Malayalam stand-up is gaining acceptance like never before in Kerala

Television stand-up shows and a comedy collective are making the genre popular in the state

Television stand-up shows and a comedy collective are making the genre popular in the state

Move over facial expressions and comedy skits. It’s time to roll over with laughter with a group of young stand-up comedians. Cochin Comedy Project’s (CCP) show ‘Sobha Chirikkunnille?’ (Sobha, aren’t you laughing?), a live-ticketed show, is one of the gigs going places.

Malayalam may have one of the oldest, traditional versions of stand-up comedy in any language, Chakyarkoothu. The performer had the right to make fun of any person in the audience and neither king nor priest was spared. But while many forms of parody flourished in Kerala, the modern take on stand-up comedy never really caught on, such as in metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru. But in the past two years, the genre has found many practitioners and users.

While CCP, a collective of stand-up comedians, has many shows, the popularity of stand-up is mainly due to two television shows, Once upon a time on Amrita TV and Oru Chiri Iru Chiri Bumper Chiri at Mazhavil Manorama. People from all age groups go out of their way to do stand-up in these shows. In fact, members of CCP have also performed in these shows before being part of the collective.

A recent example of stand-up mainstream is a stand-up comedy competition organized by Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) in connection with the 65th anniversary celebrations. It was open to both the public and KSEB staff.

It’s only been 10 years since stand-up comedy turned professional in the country. But in Kerala, stand-up couldn’t top the facial expressions and comedic skits.

Sruthi Pillai, show director, 'Oru Chiri Iru Chiri Bumper Chiri'

Sruthi Pillai, show director, ‘Oru Chiri Iru Chiri Bumper Chiri’ | Photo credit: special arrangement

Deepak Mohan, founder of CCP, says: “When I discovered that there was scope to develop Malayalam stand-up, I thought about exploring the scene. I did a live ticketed show, ‘The Irony Man’ in March 2021.” He was later joined by Sabareesh Narayanan and they did the first show of ‘Sobha Chirikkunnille?’ in Kochi last November.

The other members of the CCP are John Joe, Aneez M Latheef, Mahadevan AR and Arjun Sajikumar. “We have performed in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode. At every show, stand-up artists from those places join us on stage. There are now 13 others who work with us. We also do open mic shows in Kochi every week to test our content,” says Deepak.

Stand-up on television

On the small screen, Surya Comedy channel broadcast a stand-up show, Immini Balya Naavu, in 2020, which had to be halted when the pandemic broke out. BC Naufal, the show’s producer and coordinator, says the episodes were shot in a cafe in Kochi. “Until then, there were no stand-up shows on Malayalam television. I wasn’t eager to restart it because other channels had launched their own shows by then,” he says.

Ramesh Pisharody, Guinness Pakru and Hari P Nair during the filming of the show 'Funs Upon A Time' on Amrita TV

Ramesh Pisharody, Guinness Pakru and Hari P Nair during the filming of the show ‘Funs Upon A Time’ on Amrita TV | Photo credit: special arrangement

Fun on… is produced by stand-up comedian-actor-director Ramesh Pisharody. “One of the reasons why stand-up didn’t become popular in Kerala is that the format works with only a small audience and we comedians are used to performing in front of a large audience. It was the pandemic that created a scenario where we had to entertain a limited number of people,” Ramesh said.

The show is directed by Hari P Nair, who directed: Please smile, one of the first shows on Malayalam television (Asianet Plus, 2007) that had the “elements of stand-up”. Ramesh was the creative consultant for the show. † Please smile had ‘comedic mono acts’. Fun on… is a continuation of my experimentation with comedic content all these years,” says Hari, adding that more than 100 stand-up practitioners are featured in the show.

Shajimon Vazhoor in 'Funs Upon A Time'

Shajimon Vazhoor in ‘Funs Upon A Time’ | Photo credit: special arrangement

Oru Chiri…, which has both stand-up and skits, was also launched around the same time. “While the first phase had only video submissions since the lockdown restrictions went into effect, we held an open audition for new entrants last month. Nearly 90% of them chose to do stand-up,” said Sruthi Pillai, show director. Over 200 performers took part in the show, ranging in age from three to 80-plus! “We had a ‘chain stand-up’ episode where six of our top contestants performed together,” says Sruthi

Cared for the stage

Ramesh and Sruthi admit that participants often need help with content and presentation, so they go through grooming sessions. “First, we had to make it clear to them that stand-up is not imitation. We asked them to tell stories laced with humor. They also did test shoots to analyze their performance,” explains Ramesh.

He adds that the Malayalam stand-up cannot match any other languages. “We have to adapt the content to the audience. In addition, the public should be educated about stand-up comedy in general,” says Ramesh.

Rajan Prabhu, 75, performing on 'Oru Chiri Iru Chiri Bumper Chiri'

Rajan Prabhu, 75, performing ‘Oru Chiri Iru Chiri Bumper Chiri’ | Photo credit: special arrangement

Actor-presenter Sabumon, one of the three judges on Oru Chiri…, adds that doing stand-up on television has its limitations. “For example, they can’t use swear words to create humor, which could work in a live show. The challenge therefore lies in creating a smile with recognizable content and pure humor. It was exciting to attend performances by people from all walks of life – children, youth, housewives, day laborers, seniors… Despite the fact that the contestants are groomed and molded for the format, you have to praise them for their trust,” says Sabu.

Mahadevan, who competed on both shows, says he auditioned for: Fun on… with the aim of getting into movies. “I didn’t know much about stand-up at the time. But after putting on good performances on Oru Chiri… and in the live shows, I hope to seriously pursue stand-up,” says Mahadevan. John, who has gone viral with his acts, says he’s having a great time as a stand-up comedian. “People are even sending requests on my Instagram page to help them with the show and some expect me to deliver the content! I’ve been empowered by the reach that stand-up has,” he says.

Stand-up comedy chain on 'Oru Chiri Iru Chiri Bumper Chiri' at Mazhavil Manorama

Chain stand-up comedy on ‘Oru Chiri Iru Chiri Bumper Chiri’ on Mazhavil Manorama | Photo credit: special arrangement

There are also a number of women in the fray. “While it took several years for women to get into mimicry, the stand-up scene is different,” Ramesh says. Anitta Joshy, a graphic designer turned stand-up comedian, says she decided to give it a try in Oru Chiri… after seeing some performances. “Now I’m always looking for content. My dream is to do a live show,” says Anitta.

Anitta Joshy

Anitta Joshy | Photo credit: special arrangement

Live show is a whole different game, the stand-up comics say. “It gives me a different high because you get an instant response from the audience,” Mahadevan says. John adds that getting the audience involved in the joke has a different vibe. “Although certain words and customs are taboo on television, there is no such restriction in a live show. That’s why ‘Sobha Chirikkunnille?’ is for the age group of 15 years and older!” he says.

Nisha Achuthan in 'Funs Upon A Time'

Nisha Achuthan in ‘Funs Upon A Time’ | Photo credit: special arrangement

Meanwhile, the CCP is doing everything it can to promote stand-up. “There is not enough Malayalam stand-up content on YouTube and social media. It’s the experience of a live show that sells. So we do a show on April 23 in Kochi to make videos. Once they click with the viewers, we hope to do more live shows, podcasts and even specials from individual artists,” says Deepak.


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