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The joke’s on startups now

While stand-up comedians have been performing for companies for years, a new crop includes many former startup employees mining startup culture for material

Comedian Anmol Garg

“If an entrepreneur writes a book, it will only have one chapter: Chapter 12,” says Bengaluru-based comedian Anmol Garg. If you don’t get the joke, chances are you don’t belong in his niche audience, made up almost entirely of founders, employees and investors from the startup ecosystem. It is a reference to the US Bankruptcy Code.

Nine months ago, Garg put together a 45-minute set called Startup To Shutdown, a satirical take on the startup life that he now performs at events and conferences. Garg is among a new crop of comedians on the Indian comedy circuit who use their own and others’ experiences in the startup world as material. He calls it “startup comedy” and we will stick with the name.

Comedians are not new to performing for companies during their retreats and events. Companies, too, no longer find the idea of a comedian performing for a select audience out of the ordinary. These shows, often by well-known, celebrated comedians in the industry, are different from their public shows. Politics and religion are out of bounds, digs on corporate culture common, and a certain decorum is duly maintained.

Since the comedy sector is a nascent one in India, most comedians have had a history of working other jobs before taking to the form entirely. Often, these have been corporate jobs or, in some cases, a crack at entrepreneurship. Their experiences of conventional offices and knowledge of the ropes of these businesses come in handy when trying to relate to an audience of the same kind.

Punit Pania, who gave up a corporate career for comedy, believes startups and stand-up comedy are a match made in heaven. “The culture sits very well together because both are about freedom, young people and new ideas,” he says. Delhi-based comedian Papa CJ, who effectively uses his MBA and management consulting experience as material for his shows, says it helps him understand the corporate audience he often performs for. Having done the odd startup gig, he says: “What’s nice about performing for start-ups is that by nature of what they do, they don’t have the staid personalities that characterise some legacy organisations. So the audience tends to be young, dynamic, fun-loving and far more willing to laugh at themselves.”

Comedian Punit Pania
Comedian Punit Pania

Mumbai-based comedian Garv Malik struck upon an opportunity during the lockdown. Having performed in comedy clubs in the city and outside for a general audience, he was in search of his own niche. A graduate in civil engineering from BITS, Pilani, Malik, who had worked with two startups in Gurugram, Haryana, was familiar with the jargon and the dynamics of startups: the funding, the mentoring and the other minutiae of this world. However, things truly started falling into place after the WhiteHat Jr episode in mid-2020, when the edutech startup acquired a reputation for silencing its critics both online and offline, be it deleting comments on social media or slapping lawsuits on critics. For Malik, it became a turning point, especially after some of his comments on their LinkedIn page were deleted too.

Comedian Garv Malik
Comedian Garv Malik (facebook)

In November 2020, Malik announced a first-of-its-kind show by the name of Roast of WhiteHat Jr. The proceeds from it were to be donated for the legal aid of Pradeep Poonia, who was named in a lawsuit by the company, but eventually went to Khan Academy, which conducts free online courses for students. Malik had made his place by not only talking the startup talk but embedding himself in the system, so to say.

He followed this up with a Roast Of Byju’s, on the edutech market leader known for its aggressive marketing. The success of these shows, with over 50 audience members in each, made Malik realise that this was a niche waiting to be explored. In an entrepreneurial move, he started a subscription service on his own website, garvmalik.com, in November. Subscribers have access to seven shows, of 45-minute durations, each week and also receive exclusive access to guest shows by celebrity comedians. He already has about 100 subscribers.

Malik will find you a startup example for any situation. As network plays truant and we shift to a WhatsApp call, he says: “See, this is the difference between a corporate service provider and a startup. They don’t need Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) approvals to erect new towers, a simple software upgrade is all it takes. It is this ability to scale without much effort that I find fascinating.”

Though his was a conscious step towards owning the genre, he admits that when it comes to jokes, startups are also less touchy. “I have made jokes and memes about founders when performing for a startup. As long as it isn’t punching down, anything goes. This is not something I can do in a regular corporate show,” he explains.

While watching a few of his Zoom shows, including a roast, I noticed there was terminology beyond the obvious that I couldn’t keep up with, though other audience members shared a laugh, even contributing to the niche jibes. The content does, however, remain largely generic within the startup realm. “People in startups have lives outside too,” says the 27-year-old.

Malik is not afraid of naming names when required. “I have had the privilege of working with someone who names bigger names. I may lose a show or two but I am not afraid,” he says, referring to his other job, as manager of the popular comedian Kunal Kamra.

Unlike Malik, Garg has been a startup founder himself. After two failed ventures, he founded Sales5x, a Bengaluru-based sales and marketing company. He uses his experiences, as a failed and thereafter successful entrepreneur, in his acts and performs across metros, especially at gigs in Bengaluru. “I write a set like this much faster than I write a generic one. I don’t miss the nuance and the vocabulary comes to me naturally,” says the 32-year-old.

Garg and Malik also point out that the material in corporate shows is markedly different from their sets on startups. “I performed one of these sets at a co-working space in Goa that was dominated by corporate types and it bombed,” says Garg.

Mumbai-based comedian Vikram Poddar, who established the corporate comedy consultancy BoredRoom Comedy in 2013, thinks it may be prudent to not rely on the startup ecosystem alone for primary material—and it may well be too niche. He adds that while startups may seem gung-ho about a lot of things if you go by their social media messaging, they may not actually be as cool. “The humour that abounds in the social media channels of new-age companies is also specific to social media. They may have different sensibilities on what is acceptable in their own offices,” says Poddar.

Prachi Sibal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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