This year, stand-up comedy in India felt more inclusive, with fresh voices entering the spotlight. There was more punch-up comedy, and humour used to comment on complex social realities. On the global stage, we saw Atsuko Okatsuka make a terrific debut, Ali Wong’s honest reflections in her second special, and Jerrod Carmichael make headlines. Here are a few talents that stood out:
In her short comedy set, Love is Love, Swati Sachdeva starts with a confession. “I have something personal to tell you all. I’m bisexual.” She pauses for a moment before making light of the audience’s silence and instantly getting them laughing. It’s this refusal to give into awkwardness or tension while delivering the entire set with the ease of a seasoned comic that makes Sachdeva stand out.
She then talks about asking an audience member at a previous show if he knows what bisexual means. “It means you have sex twice in a year, right?” he confidently replies. As laughter erupts, there is also a recognition of ignorance in the larger community about sexuality. It was this clip that went viral on social media. From talking about navigating her sexuality in a world where heterosexuality is considered the default setting to the hilarious bit about coming out to her parents, Sachdeva came out shining this year.
Where to watch: YouTube (@Swati Sachdeva)
“I am a Dalit, but I identify as a Brahmin,” Manjeet Sarkar tells his audience before bursting into a laugh. Sarkar is one of the Dalit comedians who got their due recognition in the stand-up comedy space this year. In a recent interview with The Voice of Media, Sarkar talks about his now popular line and says, “If you consider yourself anti-caste, then this line shouldn’t offend you, but if it does, then work on yourself.”
Sarkar, currently on an India tour for his first solo, Untouchable, is the first Dalit comedian to do so. The big names of Indian stand-up comedy are mostly upper caste comics and many have been called out for their elitist tone, privileged ignorance and casteist jokes. Dalit comedians like Sarkar, Ankur Tangade and Maanal Patil are taking over the main stage, and their arrival has been long-awaited.
As a comedian, Sarkar is confident—any unfamiliarity he might have with big venues is masked by his easy stage presence. He knows most of the audience might be upper-caste, but he doesn’t shy away from talking about discrimination.
Where to watch: Live shows/Official website.
With Quarter-Life Crisis, her debut special, Taylor Tomlinson emerged as a stand-up comic to look out for. In Look at You, her second special, released in March, she made it clear she's here to stay.
Tomlinson seems braver on stage as she dives into mental health and the perils of modern dating, especially as someone with bipolar disorder. Talking about her diagnosis, she says, “Being bipolar is like not knowing how to swim. It might be embarrassing to tell people and it might be hard to take you to certain places.”
Calling her medicines “arm floaties”, she addresses the judgements people with mental health issues often face and emphasises the importance of not just understanding but acting on the need to get help. “You have to take your arm floaties because it’s not cool to know you can’t swim, go to the public pool anyway, and jump into the deep end, making it everyone else’s problem.” In this special, she also talks about dealing with her mother’s death, self-esteem issues, her red flags, and emotional eating, all amidst incessant laughter.
Where to watch: Netflix.
Although Dongri Danger is Sumaira Shaikh’s first special, she is not new to the space. Co-writer of the popular series Pushpavalli, Shaikh is well-versed in the craft and it shows as she skillfully wields dark humour to comment on life in Dongri, classism experienced in college, judgements at funerals, and finally, Dawood.
Shaikh threads a needle, using dark humour while testing the unpredictable lines of offence. While explaining friendship hierarchies, she shifts the setting to a funeral. “It keeps happening nowadays, so just go,” she says. As the audience gasps, she hits them with “My family recently hosted one…because my brother died” and, without a pause, continues to joke about the situation—making it easy for people to laugh along.
Shaikh’s self-assured cadence and her unique way of delivering punchlines hold your attention throughout the special. For those who love dark comedy done right, Dongri Danger will be a treat. From a tsunami’s “walk of shame” to talking about her brother’s death, she not only demonstrates her familiarity with the art but also the fun she has with it, and it works almost every time.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video.
Throughout his debut comedy special, Sweet and Juicy, Sheng Wang talks about milquetoast topics—buying pants at Costco, warm cookie sheets, surveying bookstores, and using eye creams for wrinkles. These might sound too mundane to be funny, but Wang makes it work with his laid-back delivery, refreshing stage presence, and simple but effective writing.
In this hour-long special, also a directorial debut by fellow comedian Ali Wong, Wang uses personal anecdotes to establish how little he cares as he gets older, then pivots into playing basketball to “delay death”, comments on the healthcare system in the US, which he calls “dystopian”, living in New York, and comparing his “privileged” childhood with that of his immigrant parents.
Wang does not delve into the heavy stuff too much—the set is, as the title suggests, ‘sweet’. Easy laughs are hard to come by these days, so no wonder this one received a warm welcome.
Where to watch: Netflix.
Special mention: This year, no list would be complete without mentioning Jerrod Carmichael’s Rothaniel, but unfortunately Indian audiences do not have access to this yet.
Also read: The year I found the magic of melody