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HindustanTimes Fri,29 Aug 2014
Why India's the best country for stand up
Sorabh Pant, Hindustan Times
February 21, 2014
First Published: 18:39 IST(21/2/2014)
Last Updated: 15:44 IST(23/2/2014)
Sorabh Pant

The first issue of Brunch in Delhi came out on February 1, 2004. Nine months later, with the launch of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai, Brunch was introduced to readers there as well. The Delhi Brunch completes 10 years this month. 

And so we bring you a special two-part anniversary issue, on the theme 'Look How We've Changed!' We asked writers, specialists in their field, to do a series of essays for us, chronicling these changes. 

In this essay, Sorabh Pant, one of India's best-known comedians, and the founder of East India Comedy takes us on a trip on the evolution of the stand-up scene in India.

Russian comedian, Yakov Smirnoff tells a story that sounds like the setup of a joke, "In 1970s Russia, we had to get our jokes approved by a Soviet Ministry of Jokes. Really! They didn't allow any jokes about sex, religion and especially the government. So, basically no jokes that were funny. All Russian comics of the time could joke about were ants, giraffes and their mothers-in-law." It would've taken vats of vodka to make that funny! Ridiculous, right?

How comedy won over the country
Then you see Indian TV… no jokes allowed on sex, religion, politics or celebrities. Our Ministry of Jokes is the I&B Ministry whose punch line tends to be Kapil Sibal's words. It's a miracle that in the last decade India's stand-up comedy scene has flourished. As with everything else in India: We flourished despite the government, not because of it! Perhaps Kingfisher Air would disagree.

Comedy has squeezed itself into every part of India: TV, radio, the Internet, films, stage, newspapers, magazines and occasionally in the courts - where someone or the other is trying to sue one of us because of some perceived grievance. (A good defence for a joke is not, "Your honour, I'd like to countersue the plaintiff for being a boring, uptight, unemployed moron who belongs in a Bengali film in the 1950s.")

WHO THE MAN? The apparently biggest influencer of English stan-up comedy in India: Russel Peters  (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

It's a great time to be a comedian in India. This has as much to do with the initiative of comedians, as it does with our audience. I started stand-up five years ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, LK Advani was still a young boy and nobody understood what stand-up was. The refrain from organisers was, "I have place. No mike, no stage, no people. You come and do your whatever mimicry and people will come. I will pay you in gobar gas, three months later. OK?"

And, this was well after the apparently biggest influencer of English stand-up comedy in India: Russell Peters had already been on the Internet for years. Indians knew what stand-up was but, much like freedom in the 1930s, Toblerones in the 1990s and chivalry in Haryana, we didn't know these things were available in India.

Several things pushed the comedy growth: Russell Peters, Comedy Circus, The Comedy Store in Mumbai, theatres trying young comedians, social media (16 of the top 200 'influencers' on India's social media are comedians), YouTube and the fact that comedians are so damn sexy. 

The place to be in is India
The most important thing though is: the sociological perfection of India for stand-up. India is the best country to be a stand-up comedian right now. I've done shows in China - where I took a flight right after my show to reduce the chances of getting arrested by the People's Army for jokes on its people, Singapore - where people's idea of edgy humour is making fun of Malaysians, or even the US - where any kind of racial stereotyping is now perceived uncouth. Racism is terrible, but have you heard the one about how many Jatts it takes to screw in a light bulb? It doesn't end well.

Things that pushed India's comedy growth: Russell Peters, Comedy Circus, Comedy Store in Mumbai, social media, YouTube and the fact that comedians are so damn sexy.

Lots to laugh about
India is the only country in the world where we have enough things to be annoyed about and enough people to listen to our gripes on those things! And, our grouses are so diverse: we have more religions than anyone, more political parties than anyone, more TV shows than anyone, more films than anyone. 30,000 comedians could work simultaneously and not cover every joke about what it means to be an Indian! And that's glorious! But I will probably assassinate any more comedians that enter the fray because, as SRK demonstrated to Sunny Deol in the movie Darr, competition is never a good thing!

Our development also helped us. Coincidentally, Russia - at the time of Yakov's time - was an impoverished state with very little to be happy about. And, that's the very rule of comedy: a country that allows its comedy the freedom to flourish is usually a country that is developed or developing. Or, in India's case, has at least a majority of its people who are developed. The rest of them think Bigg Boss is art.

Two things prove your status as a developed nation: success at the Olympics and a burgeoning comedy scene. So, Olympics and LOLympics. Comedians are like Olympic athletes though with not as much drug intake. Not as much.

The psychology of why people laugh is apt for Indians. A laugh is an expression of fear, which is why you laugh at things that are usually inappropriate or racy for public discussion. And, we Indians have so much we consider 'inappropriate' - sex, religion, communities, politics, celebrities, our history, smoking on screen. With that kind of suppression, we are more Russia than Russia itself! 

Which is why we had hasya kavis for centuries before comedy, why we ensured a comedian in every one of our films and why also we vote for the clowns we do. 

PS: My congratulations to Brunch on finishing a decade. You're the longest reading relationship I've ever had, since the end of Harry Potter.

Sorabh Pant is one of India's best-known comedians, and the founder of East India Comedy. He's also an author. His second novel will release in April.

From HT Brunch, February 23

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