Our Comedy Their Comedy
Some of the city’s best stand-up comedians came together over the weekend gone by for Vir Das’s Pajama comedy festival. Mumbai’s entertainment-seeking crowd spent a large sum on the tickets because they were guaranteed a good time. Actually, stand-up comics here have it relatively easy, audience laugh at pretty much anything. If the jokes are dirty — ‘non-veg’ as they are quaintly called in India , then they challenge the audience to prove their open-mindedness — to themselves and their friends. Like, ‘oh we are cool with this,’ parents watching with their kids, and going ‘haaww’ at the really off-colour jokes.
Catching the Celebrity Roast segment, in which a whole bunch of comedians verbally skewered Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak, one was stuck with the Mars vs. Venus effect-— what men and women find funny being vastly different. Interestingly, all the comedians on stage acknowledged their debt to the two VJs — turned-actors, whose Great Indian Comedy Show on TV gave breaks to a whole lot of them.
Both male and female comics are unabashedly politically incorrect —Tanmay Bhatt’s obesity, Ashish Shakya’s dark skin, Sorabh Pant’s baldness and Vir Das’s height (lack of it, that is) came in for some merciless ribbing. But male comics simply could not manage even a few minutes of comedy without referring to body parts used for excretion/reproduction. Even when they admire their victims’ sporting spirit for taking the really cruel barbs without throwing tantrums or walking off the stage, they say they have b**** of steel, when actually they have nerves of cast iron.
Sexism is, of course, rampant; male comics cannot get by without making the crassest digs at women and the locker room kind of guffawing at the size of boobs and the ‘V’ word creeps in too, which wasn’t so a couple of years ago. Though it must be said, Malaysian comedian Harith Iskandar did a hilarious piece about a girlfriend whose suspicions go over the top when he runs into an old flame. Several comedians do get packed houses without hitting below the belt (Vir Das, Sorabh Pant, Anuvab Pal on a good day). But it is easier for stand-up comics to get laughs using smutty material.
In a piece tracing the history of Stand-up comedy, Jim Mendrinos wrote, “Stand-up is a decidedly American invention, with its roots going back into the mid 1800s. Up until that time comedy was the exclusive domain of theatre. The unintentional grandfather of stand-up comedy was Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, the man who is credited with inventing the minstrel shows. The minstrel shows were probably one of the most grotesque forms of entertainment in existence. It was built on negative racial stereotypes, and the mockery of a race of people who were already subjugated.”
That scalding humour born of humiliation and rage (of the Blacks) can never be replicated for an elite, urban audience just looking for easy entertainment.
Laughter can be clean and generated from the unlikeliest source material is proved by the enduring success of Ank’s comedy Hai Mera Dil, that also had a show over the same weekend. This play directed by the late Dinesh Thakur, an adaptation of a lightweight piece called Send Me No Flowers (by Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore), is the longest running Hindi play, that has had over a thousand shows and has been running for around 36 years. The play about a hypochondriac who believes he is dying and wants to find a suitable match for his wife before he departs, must have been progressive thirty years ago in India, when widow remarriage was not common. But it still continues to sell out and gets repeat audiences, maybe because there is an innocence about it that reaches out to audiences, who can then laugh without shame or guilt.
Unlike English theatre groups in Mumbai, that adapted British bedroom farces with impunity, Hindi theatre groups understood that their audiences were conservative and tailored their content accordingly. It’s not as if there are no vulgar Hindi plays, but there are not too many, and the stand-up tradition is yet to catch on in a big way (Raju Shrivastav is apparently cashing in), but going by the huge popularity of comedy shows on TV (the quality of their humour can be debated), it is just a matter of time before Hindi comedians see the potential of getting on stage and making fun of their wives and mothers-in-law — there is already a precedent of the hasya kavi sammelans, and jokes for the picking off the net.
But for a really intelligent comedian, there is lot of material out there — our leaders, celebs, stars, socialites deserve to be ‘roasted’, pity that so many comedians still choose to focus on their crotches.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator