Stand-up comedy yet to find pace in Kerala

Arya AJ

5 min read
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John Joe, Sabareesh, Mahadevan | Photo: Special Arrangement

A person standing in front of a mike, cracking jokes to make a crowd laugh, forget their worries and enjoy the moment. This visual, which was once alien for us, has now become a familiar spectacle spanning borders. Stand-up comedy, developed as a form of populist entertainment in the United States during the early decades of the 20th century, has significantly risen to popularity beyond words over the years. Even in India, stand-up gigs are a huge draw now.

With Vir Das, Kenny Sebastian, Abish Mathew, Sai Kiran, Munawar Faruqui, Kunal Kamra and many more names to add to the list, the industry has grown so much that even big OTT platforms like Amazon and Netflix are ready to host stand-up shows. However, is the situation similar in all our states? Is stand-up widely accepted outside the northern belt or metro cities, particularly in states like Kerala? The answer ought to be in the negative as it is difficult to draw parallels here.

Kerala scenario

When it comes to talks regarding stand-up in Kerala, the picture is an entirely different one. While comedians in Bengaluru are selling out tickets for 1000-seater shows, here, stand-up comics are busy trying to popularise the art form more among the people, let alone perform. Apparently, stand-up could not edge out comedy skits and mimicry in the state.

"In Kerala, people were not even familiar with the term stand-up comedy a few years back. They came to know about its existence relatively recently. As a result, we lack a disciplined audience for our shows even now," says Malayali stand-up comedian John P Joe, a popular face among Keralites nowadays.

John Joe | Photo: Special Arrangement

When compared to other states, Kerala still lacks an active culture of independent live stand-up comedy. Nevertheless, in Kochi and Trivandrum, the situation is comparatively good as ticketed shows work better there. "In other districts, people are still of the view that let's go and watch, if it (show) is free. That's why I say, if we are able to create an idea in the minds of people that this is something like movies for which one has to buy tickets, then the industry might flourish and we performers will also survive," says Joe.

"Lately, stand-up shows have found a welcoming space in Kerala's campuses as a competition event amid college fests. Many a time, we are called to judge such events and this can be viewed as a positive sign in terms of the industry’s growth," he adds.

'TV Shows'

With the airing of television programmes namely 'Funs Upon A Time' and 'Oru Chiri Iru Chiri Bumper Chiri', the Malayali audience got introduced to the concept of stand-up comedy. Consequently, many people began to consider it as something that is supposed to be watched on YouTube or TV. "Although the shows have popularised stand-up as an art form, they have not been much help to live stand-ups, which are wholly different. There are comedians who pull out live shows entirely based on crowd work," opines Joe.

John Joe

Live stand-up shows are independent and democratic in nature. The comedians are at ease to talk about any subject, develop on it, raise issues and create awareness through the medium of humour. However, as many people continue to remain reluctant to spend money to laugh, the industry continues to struggle even now. Moreover, many opine that Keralites are quite difficult to please as an audience, when it comes to laughter.

"Malayalees are a little embarrassed to laugh out loud amidst a crowd, no offence though. While performing, we often have to remind them to laugh on hearing a joke. However, in the case of ticketed shows, the audience is much more responsive. After all, they did buy tickets to laugh," Joe adds.

No big profits yet

Unfortunately, the paths are not laid with flowers for those opting for a career in the stand-up industry. Often, live ticketed shows are not fulfilling enough when it comes to pay. One may have to spend a huge sum on the venue, camera and sound system, which would definitely be much higher than what you could expect in return through ticket sales.

Sabareesh | Photo: Special Arrangement

"Although live shows are often financially draining, there is a lot of crowd work happening there. For instance, if a joke works, then you will get an immediate response then and there. There is no delay and it is delightful. In my case, a show in which I suffered a loss of around 10K is the one that made me the most happy," says Sabareesh Narayanan alias Stand-up Sabari, who currently works on his one-hour solo stand-up show 'Truly Malayali', which aims to break the stereotypical perspectives about Keralites and present an updated version of Malayalees in general.

Humour vs Political Correctness

In our contemporary world, where artistes are advised to analyse the political correctness of their words and acts, comedy is something that requires a sufficient amount of discretion and preparation, especially on considering its subjective nature.


"As it is said, humour is very subjective. What I find funny, may or may not be funny for a majority. Finding a middle ground there is risky. That's why I say, I don't think I am perfect. If I err, then I am ready to correct myself," asserts Sabareesh, who wishes to be known as a stand-up comedian, rather than be identified as a participant famed through any TV show.

Growth amid hurdles

Even as we say that stand-up has not yet reached its height in Kerala, one cannot turn a blind eye towards its acceptance and popularity among people, particularly in college campuses. Lately, as part of its 65th anniversary celebrations, even the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) had organised a stand-up comedy competition. Yet, the growth pattern still remains unstable.

"As far as I can tell, stand-up in Kerala went through an experimental phase in the last one or two years. There was a major hype and we felt it ourselves. However, the growth rate has dropped now. There has been a decrease in the number of shows, enquiries, college events, YouTube views etc. The growth graph remains fluctuated and I think one cannot underline or emphasise that this field will work out better," says stand-up comedian Mahadevan.

Mahadevan | Photo: Special Arrangement

When asked about whether the industry faces any competition from other comedy programmes, this young comedian advises not to compare the two and opines, "There is a huge difference between showing something and making people laugh, and saying something and making people laugh."

YouTube, feedback and flak

With more and more people watching stand-up shows on YouTube, there is a developing concern over creating original content and avoiding repetition. In addition, comedians have to deal with the criticisms pouring in as comments too.

Mahadevan | Photo: Special Arrangement

"When you upload something on YouTube, no matter how good the content is, you are bound to receive criticism. Negative comments pop up and it affects us badly. There is intentional degrading and personal attacks taking place through fake IDs. Furthermore, once certain content appears on social media, you won't be able to perform it in front of a live audience again," explains Mahadevan.

Nevertheless, with novel initiatives such as the 'Cochin Comedy Project' - a collective of stand-up comedians which aims to develop the trend of stand-up comedy and widen its realms, the stand-up is likely to blossom further and attract more ears in the state.

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