The first Indian stand-up comedian to release a special on YouTube (at a time when most others were vying for over-the-top or OTT platform deals), Daniel Fernandes has navigated India’s comedy industry largely by his own rules. Over a nearly decade-long career, the comic with a flair for dark humour has experimented with different formats – including a marathon six-hour crowd work show – and introduced a pay-as-you-like model for online comedy content in India. All the while retaining his unique voice, unflinching perspective, and commitment to satire (even if it sometimes led him to controversy). In this hour-long conversation with Art Beat, Fernandes breaks down his writing process, the financial viability of being a stand-up comedian in India, and the pros and cons of releasing a comedy special independently. Here are some edited excerpts:
Art Beat(AB): Can you break down your writing process?
Daniel Fernandes (DF): When I’m writing a (comedy) show, it starts off like a movie in my head. I know what it looks like and who the characters are, but it’s always hazy in the beginning. The frame clears up as I start thinking about it more and more. I decide which parts of my life I’m going to use, the people I will include and the things I want to talk about all of which form the premises of the show. Sometimes, I think about punchlines and then work backwards to craft the premises. I put it all together in a very raw kind of arrangement and then organise trial shows which are a good way to test if other people find the material as funny as I do. I’ll do a bunch of those and then put together a multi-city tour.
But the process of creating the show is never really over for me. Even with ‘Shadows’ (Fernandes’ first special that he released in November 2019), I took stock of it and decided that I was 99% happy with it, that it was ready to go out. But writing comedy is an ongoing process for me. In my opinion, you don’t do nine trial shows and then the show’s suddenly ready. It’s never ready and it can always get better. If you’re a painter, your painting is complete once the paint dries. With comedy, you have the opportunity to go back and change things, rephrase your jokes, or remove what’s not required. It can always be improved, and that’s what makes the process so beautiful for me.
AB: What do you think is missing from the arts space in India right now?
DF: Infrastructure. If we’re talking about comedy specifically, we don’t have good venues. Comedy clubs in India don’t draw crowds; the comedians performing at them do. Fans will come to watch their favourite comedians even if the infrastructure is not great. But that’s 10% of your market; the other 90% go to places that look great, that have a good crowd. Right now, live comedy is an event, not an experience. As an industry, we need to understand that the audience experience starts right from the moment someone looks at a poster and buys a ticket. They’re already looking forward to the show, thinking about what they’re going to wear or who they’re going to go with. But meeting them with a bare-bones set up of a few lights and chairs is not enough.
Producers really need to step up their game. We need people who know how to run a business, how to make a comedy club profitable. Venues right now depend purely on ticket sales for survival but that’s never going to help owners break even. The main margins are in alcohol. We need to figure out alcohol licenses and partnerships, as well as drawing more and more people in. Look at venues like Comedy Cellar in New York, or Soho Theatre in London. Those should be our benchmarks. That way, the pressure to sell tickets is not on the performing comics. There’s no pressure on them to be famous. When a venue’s really good, the audience will go and have a great time irrespective of the artist. Right now, that’s not happening. A famous comic means a full house, otherwise there are like three people in the audience.
AB: Can you shed some light on the financial aspect of being a professional comic?
DF: The life cycle of a comic begins with open mics but there’s no money there. As you workshop your material and get better at your craft, you start thinking about ways to put your work out there, to gain exposure so people come to watch you. So you upload a video on your YouTube channel, or take part in a show like ‘Comicstaan’ on Prime Video. I think that’s the best exposure for a comic right now simply because of the amount of money they [Prime Video] pump into marketing the show. Sometimes I think that I should also apply as a contestant and see what happens. If you’ve had a good run on the show or if you’re able to rack up enough views on YouTube, that has a positive impact on ticket sales for your live performances. People show up. As you get noticed, a talent agency will usually sign you and that typically leads to some brand work.
You just have to be aware of where and how you can make money, and then see what works for you. As far as I know, production isn’t that big a source of income unless you’re working on big, large-scale shows. The biggest money is in OTT right now, followed by brands, corporate and college shows, and live shows.
In terms of financial viability as a career, it has always been about identifying the best way to make money. When I started out, I was also producing lots of shows all over the country. So I had income coming in from production work, as well as money from corporate work and college gigs. You just have to be aware of where and how you can make money, and then see what works for you. As far as I know, production isn’t that big a source of income unless you’re working on big, large-scale shows. The biggest money is in OTT right now, followed by brands, corporate and college shows, and live shows.
AB: What are your thoughts on comics that don’t have managers? Does that put them at a disadvantage?
DF: I think there’s nothing like learning on the job. That’s probably the first step in my opinion, not finding representation. Learn how the business of comedy works. Call up a producer and ask if you can work with them. No one’s going to say no; if someone calls me and wants to work on a show, I’ll almost always say “yes”. Don’t think about the money in the beginning; study the craft. Understand why a mic stand is kept a certain way, how lights are used, and even how chairs are arranged at a comedy show. If you know that a comedy festival is happening, call the organisers and volunteer your time. You’ll learn about programming, artist management, logistics…all of it. Over time, that will make you a better comic. For instance, you respect the venue more when you know what it takes to run a venue. Then you can start doing your own stuff. Let’s say you’ve worked with a guy for six months, now you can try producing your own show. That’s how we all started. I’d never produced anything in my life but I called up a venue one day and said, “Comedy’s something we’ve all started doing, can you give us a Monday? We’ll get a crowd in and five-six performers. If you can just give us some FnB (food and drinks) after the show, we can split the gig money.” From there, we started scaling up to festivals and much better venues, and we opened some comedy clubs. Remember, all your learning is going to be hands-on. Pick up the phone and make the call. Hustle till someone lets you in, and then learn.
