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Will stand-ups please sit down?

There’s nothing humorous at the open-mic sessions hard-selling bad jokes and pricey beer, reports Nivriti Butalia.

art and culture Updated: Jun 19, 2010 21:16 IST
Nivriti Butalia

Blame it on me, my deep philosophical insights, or the guilty-for-everything jabulani football. I don’t get stand-up comedy.

Let me rephrase that. I got a lot of stand-up comedy over the last few weeks but I didn’t find the variety being peddled, well, funny. The jokes seemed laboured, the delivery lacklustre, and an evening of one bad act after another made me wish I could walk out and never enter the place in question playing host to Funny Men (‘funny’ weird, as opposed to ‘funny’ ha-ha) where I pay Rs 250 for a pint of Rs 25 beer. For what? To watch a bunch of novices get on stage and sweat? I’ll go to nitrous oxide bar instead, thank you. But hey, that’s open mic night for you where wannabe comedians ‘come alive’ (sic) while the audience moves their jaw-jaws to haw-haw like zombies to ensure nobody thinks they are humourless.

I know, I know. There’s that counter-argument: We should appreciate people making fools of themselves on makeshift stages in watering holes across the city. (Ply a guy with enough drinks and he’ll be funnier for free.) Or that it’s a big deal because it takes guts. (Show me a member of the audience who’s not more scared of not being seen laughing and I’ll show you a stand-up cracking sex jokes involving gods.)

Papa CJ, 33, a professional stand-up, dares me: “Why don’t you prepare two minutes worth of matter and take the stage?” What’s that gotta do with how funny he is onstage? Last time I complained about a dish in a restaurant, the chef didn’t say, “Why don’t you rustle up the coq a vin a la Bhatinda?!” The fact that I have neither spine nor the inclination to be a stand-up comic reminds me: there are so few women up there.

Anushree Majumdar, a recent ex-journalist, is one of the few. And she’s a minority in a field crawling with guys. Her on-stage antics were easier to digest than that of a 7-foot tall chap wearing a checked shirt over a tee who opens with “WASSSUP?” and proceeds to pick a fight with white people in the audience simply because, well, there are white people in the room. (Okay, so Anushree was a junior in college...) Bad taste, reverse racism. The thing is, people do laugh, sometimes a bit too hard. All it takes is crudeness and cuss words. Rarely will you find a comic, like Rajneesh Kapoor (not a junior in college), who doesn’t do sex jokes. It’s just not his thing. And for that reason you won’t find Rajneesh getting up on stage letting loose variants of the honed-by-tradition ma-behen ki gaali.

Coming back to Mr CJ, we’ve heard about him starting his routine five years ago in London while he was 27 and “not eating three meals because he was busy travelling anywhere” that got him a) a gig b) stage time c) an audience d) any of the above e) all of the above. So I heard the ‘veteran’ do his bit to defend the current crop of clowns. There are exceptions, he says. Give it time, he says. “It takes a while to become good. It’s early days yet for stand up in this city,” Mr CJ tells me while I glance at my watch. “Unlike filmmaking or journalism [ouch!], you can’t learn how to be a stand-up. You’re either funny or not. And that bit about Indians lacking the ability to laugh at ourselves — not true. We’re hypocrites, not prudes.”

CJ has had women (read: aunty-jis) come up to him backstage in Ludhiana to... trade ‘sex anecdotes’. Back in the audience, Mrs Kaul, probably sitting with her mother-in-law and mother-in-law’s son, maintains her Gurmukhi gravitas come hail or bumper crop.

But my search continues. Seeking an alternative to Navjot Siddhu and his The Great Indian Laughter Challenge on TV and being a loyal — if cynical — member of ‘Dahli’s’ stand-up audience, I just wish as I write this with a scowl that there was more to laugh about.