At its most basic form, Standup Comedy is an absurd art form.
To go up on stage (and people like Jerry Seinfeld have said this in more eloquent terms), and try to get laughs from strangers, by spilling out the insides of your mind is absolutely weird. Jokes themselves are so subjective – they can either change your world-view, or get you shot in the head by fanatics.
The closest art form is probably singing – you go up on stage, you have a mic, an audience. You have words, and use tunes and tones to communicate. But that is where the similarity ends. A singer can replicate another singer’s song, and is appreciated for how close the singer comes to the original.
In any other art form (cinema, theatre, sports), you have a team working with you. Your success is dependent on how they collaborate with you. Your failures too, can be divided equally. That’s not the case with stand-up.
It is you, standing alone in a dark room of strangers in front of you. They are your thoughts, your words, your performance. Forget sounding like someone else, if you ever tell a joke that belongs to any other comic in the world, it’s the death-knell of your career. Forget copying a joke, even a similar strain of thought could mean THE END, beautiful friend.
It is this auteristic nature of Standup comedy that makes it unique. There is no team to fall back on, no companions who will see you through. There are friends, of course, but they cannot get on stage with you, or for you.
In other forms, you can always come back. You could muff through the first half of a match, and make a heroic return in the next. You could screw up the first two paras of a song, and come back with a terrific solo in the end. In standup, the audience’s laughter is the only validation. You need validation every few seconds. If the audience does not connect to you in the first few minutes,
fat healthy chance of them doing so in a while.
Also, the context to the art form. You could be the greatest standup comedian in the world, but a newbie from Warangal could steal your thunder on his day and sell it in the black market for 250 bucks.
There are two terms used in Standup – ‘kill’ and ‘bomb’. (Trust comics to use two such terms to describe how they fare!). To ‘kill’ is to do well – to have a good show and get laughs. Of course, kill has other superlatives – murder, destroy, aatank, etc.
On the other end of the spectrum is – ‘to bomb’. To have a shit-show, to muff and fumble and mumble and grumble.
Of course, a lot has been said, written and filmed about ‘killing’ – the success and the glitz of standup. There are books written, shows made, films shot – there is modern folklore associated with successful standup stories.
But nobody talks about bombing. About standing on stage alone and watching your words fizzle out into a silent audience. About standing alone on a stage with your mic, with hundreds of people looking at you, and then slowly looking into their phones.
At one level, bombing is beautiful.
It is like yellow fever – you cannot predict when it’s going to come. It happens to the best, and it happens (more frequently) to the worst. It comes unannounced on some days, and on other, it RSVPs its attendance days in advance. There are days when you expect to bring the roof down, but end up swimming in a sea of silence.
I obviously can not claim to speak for standup comedians in general, and this is where the blog becomes personal.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen me perform, but my jokes are not really family friendly. I don’t know why or how that has come about. Perhaps it is the shock, or the audacity of such jokes that make them such an integral part of my shallow quiver. Or perhaps it was the silly joy in cracking a ‘non-veg’ joke that has somehow shaped who I am as a person.
Which is why I don’t have a great strike rate when it comes to events that ask for ‘clean humour’. ‘Clean comedy’ is an albatross that hangs around every comedian’s neck (I am unsure if that’s the right metaphor – but it looks dramatic enough!). There is money on offer – lots of money – if you’re willing to toe the line.
There are corporate shows – shows for corporate India – mostly bored corporate employees who have been tricked by their HR into an illusion of a good time at an expensive hotel. I can see a bad show coming. Whether it comes announced or unannounced, when you get up on stage – you just know!
For a show to work, there are a number of factors that need to work – I don’t mean the sound and lights and other such paraphernalia. The audience has to be in the right frame of mind, they need to be on the same bandwidth – since a joke is always going to poke fun at somebody or something. They must also belong to your socio-eco-cultural surroundings because standup is subjective and contextual. And to top it all, the audience needs to find what you’re saying funny (or at the very least – stimulating/entertaining enough).
So, how does it feel?
It feels crushing. Absolutely heart-wrenching. You have nobody to blame – it is you, thoughts that emanated from your head, told in your voice. And the silence that ensues – is all yours! The humiliation is deeply personal. It is embarrassing, shameful even.
Like a number of tourists who walk towards a man selling clinkets on a bicycle, stare and ask about every product, and casually walk past without buying a thing. There is no redemption, no salvation. There are no second takes, or peppier second-halves. It’s just you, and the mic, and the silence through which you can hear your soul being ripped apart.
So, what do you do?
You feel the sweat trickle down the back of your neck, and patches of sweat in your underarms. You continue to look at the audience, and find a few people looking at you with sympathy – hoping you do well, but curious to see how cringey it can get. You can see in their eyes a rich blend of curiosity and sympathy.
You stand and you take it. You wade through the soul-crushing sorrow and do your time on stage. You soak it all in, say goodbye, and rush out. You smoke a ton of cigarettes and wonder what went wrong.
You wonder why anybody would subject themselves to this? Why would someone put themselves on stage in front of strangers and think they’re funny? Why??
But later, you meet your comedian friends and tell them of the ordeal. And the first thing your friends will do – no matter which city or what age – is laugh. They will laugh long and hard – more than all the laughter that you could have got, if the show had gone well.
And then, you realise it’s alright. They’ve gone through it too, or probably will. That if you cannot see the funny side of your failure, why would you even want to be a comic in the first place?
And then you smile and go back home. Wondering what a strange fucking profession this is.
Strange. But nice.