lot competitive. I think we got serious once the scores started coming in. We were like, “Yeh beizzatee hum nahi sah sakte (we can’t take this humiliation)!”
Which format did you find the most challenging to perform?
Sumukhi: The debate round. It was not meant to attack the concept of the universe. It was to attack our souls (laughs). The opposing team was determined to send us back crying.
Prashasti: The same for my team. At one point, I started using sexual words to get laughs. It did not work.
All of you lean into your personal experiences when performing standup. Is it easy to reflect your life in a set?
Urooj: It’s easy to start with personal stories. We all begin with a black-and-white perspective. A guy broke your heart and you do a set about it. But then your life experiences get complicated. For instance, how do you write something around death anxiety without bumming the audience out? But that’s the challenge.
How do you guys test jokes before a performance?
Sumukhi: At open-mics, I just ask whoever is backstage (laughs). There is also Instagram. Mostly, I prefer to speak to non-comics because you want to know if the audience is thinking as hard as you are.
Prashasti: I’ve often shared jokes with my friends and they’ve told me it’s really bad. At first, I assume they are not getting it. But then I go on stage and it falls equally flat. Somehow, I just have to say it on stage to really know.
Thinking of that, there are a lot of people who are funny in life. But you put them on stage and they start bombing. Why do you think that happens?
Urooj: Most people stop going on stage after failing once. When you start out as a comic, you just aren’t good. That’s how it is. In a five-minute spot, you’ll probably get two or three laughs. What distinguishes funny people from people who want to be standup comedians is that the second group will always come back.
Sumukhi: Comics usually are okay to make fools of themselves. Our lives don’t stop if someone doesn’t laugh at our jokes. There is both good bombing and bad bombing.
Prashasti: Humiliation is the great differentiator.
What is the weirdest crowd-work experience you had recently?
Sumukhi: I did a corporate show and I was having a great time. But there was this man sitting out front. I asked him why is he looking a little sombre. “I am waiting for it to get better,” he said. “Your life or my comedy?” I asked and he was like… “Both!” That day I felt like I should go back to my old job.
Urooj: Before the lockdown, I was performing at a big outdoor venue. People were quite drunk by then. I was doing some jokes on being Muslim and my perspective on it. There were a bunch of uncles who started heckling me and chanting a certain politician’s name. They went on loudly and repeatedly. I aimed all the jokes I could at them but they were relentless. Finally, I decided to stop and leave. It got too attack-y to continue.
As individual artists, does the ‘women in comedy’ question get tiring after a while? It's tricky in a country like India where there’s never enough representation.
Urooj: Yes, the question does get exhausting. At the same time, like you said, no discourse is enough discourse. We are still stuck at the basic level where audiences are asking, ‘Are women funny?’ So the amount of pressure we have to not fail publicly is a lot more than it would be for a guy.
Prashasti: I come from an IT-MBA background. I used to think why do we need to wave the ‘women in comedy’ flag. There are problems everywhere. But one thing I’ve figured over time is that we are a vocal profession. We can talk for other women, and bring out what a lot of them are going through. So I understand why this question keeps coming up.
Sumukhi: Of late I’ve realized that the whole ‘female comedy’ tag has become a genre of comedy. Which is not right. We all have different voices. If you give that benefit to male comics, then why not us? It’s not enough to just talk about there being less female comics. We are also a working professional group that’s generating business. Our talent is translating into real money. It’s not just a social issue anymore.