Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Stand-up or fall down?

For a very long time, comedy in India meant the really awful slapstick that passed for comic relief in Bollywood films. While the odd off-the-beaten-track Hindi film had good, subtle, intelligent comedy, there was really no concept of stand up comedy.

The earliest predecessors to proper standup were the people with the little wedding music bands. Little groups of people with little or no talent who made a living singing and playing at weddings, parties, office functions and so on. They sang the latest Bollywood hit songs, usually quite badly, and had this one guy, it was always a guy, who came on every once in a while to mimic film stars and other known personalities. In fact, one of the biggest names in Bollywood comedy, Johnny Lever, began his career as that guy. This was comic relief and rest time for the singers all rolled into one, and wasn’t usually worth very much, bar a few exceptions like Lever.

Over the last few years, however, things have changed a lot. Whether it is exposure to the west and western styles of comedy, or just the desperate need to fill some of the 24 hour TV time that all the channels have, standup comedy has suddenly arrived, big time! It all began with a show on one of the channels called the “laughter challenge”. It was good, it brought out great comic talent from all over the country, and it held a competition amongst them to choose one winner. Then, before you could blink, or say comedy, every channel had its own version of the show, including regional ones.

Of course, as is usual with most of these things, the more popular it got, the worse it got. From being quite funny and fairly intelligent, with social criticism and comment, it soon disintegrated into farce, double entendre, and sexual innuendo. Quality went rapidly downhill, and the laughter went from easy to forced to absent, as more and more people, with little real talent, jumped into the field to get their fifteen minutes of fame.

Now, any of the spinoffs, competitors, or reruns of the Laughter Challenge, is juts a sheer pain to have to watch. It has all descended again into slapstick, mimicry, and physical comedy, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope for a revival.

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