"That's right, we are still doing this show" - is the opening line by satirist group AIB's Gursimran Khamba and Tanmay Bhat from the first episode of the new season of 'On-Air with AIB'. It once again sets the 'direct-honest' tone, the team is known for.
Two weeks ago, the show kicked off its third season on Hotstar - three episodes every week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
When the first season of the show, produced by OML, aired in 2015, it marked the coming together of Star's brand new OTT platform - Hotstar (launched the same year) and India's most popular satirists - AIB. For the platform, it was about filling a gap in the content space; for AIB it was about scale and exposure. While the first season also aired on television channels - Star Plus (in Hindi) and Star World - season 2 onwards was VOD-only, on Hotstar.
Since AIB's 2015 debut, there have been a host of stand-up comedians getting their own specials across platforms like Amazon and Netflix in India. "There are so many people now, I guess what we were doing was working," says AIB's Rohan Joshi.
Sidharth Shakdher, EVP, Hotstar, says, "AIB's brand of news satire is still unique, even though the comedy space has evolved a fair bit since we did the show's first season. It plays a small, but significant role in widening the discussion through comedy."
The approach for OTT platforms versus social
AIB's massive popularity and growth is, of course, largely attributed to their fan following on YouTube. So how differently do they approach the OTT platform?
"As far as content goes, the approach is only slightly different. On open/social platforms like YouTube or Facebook, content can be more fluid - I can put up one 'Honest' (series) video today and something completely different tomorrow. But on closed platforms there is a certain format that the viewers are expecting; so with 'On-Air with AIB' there's that certain inherent brief when you write," says Joshi.
Also, social platforms enable easy sharing. Joshi shares more on this, "High shareability is one factor on open platforms. On Hotstar and other platforms, small barriers like sign-ups or app downloads can lead to drop-offs, but they are aware of that. All of them - Hotstar, Netflix, Amazon - know that unlike social platforms, they have to promote the material to bring people to it." He adds, "For instance, the Asia cup is on and the show's being promoted across the board; that helps bring in the numbers."
"Things can get so absurd, it's beyond parody..."
Political drama makes for good comedy fodder, that's a given; the show's theme is 'Tragedy main comedy' after all. But, what are the challenges in the craft today when it comes to seeking humour in the news?
"For example, how does one satirise someone like Donald Trump? Secondly, there are events that are so horrific, the lynch mobs thing, for instance, that one needs to think carefully about how they can extract any humour without trivialising these crimes," explains Joshi.
When asked about the overall approach to content now versus five years ago, Joshi replies, "Some jokes which were ok then aren't ok now and vice-versa."
There are also newer audiences who could be coming in on Hotstar. "We write in a way that makes sense to anyone who's even just walked in; but occasionally we may do some 'fan-service' or some 'in-jokes' for our followers," says Joshi.
'If you don't treat your audience like kids, you'd be surprised at what can be achieved...'
"Over the two seasons of On-Air, we realised that we're strongest when we directly look young people in the eye and tell them - 'here's the thing'. There's disillusionment as everyone is trying to talk to them emotionally or coddling them," Joshi outlines. He adds that the group treats their audience like adults who understand nuance. "These are rational people with functioning critical abilities, who are quite eager to engage," he asserts.
The team prides itself on its detailed editorial approach. "The first hire, made at the start of every season, is the research head and team. Every fact is double checked. Today we live in a world where many mainstream channels don't care about the truth; somebody should," states Joshi.
'For Gen Z, there's no person safe from ridicule in the 'memesphere'...'
Joel Pereira, the show's creative director, says that during the first season, when the new government just came in, the mood was primarily pro-ruling party and the show was one the few voices taking up issues nobody else was.
"Our followers were used to general and social topics, not necessarily news and politics; we wondered whether they'd want this from us. But after season 1, we saw that there was acceptance, as long as it was all credible...," Pereira recalls and adds, "... the amount of satire being generated by users themselves is quite high now."
The group is also aware that the current generation has grown up on online content with an absolute lack of a central command. "They're most accustomed to authorities being made fun of, unlike previous generations. For those who've grown up seeing memes, no one is safe from ridicule. A meme of a PM, CM or religious person will not have shock reactions. They have been primed to accept that alternative views exist and enjoy humour and satire," Pereira explains.
The Format - From 24 minutes to snackable chunks spread out throughout the week
In 2015, the show was created to mimic a television format, but that changed in season 2 when it was VOD only.
Pereira says, "We learnt that a 24-minute video was overwhelming for the audience." That led to them putting up three smaller segments of content per week (each identifying as a separate episode). In season 3, while the first two offerings in the week are topical, the third part, posted on Fridays, is 'Off Script' - a free-wheeling chat among the AIB team and two guest comics. This is inspired by their immensely popular podcasts on YouTube.
'We have three teams of lawyers...'
Up until now, the episodes include some - 'now, we are not saying' - kind of disclaimers and Pereira notes, "We don't have absolute freedom of speech and it's a system when the 'defamee' has to prove that he wasn't defamed rather than the other way around."
Pereira concludes with, "We have three teams of lawyers - our in-house counsel vets scripts and Star has their S&P team as well as an external group of lawyers. While we are filming, half my job is to make sure that what we are saying won't send us to jail."
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