Don’t think about the money in the beginning; study the craft. Understand why a mic stand is kept a certain way, how lights are used, and even how chairs are arranged at a comedy show. If you know that a comedy festival is happening, call the organisers and volunteer your time. You’ll learn about programming, artist management, logistics…all of it.
I think the bigger challenge with the younger comics is initiative. We all have guys who want to open for us but (when they get the chance) they simply do their spot and bolt. When you open for a guy who’s done it (comedy) longer than you, it’s not just the opening spot, the time you get on-stage that’s valuable. It’s the opportunity to sit back and watch their performance as well. When I started out, I used to go to The Comedy Store on the weekends and just watch (shows). I wasn’t even thinking, I was just absorbing everything I was seeing – from the way the performer puts the mic stand to the side, to the way they look at the crowd and the way they hold the mic. This way you pick up so many things that work themselves into your own performance subconsciously. Remember, all your learning is going to be hands-on. Pick up the phone and make the call. Hustle till someone lets you in, and then learn.
AB: How do you set a value to start pitching your work at when you’re just starting out?
DF: There are three things to remember when you’re quoting (a brand or event organiser). First, everyone has their own market rate, you decide what you’re worth. It’s a negotiating game, and something you’ll only learn on the job or hands-on. That’s why I always say don’t be in a rush to get managed or signed. If you learn to negotiate for yourself, tomorrow when somebody’s negotiating on your behalf at least you’ll know if you’re getting your money’s worth. Second, now there are numbers (like Instagram metrics) that can help you set a price once you get to a certain stage. The third is that someone is always going to undercut your quote. Whenever you’ve been called, know that five other guys have also received the same call. You say 50, the second guy says 60 but the third guy agrees on say 20. It’s the brand/organiser’s call then.
If you’re starting out, try and understand how much other people are getting paid. It’s good to know what’s happening in the business. We all know what everyone’s getting from an OTT (platform) as opposed to for a college gig. If I know what the median for a college gig is, I’ll try and quote within that range. I might charge an OTT platform 10 times more for the same show. It’s important to know what your peers are earning and it’s usually as simple as asking. You’ll always have one or two good friends (or contemporaries) who will be honest and tell you what they’re charging. But I think it boils down to what Steve Martin said, which is “Become so good that they can’t ignore you.” I think just be the best you can be. I know this is cliché, but if you’re focussed on your goals, your jokes and your voice, people will find you. They’ll be ready to pay you whatever you want. That’s where you want to get.
AB: What’s your take on doing a show on an OTT vs on YouTube?
DF: Both have their pros and cons. The pro of going to an OTT platform straightaway is that you get paid first. No one’s really checking if the show is good or not. The con is that this might make you lazy. You may not put in that much effort because “paise toh aa hi gaye (the money has already come in).” I know some comics who’ve performed a full special just 10 times before shooting it for an OTT platform. If someone had offered me ₹50 lakh right at the beginning, when I had just written ‘Shadows’, I guarantee you that the show wouldn’t be half as good as I think it is today. If I already have the money, why should I do 100 performances? I’ll do one tour, film it and hand the special over. And I know exactly where
‘Shadows’ was 10 or 30 performances in. I wouldn’t dare put that online. I performed it over 100 times before I shot it, I did nine trial shows. For me, I didn’t know where it was going when I was touring it. I didn’t know whether an OTT deal would happen or not. I just knew I needed this show to be good.
As an artist, it would kill me to not know how many people have watched a body of work.
However, the big reason I decided to go the YouTube way was because I wanted to have complete access to analytics (like who’s watching it, where they’re watching from, how long they’re watching it for and what devices they’re watching it on). I can see the engagement in real time. Not only can I see how the special is performing, anyone can. It’s as easy as logging in to YouTube. With an OTT, you don’t have the data. You have no clue who has watched it. You don’t even know how many views it got. As an artist, it would kill me to not know how many people have watched a body of work. (On self-releasing a special on YouTube or trying to sell it to an OTT platform) I think it’s about making a decision about whether you want the money up-front or become a better comic, put out your best work and maybe not make the same amount of money in one go. Maybe you make the money over a period of time instead. When I tried the first-ever pay-as-you-like model, so many people thought I was crazy. But three months later, I had already recovered my entire production cost (of ‘Shadows’). Now anything that comes in through the payment link is just profit. That being said, I definitely want my next special to go on a platform. I don’t want to put myself through the same process again.
AB: What do you wish people talked about more, in the comedy world?
DF: I want more people to talk about how much fun they had at a live [comedy] show [they attended]. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people watching live comedy in India right now. A majority of fans and enthusiasts are watching comedy content on their phones or laptop screens, when the real experience is exponentially better. It can’t compare. Which do you prefer – watching porn or having sex? Live comedy is sex, and what you’re doing right now with Netflix, Prime, YouTube is just porn. If you take even 10% of the online audience and bring them offline, every show in the country will be sold out. So I really wish people would just go [for shows], I wish they would talk about it more, saying “I really want to do that again.”
(This interview was conducted before the country went into lockdown in March 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)