Would you watch a celebrity game show where the best actors try to out-act each other? I mean, what’s the point? Comedy Premium League (insipid title, on Netflix) hits a similar kind of road-block with comics. It takes 16 comedians — Rytasha Rathore is an actor, but never mind — and pits them in assorted battles. Many of them—Tanmay Bhat, Kaneez Surka, Kenny Sebastian, Sumukhi Suresh—have been judges on older shows like this. Some are already so big they couldn’t possibly care about winning. Yet, the show pretends like they do.
Four teams with cheesy animal names rumble it out over six episodes (four of which are now streaming). They do standup, sketch, debate and presentation. A live studio audience, in masks and shrouded in darkness, scores them on a leaderboard. Near the end of each episode, there’s a round called ‘Punchlines’, meant to settle a tie in the bottom rung. It’s the fastest segment but no less rigged than the previous ones. Punning on the word ‘barber’, a contestant gets the Mughal chronology wrong, and the camera cuts to an opposing team laughing hysterically.
Some of the funniest moments appear to happen by chance. During a round of traditional standup, the team Gharelu Gilaharis breaks convention by staging a skit on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, a middling two-handler rescued by Kenny Sebastian breezing in at the last moment dressed as Miss Braganza. A little later, host Prajakta Koli quizzes him on his attire. “I’m wearing panties too,” Kenny says. A similar bawdy energy possesses Mallika Dua when, certain that her Russian blonde act is going nowhere, she goes into a freeze and starts clapping convulsively.
Elsewhere, though, the timing is all too precise. You know why Rohan Joshi is making faces at a teammate during a roast; it’s because the next joke will be aimed at him. Contestants Aadar Malik and Samay Raina give this away in another set, interrupting themselves to throw the audience. Yet, the problem in Comedy Premium League isn’t that the gags are rehearsed, but that none of them yields big laughs. The two debate sets are massive downers. ‘Dance of Democracy’, a comedy sketch by Tanmay Bhat and team, commenting on China, corona and the US presidential elections, would’ve been stale in January, but is passed off as topical.
Sometimes, the individual performing style of these comedians shines through. Prashasti Singh is one of the most original comics around; asked if she cracked IIM Lucknow just by posing, she responds with a dry ‘Yes’. In the same set, Kenny breaks off from English to Hindi to recite a few lines and still makes the clock. Tanmay aims too many jokes at his AIB past, Sumukhi turns up in a schoolgirl avatar, Rohan gets called the ‘Shashi Tharoor of cats’.
The weakest set in the show is on unpopular opinions, where contestants diss on chess, cricket and covid violators. As a rejoinder, of sorts, here’s an opinion for the suits at Netflix: no one likes their comedy shows boxed in, the more tame and homogenized the worse. It’s taken a while for Indian comedy to flee the confines of broadcast TV. Comedy Premium League crams it right back in.
Comedy Premium League
Featuring: Tanmay Bhat, Sumukhi Suresh, Rohan Joshi, Kaneez Surka, Kenny Sebastian, Prashasti Singh, Urooj Ashfaq
Streaming on: Netflix