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Tickling the funny bone

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Posted: 11 March 2006 at 6:41am | IP Logged
Tickling the funny bone
Comedy is the new buzzword on the idiot box, reports Gouri Shukla
LAUGHTER IS IN THE AIR: Shekhar Suman and Navjot Sidhu in The Great Indian Laughter Challenge show (top); scenes from Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, Khichadi (above) and the cast of Hum Paanch (below)

It started with a few giggles, but now the laughter is resonant. There is humour in the air — or, rather, on the airwaves. Balaji Telefilms, which produces soap operas that usually revolve around the tearful sagas of mothers-in-law and their families, has just relaunched an old comedy serial. And it's not the only one, for humour, clearly, is the flavour of the season.

Television has suddenly become flooded with comedy. The Mumbai-based production house, which had dropped comic serials like a hot brick when its family sagas such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi captured an unprecedented number of eyeballs, has rediscovered the worth of humour. After a break of five years, Balaji Telefilms recently went back to its maiden production, Hum Paanch, a serial on the antics of five sisters, on Zee TV.

That's not all. Mumbai-based producer and director Ravi Rai — producer of such emotional television dramas as Hasratein and Silsilay — is in the process of making a debut in the comedy genre on Zee TV. And just when you thought SAB TV, the humour-centric channels floated by Adhikari Brothers, had gone into oblivion, it was relaunched as part of the Sony Entertainment Television bouquet, with a greater emphasis on humour content.

"There is a revival of comedy on television now. Intelligent humour is being appreciated and accepted," says actor Satish Shah, back on television with Star One's Sarabhai vs Sarabhai (a comedy) after a five-year break. "I didn't believe in the kind of [slapstick] comedy that was happening on television in the late 1990s," says the actor, who became a household name with the rollicking Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi back in the Eighties. Seconds actor-anchor Shekhar Suman, "It's a trend you can see not only on television but even in films. People no longer want to see sob sagas. They just want to have fun and de-stress."

Switch on the TV set and you'll know that humour is back. Soaps still reign supreme, of course, but TV seems to have suddenly recovered its lost joke book. So while Star has Line of Control, Sarabhai, Khichadi and The Great Indian Comedy Show in its laughter kitty, Zee is bringing back Hum Paanch, after wrapping up Kareena Kareena, another comedy, along with a slew of new serials on Zee Smile, Zee's direct-to-home channel.

If this is a comeback of sorts for comedy, it has come after a long time. The late Eighties and Nineties were dominated by humour — with serials such as Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi and Zabaan Sambhalke becoming hugely popular. By the end of the Nineties, the daily family dramas had made a melodramatic entry, elbowing comedies out.

Laughter gave way to tears at a time when comedies were getting thin. When the saas-bahu brigade entered the fray, reigning comedies such as Tu Tu Main Main were in their last season after running for a continuous two years. As industry insiders point out, comedy as a genre can't retain audience interest for long, unlike dramas full of suspense and emotions that keep unfolding every day.

"Comedy is all about objective viewing, it's not as emotionally binding as a daily soap can be. You feel compelled to stick to the storyline in case of dramas but in sitcoms (situation comedies) you can start watching from any point in the episode," says Shailja Kejriwal, senior creative director at Star TV.

No surprise then, that daily soaps still rule, even though the average Television Rating Points (TRPs) — an eyeball count — of the top three family soaps have declined over the last five years. Kyunki's TRPs have slid from 19 to 13 since 2000 but it still remains the soap with the highest viewership. "When emotional dramas caught on, channels were not as keen on comedy scripts as they are now," states Jignesh Majithia, co-founder, Hats Off Productions. The result, he says, was a half-hearted attempt at comedy. Shah seconds that. "There was a lot of buffoonery happening in the mid-1990s in the name of comedy. Very few comedies on television really worked then, thanks to a serious dearth of intelligent comedy scripts," he says.

So for a while the weepy sagas ruled. But somewhere along the way industry leaders realised that while the soaps were the staple diet of the middle-aged and the old, the young — especially men — tended to keep away. Comedy, on the other hand, attracted a young audience, including the male viewer. That's what Star discovered in 2004. Riding piggyback on its top three K-serials (Kyunki, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kasauti Zindagi Kay), Star Plus has consistently commanded close to 60 per cent of total television viewership since 2000 though the saas-bahu dramas did not keep younger viewers (15-34 years) hooked.

