In early October last year, Mumbai-based advertising professional Mahima Kukreja publicly outed stand-up comedian Utsav Chakraborty, once a staff writer at the comedy collective All India Bakchod, for his repeated sexual harassment offences over the years. That kicked off an avalanche of accusations in India’s booming comedy scene, which would help give rise to the country’s belated #MeToo movement. It caused the collapse of AIB later that month, after two of its co-founders — Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba — were accused of similar behaviour, either through their actions or the lack of them.
A month later, Amazon India dropped both Bhat and Khamba from their commitments at Prime Video, which included the former’s presence as a judge and mentor on the comedy reality competition series Comicstaan, and the latter’s position as creator and head writer on the in-the-works political satire series Gormint. As the second season of Comicstaan — out July 12 on Prime Video — nears its release, that’s the cloud hanging over it. But it’s not the only #MeToo-related association for the Amazon series.
Both aforementioned shows are produced by the Mumbai-headquartered artist and event management firm Only Much Louder, which was itself dragged under the #MeToo spotlight a few weeks prior to Amazon’s decision with respect to Bhat and Khamba, for the company’s alleged problematic work culture, treatment of women, and the harassment carried out by former senior executives. In a statement issued shortly after, OML claimed that the report was “cherry-picking” incidents from its eight-year-old history and using that “to paint a biased, one-sided picture”.
Amazon Prime Video has a long-standing relationship with OML in India, going back to its early days in the country. OML produces over a dozen stand-up comedy specials each year for the streaming service, alongside other shows such as scripted originals in Biswa Kalyan Rath-created Laakhon Mein Ek, the Zakir Khan-created Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare, and unscripted fare like Comicstaan.
Why would Amazon distance itself from Bhat and Khamba, but not take a closer look at its partnership with OML? An insider told Gadgets 360 that the fact that the incidents detailed in the report involved ex-employees and pertained to a time-frame before Amazon came on board played a part. Prime Video’s India head and content chief Vijay Subramaniam told Gadgets 360: “The article alluded to [OML] at a point in time of which we had no perspective on.”
Pressed on whether Amazon had discussions with OML pertaining to the allegations, Subramaniam wondered whom they were supposed to have “a conversation with” and added: “We hold the highest standards of ethics and behaviour, and we don’t tolerate any such behaviour when proven. And you’ve seen [with Bhat and Khamba] that we’ve taken the appropriate action where necessary. I’m not clear as to what exactly you mean, conversations with whom?”
But did the #MeToo movement have any effect on how they approached Comicstaan season 2? “[Bhat’s removal] was the extent of the impact that it had insofar as our selection goes,” Subramaniam said.
For some of the comedians involved, it was more than that, as Comicstaan host Abish Mathew noted: “We became slightly more conscious about what kind of jokes you want to crack, right? You could see that all of us ourselves are like, ‘Hey, is this joke fine?’ Like Neeti came up to me and said, ‘Is this joke fine?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, this is great in your voice, not my voice.’ What it really did is that it made like all of us socially aware, and we were like, ‘Okay, let’s be a little more aware of how the jokes happen.’ Instead of, ‘Kuch bhi bol de’ [‘Just say whatever’], you are a little more conscious about what you’re about to say.”
Neeti Palta, a New Delhi-based comedian who’s a new judge on Comicstaan season 2, said that contestants behaved differently during her mentoring session on topical comedy: “A lot of the guys were like, ‘Is this joke appropriate?’ And for me, that is a huge step like, because people are thinking. They’re just putting it through a filter of, ‘Okay, is this offensive? Is this okay?’”
“Yeah, like self-censorship is now [more in place],” Mathew chimed in. “It’s always supposed to be but now, people are more conscious about it. Personally, all of us are like, ‘Oh wait, let’s, let’s see if that joke runs well, with example, Neeti, Kaneez [Surka] or Sumukhi [Suresh].” Surka and Sumukhi also serve as judges and mentors on Comicstaan.
“If they’re okay with it, then I’m like, ‘Okay, good, at least now my conscious is a part of it. Four of us approved this, then we go ahead with it.’ But you know, what’s important? That conversation started.”
