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VIRTUAL LAUGHS

The sound of stand-up

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Forget live shows. Podcasts, with their free-flowing comic conversations and cuss words, are bringing comedy to new audiences.

What does Sunny Leone mean by "conservative pornstar" ? Why is Jackie Shroff capable of winning every argument? And how did a granny scandalise the neighbourhood banana hawker? Free insights into such deep issues can now be found online amid innocent cuss words, uncontrollable laughter and other happy symptoms of unscripted male banter.

Podcasting - a free service akin to blogging that allows you to upload an episodic series of audio, video, PDF, or ePub files - is emerging as the latest refuge of the free-speech-starved Indian comedian, both established and aspiring. At present, India can boast of at least three active podcasts such as All India Bakchod (AIB), The Plan B Project (TPBP) and Kaan Masti that use the medium to elicit chuckles.

These all-male podcasts (that are available on iTunes, podcasting websites and YouTube) tend to have the quality of an oddball radio station where guests can sometimes include make-up men who've watched an intercourse 'live', unsuspecting pigeons who are accused of conducting carnal activity on airconditioners and radio jockeys with a weakness for inflatable dolls. In fact, very often, the listener may end up feeling like the happy third wheel in a barroom conversation.

"The agenda is to make you laugh, " says standup comedian Gursimran Khamba who launched the tenepisode-old podcast AIB along with fellow standup comic Tanmay Bhat earlier this year. Comedy podcasts is already quite a successful genre in the UK and the US. A pod trailblazer is UK's The Ricky Gervais Show featuring The Office star Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington in which the hosts discuss everything from Pilkington's quirks to the postures of dead people.

"Since the audio medium is a more intimate medium where you are not distracted by visuals, the audience feels like a participant, " says Khamba who had initially conducted interviews with fake news websites such as Faking News on his podcast and later decided that comedy would be a good way of popularising the medium in the Indian bandwidth. He found the perfect comrade in fellow comedian Tanmay Bhat and their liaison has now resulted in ten episodes including interviews with standup comics "whose conversations tend to be relatively more uninhibited than usual as there is no camera or audience, " says Bhat. While standup, he insists, is a combination of theatre and writing, "here we are not performing, " clarifies Bhat, adding that they merely turn up with a rough list of things to discuss but "the conversations could veer from say, the Mantralaya fire episode to more personal subjects that may just end up being in-jokes. "

But spontaneity is currency. "It is mostly improv, " says Suresh Menon who parts with such gems as "Christian Slater sounds like Saif Ali Khan" on the show Kaan Masti - the brainchild of RJ-turned-VJ Jose Covaco. Covaco, who likes to insist that the podcast was a product of his unemployment, says, "I wanted a medium that was more real than radio and found some of our real-life conversations to be very funny. He had initially thought of recording conversations on the sly. "But then I found out that's illegal, " says the "unemployed" funnyman, who then started fishing out his recorder at opportune and inopportune moments such as while in the car with Suresh Menon or during lunch with a fellow RJ.

People who refuse to let their guard down or say something offensive just for the sake of making an impact are promptly reprimanded in the show with a voiceover that says: "playing for the microphone". Only things that are "too controversial" or may be "interpreted incorrectly" are edited. As a result, on the podcast, newspaper headlines are dissected, pizza outlet employees caught unawares with questions such as "What if no one writes the order number down?" and men can be honest about the fact that the bodily feature they first notice in a woman could lie above the neck. "In fact, it is a great way for women to understand what men are really like, " says Covaco, referring to the show's varied audience profile that includes a mother of four from Delh.

In fact, that's the beauty of this DIY medium, say podcasters. While most of these men expected only "hormonal 18-year-old boys" to listen in on their shows, they all confess, a bit bemusedly, about how the gender ratio is almost equal. "We were surprised to see many women turn up for the live recording of our podcast that took place at a comedy club recently, " says Bhat. In fact, in order to appease their loyal women listeners, members of TPBP - a podcast hosted by four friends in Mumbai which talks about everything from the eating habits of Malayalees to vaginal fairness creams - have even decided to tone down the "guy humour" a bit.

"We don't abuse as much as we used to, " says Rohan Joseph, who, on batchmate Floyd Fernandes' insistence to relive their canteen conversations, started hosting along with Vaishakh Ravi, a 24-year-old film editor and Ashtiaq Dalton, an account planner at DDB Mudra, in November last year. Their focus has shifted from "personal to the more generic". So in the middle of taking digs at one another's personality quirks such as Vaishakh Ravi's "social awkwardness" and Ashtiaq Dalton's feminine side, the spectrum of conversation has now grown to include things such as Jackie Shroff's infamous curse on the polio video that went viral or the annoying kid at a movie theatre who keeps saying "Now you see" every time the villain arrived.

All of them have kept away from consciously monetizing podcasts as they fear it might interfere with content. Though you would expect the range of topics with a fair sprinkling of cuss words to put off some people, the audience is generally discerning enough to appreciate that the exchanges are all in jest. Parents, too, are kind enough to ignore all the swearing but may have unlikely issues with certain facts. "My mom rubbished our list of top ten good-looking Indian politicians, " recalls Joseph of TPBP. "How can you put Sachin Pilot at number 10?" she asked him.

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