Star could not afford to change the programme mix on Star Plus, which had turned out to be its winning formula. So Star One was launched with a promise of a fresh set of programmes for the urban young. Accordingly, the channel launched with differently-formatted programmes, including weekly suspense dramas and a couple of comedy shows. "They were focused on programming for an SEC (socio economic class) urban audience initially," says Majithia. Even the initial promotions revolved around shows such as Siddhanth (a young lawyer's tale), Special Squad (a detective series) and Remix (a story of yuppie teenagers who start their own band).

But soon the channel discovered that the programmes that really raked in the TRPs, besides having instant recall, were shows such as Sarabhai vs Sarabhai and Instant Khichadi.

The turning point, however, was The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, a talent hunt for stand-up comedians. "The Laughter Challenge has proved to be a driver for the channel on the whole," says Shailesh Dave, chief executive officer, Runaway Productions, which provides content for shows such as Dil Kya Chahta Hai and The Great Indian Comedy Show for Star One in collaboration with Contiloe Films.

By August 2005, three months after its launch, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge was next to Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) on Star Plus, in terms of average television viewership ratings (TVRs). The average TVRs for The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, according to TAM Media Research, was 7-8, only next to KBC which scored 12-13. Sony's Fame Gurukul, a musical talent hunt, registered average TRPs of 4-5 in the same period. "The Great Indian Laughter Challenge turned out to be a surprise package for the channel. And Star decided to cash in on comedy," says an industry insider.

If Star One just discovered its humour quotient, Zee TV has changed its funny formula, too. In early 2004, Zee launched Zee Smile. Previously the channel aired re-runs of popular comedy programmes that had run their innings on Zee TV. But ever since it has tweaked its programming and brought the channel on the free-to-air platform, Zee Smile has reported a 40 per cent increase in profits.

And now the channel is betting its money on the laughter game. It launched newer programmes as soon as it was made free-to-air. "We want to extend the comedy positioning to that of just fun and zero-stressful viewing. That would include more format shows or game shows based on the idea of having fun," says Nitin Vaidya, senior vice-president, Zee Regional Channels & Zee Smile. Zee has also brought its humour channel on the free-to- air platform since early 2005.

In the pipeline is a talk show with Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, a format show called Naughty at 40, and a gala round of Hasya Kavi Sammelan. Taking a cue from The Great Indian Laughter Challenge's success, Zee Smile is splashing the Hasya Kavi Sammelan on outdoor media this year, unlike the low key affair last year. And SAB TV (gross rating points of 28, up from 14 last year) will relaunch with Lo-Kal-Lo Baat — another comedian hunt.

But the business of laughter is not all that easy. Today, the comedy genre competes with the reality and drama categories for viewership. Channels are learning to tackle that by adding a dash of reality to the comedy recipe. With format shows making a debut in the comedy genre, sitcoms are also changing. "Unlike before, intelligent scripts are being accepted now," says Suman, who is one of the main hosts of The Great Indian Comedy Show.

Channels are also learning from international markets, where sitcoms have always had the highest TRPs, despite 10-year runs. But international sitcoms roll up a season in just 22-26 episodes, and launch the next season after a break of six to eight months. "We need to adopt the concept of having seasons. You can't stretch a joke for too long," says Majithia, who recently wrapped up the second season of Instant Khichadi, giving it a six to eight month gap.

Is that helping? "Marketers surely seem more ready to bet on humour now, as compared to the end of the Nineties," says Cyrus Oshidar, senior vice-president, creative and content, MTV Networks, India. So while Movers & Shakers — the first late night show, hosted by Suman — on Sony TV got Reid & Taylor to promote it, but only for a brief while, the 13-14 week long Laughter Challenge won exclusive sponsorship from Clinic All Clear from, and later from Hutchison-Essar. Not surprisingly, producers are laughing all the way to the bank.

http://www.telegraphindia.com/1051106/asp/look/story_5432824 .asp

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Posted: 12 March 2006 at 10:53pm | IP Logged
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