Not everyone is of the same opinion though, as Suresh noted that these questions about being sensitive “have been coming always. As someone who works with a lot of these comics in terms of writing and acting, I feel very nice because a lot of boys come and be like, ‘Listen, is it okay if I say this?’ This was even before [#MeToo]. And gladly that continued. I don’t think that came from, ‘Listen, this is happening, thus’, which makes it feel a little less genuine. All of these guys, and girls, by the way [on Comicstaan season 2] have been sensitive.”
Sitting next to Suresh, Surka said that she added an explicit request for consent in her improv workshop, which also preceded the #MeToo movement in India: “As a character, if you want to touch another person on-stage, you as your character has to offer consent first. So even if you’re playing a creepy, sleazy guy, like ‘Ae ladki [Hey girl], can I put my hand on your shoulder?’ And she says no…”
“No, but you can talk to me for two minutes,” Suresh said in response, continuing the improv act, to which Surka replied: “’Okay, then I’ll talk to you for two minutes.’ Even as your character, the rule is now: you’ve to ask for consent as a character. So that’s something I added in the last year in my improv.”
A push for more women — and new judges
On the first season of Comicstaan, Surka was the only female judge out of a total of seven. Thanks to the inclusion of Suresh and Palta, there are now three female judges on Comicstaan season 2, a step in the right direction. Given the upheaval in the Indian comedy space owing to #MeToo, a cynic might look at the new line-up and conclude it’s an attempt by the powers that-be to appear more aware and whitewash their image.
“I buy [that idea],” Suresh said. “But you know why there was a difference here? Because a good amount of content that I put out is with Amazon, so they know what I’m doing. They’ve seen me struggle through my season one [of Pushpavalli] and now with the future seasons and Comicstaan [season] one where I was hosting for the first time. […] I have been pumped up to a judge not because of any man or any woman around us [but] because of what I bring to the table.”
For Palta, it was more about what the job entailed: “It was a little daunting to judge comedy because for me, comedy is very subjective. Honestly, I felt a little fake sitting there saying, ‘Oh, this is good’, or ‘This is not good.’ [The contestants are] actually all really good. And they get like one week to master one genre. And then they reboot and start on the next one. So when I was mentoring, I was exhausted in that one week. And I don’t know how they reboot and do it again, all over again, in a brand-new genre with brand new set again. It’s crazy.”
“I remember clearly everyone telling me, ‘Listen, you have to come up with your personality,’” Suresh said on the topic. She listened to Surka and Kenny Sebastian, another fellow judge whom she’s worked with before, for advice. “[Kenny] knows that I’m very stickler for stage hygiene, performance, mic being there. He’s like, ‘These are your quirks. Make sure that you gauge people based on that.’ I think that really helped me out, to make sure that my personality as a judge was interesting.”
While Suresh moved from being a host to a judge across the two seasons of Comicstaan, others like Mathew stayed in the role simply because “I just love hosting,” he said. “And I personally think I’m a good host,” to which Palta, sitting next to him, agreed. Mathew noted how his experience with the variety show he hosts, Son of Abish, helped.
“On top of that, one of the major things that people don’t realise is that [Comicstaan is] a live show, right? When it gets edited, it’s edited for an audience. And I have that experience to run any kind of a room. I can do that really well. If I sit on the other side with the judges, it is way more stressful when your [mentoring] week comes. But at the same time, I won’t enjoy doing it. I would like it, [but] it’s a great retirement plan for me. Till the time I’ve got energy, I am going to host.”
“Also, I think I enjoy [hosting] because it’s just two of us, right?” Mathew noted. On season 1, he hosted with Suresh, and on season 2, his new partner is Mumbai-based comedian Urooj Ashfaq. “There’s always like this back and forth. ‘What do you think? Yeh karna hai ki nahi karna hai?’ [‘Do you want to do this or not?’]”
