Spreading joy with jokes in COVID crisis

“A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.” –Henry Ward Beecher, American social reformer.

During the initial days of the lockdown, the stand-up comedy industry received quite a few jolts with shows being cancelled and the future of live performances looking bleak. “The pandemic certainly affected comedians. For example, I had a tour starting from March 13 to April 13 in America. I reached there on March 10, but the world shut down, and I had to come back without doing a single show. Like me, there were a lot of comedians who had their tours planned. Usually, when we write a new set, we take it across the world, and then hope to sell it on Netflix or Amazon or some online platform. But, Covid ended up affecting the entire year,” says the 52-year-old comedian Atul Khatri.

Atul Khatri
Atul Khatri

But slowly, as with all other industries, the stand-up scene is crawling back to the (new) normal, thanks to tech support. While Zoom shows replaced live events in a big way during the lockdown, live gigs are now slowly starting off again.

Khatri was one of the first few comedians to adapt to online shows on Zoom. “I initially thought it would be really bad and that we’ll be without any work. But, luckily it wasn’t so, and being one of the early adopters of virtual shows helped. The lockdown happened on March 18, and by April 2, I had announced my first online show,” says Khatri.

Jeeya Sethi, a comedienne, says, “When our company, Comedy Ladder, started our Zoom comedy shows it wasn’t yet ‘a thing’- in the sense, Zoom was just being used for conferences and meetings. We hold Zoom shows every day of the week and on Sunday we held our first live show”.

Jeeya Sethi
Jeeya Sethi

Comedy Ladder also does open-mikes on Zoom at 4:30 pm every day, which are free. The only condition is that your camera should be on. And if it isn’t, you’ll be taken out of the meeting!

Comedian Sorabh Pant, on the other hand, has been very active on his YouTube channel. “The pandemic made me think a bit about what to do off-stage which prompted me to do a lot of YouTube lives for my channel. I think I was one of the first few people to start them and have done 80 of them in the last seven months, four times a week,” says Pant.

Sorabh Pant
Sorabh Pant
Sorabh Pant/ Instagram

Pant says that in the beginning of taking the digital plunge he wasn’t enjoying the format much. It took a few tweaks and a moment of epiphany. “To be honest, the format was not working. But a few weeks back, I got an epiphany that one of the big advantages of these online shows is that people can watch them from anywhere. During one particular show, we had people tuning in from Singapore, Dubai, London, Amsterdam and Germany — there were people from all over the world. This is an interesting thing which would obviously never happen in a live ticket show! So you got to look at the positive side of it. Also, I think it’s made the whole experience more personal, since I got to know my audience a lot more over the last few months. There are a lot of positives to it, and I don't really see too many downsides, the only one being that you miss the vibes and the insanity you get while doing a live show. But, even those will happen in the next two months,” he adds.

Khatri also opens up about his initial struggles: “The sound of children screaming in the background or a TV can be difficult to control when an online show is underway, but slowly we started to understand how to deal with all this. There are still a lot of comedians who have decided to take this break and do writing or some other work, and not do any shows. Now, of course, slowly shows are starting with lesser crowds, but at least they've started! In fact, Zoom performances allow an intimate experience because for a live show if you’re late you end up sitting at the back, but here you get a different perspective,” says Khatri.

“The pandemic has affected comedians and the whole comedy industry because live shows are a major source of revenue and the whole art form is practiced live. My experience with online shows has been pretty good, actually. The first time or the second time I did it, it felt a little awkward. But as with everything in life, you keep doing it to get better. So I think it took me like three or four shows to get comfortable with the whole thing, like how you need to be a little slower, because there's a transmission issue,” says comedian Abijit Ganguly.

Abijit Ganguly
Abijit Ganguly

But what about live shows? “I’ve already started doing some live shows and back in July, too, I had done a live corporate show for Mercedes when they were launching a new car. Of course, there were only few people allowed there due to the restrictions,” explains Khatri.

“Recently I took part in a line-up show at a place called Happy High, Shahpur Jat, Delhi. Neeti Palta and Sonali Thakker were also part of the show. I didn’t want to start off with a solo because I was doing a live show after such a long time and myself did not know how I would feel. It felt strange for the first one minute because it was the first time in seven months, but I really loved being back on stage again,” Ganguly says.

Here’s hoping we get out of this stronger. These comedians are ensuring we don’t miss the laughter track as we all navigate through the bizarre life situations the pandemic has landed us all in.

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