Nothing funny about laughter business

Behind witty one-liners lies intense planning, preparation and performance anxiety for comics before they take to stage

Published: 29th July 2019 06:01 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th July 2019 06:01 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose.

By Express News Service

BENGALURU: Laughter is the best medicine, they say, and who better than comedians to administer a regular dose of it. Ironically, for individuals who make their audience double up in laughter, stand-up comedians often face stress and anxiety due to the nature of the job. Case in point: The recent incident where Indian-origin stand-up comedian Manjunath Naidu reportedly died of a cardiac arrest mid-performance in Dubai. Moments before his collapse, he had revealed to the audience that he suffered from anxiety, leading them to think it was part of the act. Closer home, city-based comedians say the situation is no less bleak, despite Bengaluru being a good city to perform in, thanks to its cosmopolitan culture.

Sanjay Manaktala

“You often see the Netflix special of a comedian, but most don’t see the 600 times s/he went to a club only to have no one listening to the content or people booing,” says Sanjay Manaktala, a comedian with 10 years experience. “In comedy, if they don’t like your performance, they don’t like you,” he explains, adding that in the first couple of years in comedy, one almost always feels the blood pressure rising before performances. 

Comicstaan-fame Shankar Chugani used to experience panic whenever it was time to go on stage, often feeling nauseous or throwing up. “The anxiety of performance, especially for stand-up comics, is immense. The first 15 minutes as we wait for laughs are crucial. If we don’t get any, it’s chaos in our minds,” admits Chugani.

Agrees Praveen Kumar, who says a joke bombing is the worst. “You stress about it even after the show. It’s worse if it’s a solo act. You risk the chance of losing audience members for your next show,” he says. 
However, for Kannada stand-up Seema Rao, who struggled with anxiety issues for a while, the act has been therapeutic. “I also find that the audience for local stand-up is more forgiving, which helps,” she says. 

On days when the audience doesn’t feel so generous, Chugani usually inserts a line into his performance on “having a bad day”, which he feels helps relax them too.  

Physician and psychiatrist Dr Shyam Bhat, Head, Mindfit, did his first stand-up in the US  in 2000 while doing his PG, and later in India between 2010 and 2013. While comedy for him was to balance the seriousness of psychiatry, and speak about human nature and life in a funny way, Bhat says stand-up comics are more likely to be “neurotic”. He says, “This anxiety can, in fact, enhance the powers of observation that every stand-up comic requires to write good material. 

Psychiatrists have observed that humour is a way of dealing with stress, and for comics, stand-up is their way of coping with their emotions.   A stand-up comedy performance is also anxiety-provoking since it’s immediately validated or invalidated by audience.” Bhat also observes that comics have often grown up slightly estranged from their peer group. “Many have had difficult childhood and this allows them to take an outsider’s perspective,” he says. 

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