“And then we have so many inside jokes,” Mathew added. “By the way, the hosts have our own show going, which nobody knows. If you just take the recording of the judges sitting there laughing and commenting with the mics on, it’s — Ozzy Man Reviews is going on there.” Ozzy Man Reviews is a popular YouTube channel, which features former Australian stand-up comedian Ethan Marrell providing foul-mouthed satirical commentary on everything from Game of Thrones to weather reports.
“I really do enjoy [hosting],” Mathew remarked. “Unfortunately, hosting and judging always, in the context of people, comes in a hierarchy form. And to be honest, 10 years into this industry, at this point now, I don’t care about it. I’m like, ‘Ho gaya yaar, main das saal se kar raha hu ab. Mereko improve karne ki zaroorat nahi hai.’ [‘Enough, I’ve been doing this for 10 years now. I’ve no need to improve.’]”
Mentoring, and in turn, learning
While Mathew was happy in his groove, for his former co-host Suresh, the switch to the other side provided new opportunities: “I was excited about my mentoring session. I mentored sketch comedy, and I enjoy acting and writing sketches. I was really, really looking forward to that. And that was extremely good because I learned a lot about sketches myself, while I was figuring out how to tell [the contestants]. In terms of a skill level, I found judging [a level higher] for me.”
During Comicstaan season 2, Suresh discovered that some in the industry believe sketch comedy to be easy, which came as a shock to her: “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s very cute of you.’ And I’m very [aggressive] generally so I was like, ‘[You’ve] 15 minutes, why you don’t do sketch for me?’, and they’re like ‘Okay, ma’am, relax.’ But I don’t blame them. Because you know, sketch seems very easy. Here you’ve written a sketch. And now you’re acting it out. But acting comes with a certain kind of discipline.”
“People keep imagining a sketch,” Suresh added. “What they forget is that there’s camera angles involved. If you want a conversation, when the conversation is happening, there’s a wide [camera] that is sitting, since it’s going on television at the end. So I said, ‘Think about a two-people sketch. And how is it that a two-conversation can be cut nicely.’”
“The thing about live sketch is that you need to keep it simple because the audience should never look at the background. They should look at you. And since it was a bigger system, it’s a multi-cam setup, that simplicity could go away. My whole thing was that, ‘Keep it simple. Keep it about you two.’ That was I think the only thing that I stuck to.”
Suresh noted that she avoided sketch references because she feels Indian sketches “should have a different unique voice. Like, I cannot follow the template of Key & Peele, but can I be inspired by it in terms of doing sketches? And the camaraderie and the general reflect that they do? Yes, of course. But in terms of ideas, there are some sketches right now, which only we can come up with. Only someone from in India can come up with it.”
“I usually tell them — I said, ‘Remove all the content that you’ve seen and just give me an idea, give me a conversation, and we will build it from there.’ That’s a personal take that I have because otherwise you just lose out, you sound like other people, and that’s boring.”
With improv comedy, which Surka mentors on Comicstaan, she did bring in Western influences by showcasing “a couple of videos from ASSSSCAT, Amy Poehler’s group. But again, it was just to show how improv can be recorded and how it looks when it’s recorded.”
“We also watched my Amazon shows, so I was just like, ‘Watch my show,’” Surka added with a laugh. Surka headlined two improv specials for Prime Video last year, with Kanan Gill, Mathew, and Sebastian in The Improvisers: Something From Nothing, and alongside Rath, Rahul Subramanian, and Radhika Vaz in Improv All Stars – Games Night.
Mathew said the contestants’ performances also leads to heated discussions between the judges: “For example, if you see a bit and you’re like, ‘Eh this is just the one time, I’m sure this person has potential.’ So that creates a banter between us like, ‘No, no, but we have to judge according to this.’ But if someone’s like, ‘No, no, but we don’t do it like that. That’s what they will do.’ It was very interesting to see that.”
Moreover, “it’s a very competitive scene [on Comicstaan season 2],” Mathew added. “Last season, it was like ‘Eh, everyone’s a winner.’ You know, it’s like your mother raising 10 children. But this time around, it’s not that. It’s hostile, where it’s like, ‘Ek hi don banega.’ [‘There will be only one champion.’]”