It's 8:30 pm on a Friday in a monsooned Mumbai. The third floor of The Palladium, the luxury wing of the Indian financial capital's High Street Phoenix shopping and leisure complex has a curiously busy feel to it. Well-heeled Mumbaikars mill around a box office to purchase tickets for the newest entertainment in town - The Comedy Store, yes the very same of UK fame. Britain's export to India is the first time The Comedy Store has branched out internationally and is a joint-venture between the original's founder, Don Ward, and an Indian partner, Amar Agrawal. "We sensed the potential for a comedy explosion," says Ward, who recently added Mumbai as a base to his operations.
At the show on Friday evening, about 170 people - mostly men - are comfortably seated in a 1,400 square metre, 300-seat venue. The stand-up comic artist Sean Collins, originally from Canada, is up on stage and starts his 30-minute set with a parody of a driving lesson in Mumbai. "Honk, honk, honk. You're not honking enough. Oh, hang on. There's an old lady crossing the road. Speed up!" he screams at his imaginary student and the audience roars.
Collins is part of an evening act that includes Terry Alderton and Ben Norris. Their sets vacillate between the predictable - the superficial observations of foreigners in India; the universal - parenting woes and gender jokes; and the risqué. "I think what's been the most pleasant surprise is that the majority of the audience is local," says Collins after the show, "as opposed to when I've performed at other international venues, where audiences were dominated by expatriates."
Colonial leftovers in India, such as the English language, also improved chances of a shared understanding and appreciation of English literature, culture and of course, wit. The common language factor was an important reason for Ward exporting The Comedy Store to India and not to its economic rival, China. "I never doubted the potential of comedy in India. What has been surprising is what makes Indians laugh," says Ward. Expecting a more conservative audience that would take offence easily, Ward's brief to the artists was initially to keep the sketches on the "cleaner" side. That brief changed very quickly, although he is aware of topics that are likely to offend.
"We also obviously steer clear of religion," he says. Political lampooning hasn't been an issue so far, as the acts are mostly imports from the UK, who are unfamiliar with the complicated alliances and arrangements in the Indian political scene. Currently, stand-up comics such as Collins are flown in on a Wednesday morning, perform in the evenings from Thursday to Sunday and return to their home countries on Monday.
"Stand-up comedy is pretty much a universal art," says Ward, who also works with The Laughter Factory in the UAE. "I've noticed in my three decades as a performer, agent, producer and CEO that for the most part, the same things make us all laugh. Of course, we do have to customise, depending on sensitivities and local references. "Having said that though, my main mission out here really is to help the Indian comedy scene reach its potential." Stand-up comedy in India is not a new phenomenon. There are traditions of comedy in Hindi and other languages, and the humour is markedly slapstick. The artists typically mimic and caricature popular figures from Indian cinema and political leaders. English stand-up comedy for Indians by Indians, however, is a niche market that Ward admits primarily targets the urban-elite demographic. Tickets cost Rs 500 (Dh40) on weeknights and Rs 700 (Dh56) on weekends for a show that lasts about two hours, including intervals.
Ward's audiences are typically made up of the English-speaking, mall-friendly, international Indian who is at ease with Eddie Izzard and Jimmy Carr, but who also relates to Indian comics such as Vir Das, Papa CJ or Russell Peters, the Canadian of Anglo-Indian origin. After an audition at The Comedy Store in Mumbai to identify local talent, Ward short-listed six out of 25 participants, including one woman. Two of the finalists performed 10-minute sets each one Sunday evening, and much to Ward's delight, were the most popular with his audience.
The playwright Anuvab Pal, who has also scripted indie films such as The President is Coming, was one of Ward's finds from the audition. While performing to a packed house, Pal used Hinglish - a mix of English and Hindi - to communicate with his audience, and contrasted the India of the 1980s with its present form. He had his audience in splits and left them squealing for more. "I see comedy as having a conversation with the audience," says Pal. "I think the local everyday references definitely help in connecting with the audience, as it is a largely Mumbai audience. At the same time, when I use nostalgic references, it doesn't really connect with post-liberalisation Indians [those born after 1991], but it's funny to think of an India where you had to hide a pair of jeans from customs officials after a trip abroad."
For Pal, The Comedy Store experience is a step towards bringing some structure to the chaotic comedy scene in India. He hopes to increase the length of his set to a full 30 minutes. "Who knows, someone from Bollywood might watch these acts and think of using them in their films and we could well see a total shift in the nature of comedy in Indian film and India," he says. If that were to happen, there would be none happier than Ward. "I'm in this for the long term. We're opening a restaurant and bar soon, because a night out for Indians is strongly connected to food. I also think that a true fair assessment of The Comedy Store in Mumbai can only be done after a year," he says.
Ward has rented a three-bedroom apartment in Mumbai for three years and his 22-year old daughter is the operations manager of the venture in India. "So you see, I am serious about comedy in this country," he says dismissing any jocular suggestions of a 21st-century colonisation through comedy. "If anything, they've conquered me out here."