Standing up for Comedy - Abish Mathew, Neeti Palta, Kaneez Surka and Sumukhi Suresh talk Comicstaan Season 2
Abish Mathew, Neeti Palta, Kaneez Surka and Sumukhi Suresh talk Comicstaan season 2, the symbiosis of web and comedy, censorship qualms, and the increased representation of female comics in India
The mentors and creators of Comicstaan do not view the show as mere reality TV. To them, the Amazon Prime Video show represents an institution, a one-stop ‘comedy school’ meant to scout, train, and empower future stand-ups. Those who have watched the first season, which aired last year, would recognise the intent here. “I don’t think there’s any formal training for comedy in the country. We really hope the show becomes an institution that generates more and more comics,” says producer Dhruv Sheth of OML Entertainment.
Renewed last year, the second season of Comicstaan is set to premiere on July 12, with new episodes coming every Friday. The show’s format has been kept intact: 10 contestants will be mentored in different genres, ranging from anecdotal to observational to alternative comedy. Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kanan Gill, Kenny Sebastian, and Kaneez Surka have returned as judges. They are joined by new entrants Zakir Khan and Neeti Palta. Sumukhi Suresh, who co-hosted the first season, will serve as a judge this year, leaving emceeing duties to Abish Mathew and Urooj Ashfaq. Missing from the panel are Tanmay Bhat and Sapan Verma, who were accused of misconduct during the #MeToo movement. Additionally, comic Naveen Richard has also skipped this season.
According to the makers, the new season witnessed a major spike in the talent pool, entries for which opened in August last year. “Since the first season was so popular, people came in more prepared. Nobody was being mediocre,” says Abish whose standup special Whoop! and talk-show Son of Abish are streaming on Amazon Prime. “As a platform, Amazon has been a huge support to our industry. There’s a lot more legitimacy to our careers because of them. Ten years back, no one knew what stand-up was. The OTT revolution really solidified this subculture. So it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Hailing from Delhi, Neeti Palta is ranked among the top female stand-ups in India. On the show, she mentored contestants on ‘topical comedy’ — a popular subset of satirical comedy meant to poke fun at relevant issues. “I kept reminding them not to pick a small news article and make a joke. For instance, if someone’s talking about a penguin dying in a zoo, they must connect it to a broader process like global warming. That way, the humour holds true for longer.” On the issue of self-censorship, Neeti adds, “We had a lot of creative freedom on the show. There were no do's-and-don’ts of performance. Some of the jokes in the trailer give you a sense of that.”
Besides alt comedy, another lesser-known genre Comicstaan helped popularise was ‘improv’. Unlike traditional theatre, improv is performed unscripted, with two or more actors building up a scene as they go along. Kaneez Surka, who has been performing and teaching the craft since 2009, shares, “Improv is not about making a joke on the spot. It’s about building a story together. The ‘funny’ comes from being truthful and honest to the scene.” Outside of Comicstaan and her live shows, Kaneez is also scripting a web show based on her personal life. “It’s about my marriage and divorce. I want to act in it as well.”
A close cousin of improv is ‘sketch comedy’, tutored in the show by Sumukhi Suresh. The actor-comedian credits her experience on Pushpavalli — an Amazon original series she created and starred in — for furthering her grasp on the subject. “I got better at writing arcs because of that show. Also, my performance skills grew. Stand-up comedians are so used to speaking in one direction, they forget there are other cameras around. That’s one mistake I told the contestants not to make.”
Sumukhi is happy with the increased representation of female comics on the show, and in the industry in general. “Right now, Aditi Mittal and Anu Menon are the only ones with a one-hour special out. Comicstaan season 2 inspired me to write my hour and tour with it. More of us need to be out there. It’s an exciting time,” she says.