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The joke's on you

With new comics, new platforms, new audiences and new money pumping into comedy, India’s laughing stock is full and overflowing. See how your world is getting funnier.

brunch Updated: Sep 21, 2013 17:17 IST
Amrah Ashraf

Have you seen the number of people who fight to sit in the first row of a stand-up night just so that they can be picked on?” Tom Course, director of creative and technical and programming at Mumbai’s Canvas Laugh Factory, can’t keep the amazement out of his voice. “We get phone calls from people requesting to be made fun of. Who would’ve thought? India does have a sense of humour!”

It’s been less than a decade since the big explosion in Indian comedy (TV shows, international stand-up acts, local artists and social media) happened but already the quiet chuckle has grown into a full-throated LOL. The Canvas Factory audiences, once shy of being heckled, now actively seek out chances to be ridiculed. India is testing its funny bone online, live, in music and on TV. Open-mic nights are full of budding comics testing their material. “It’s the new cool thing,” states Daniel Fernandes, stand-up comedian and founder of the comedy production house Microphone Entertainment. “Earlier, being in a band was the cool thing to do. Now, it’s being a comedian.”

Such is our appetite for humour that two weeks ago, Google directed YouTube to start a Comedy Week especially for India. Between September 5 and 12, a channel streamed hilarious compilations of the best Indian comedy: movie clips, stand-up highlights, scenes from TV, regional-language humour and just in case you’d laughed at it before, new videos too. “Seven out of 10 searches on the site are for comedy content,” says Sandeep Menon, director marketing, Google India. “It made sense to curate some of the best comedy content for audiences. We just want to make India laugh more.”

Not that we need the push. Apparently everything’s making us laugh now. Fernandes says people have grown past slapstick and mimicry. “Today, the audience laughs at stuff they can relate to. They want someone to say ‘My boss sucks’ or ‘My folks need a life’.” We laugh at things that worry us (surely you’ve seen the NaMo-Onam tweets when NaMo for PM began trending). We laugh at things that piss us off (heard the one about Sreesanth and the towels?).We laugh at things that make us sad (rising onion prices have spawned slogans like “Gift your fiancee an onion instead of a sapphire”). We laugh at things that make us happy (Dhoni for PM after he won us the World Cup and the Champions Trophy). We’re also laughing hardest about sex, which is understandable, seeing as we’re not talking about it.

We’re willing to laugh at ourselves a lot more too. “We love aping the West and they have managed to teach us some tolerance,” says Arunav Sengupta, founder of The Viral Fever, whose original comedy content for the Web has fans in Bollywood. “People have been drip-fed on Bill Hicks, Russell Peters, Comedy Central and Saturday Night Live. Not only do they want to create content like that, the audience learns to laugh like them as well.”

In stand-up, banal Delhi versus Bombay gags, regional stereotyping and gender bashing is old hat, for both performer and viewer. “Stand-up has become a lot more news-driven,” Fernandes says. “For instance, when I learnt that the maximum number of tourists in Goa are Gujaratis, I was shocked. So I created a whole set around it.”

And comics are bandying together for maximum humorous effect. All India Bakchod (Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba) do an entire sketch about sex. East India Comedy’s show, Comedy News Network, parodies Indian news shows. Vir Das’ Weirdass Company band, Alien Chutney, does musicals.

Manish Paul: TV host and anchor

“Three years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to pay your bills from club shows alone. Comedy was a hobby,” says Fernandes. “Today stand-up is a legitimate profession.” But there’s a catch. Before you can make a couple of lakhs for a show, you need to be a viable comic and that takes time and effort (oh, and you need to be consistently funny). “If you can do a 30-minute or more set to an auditorium full of uncles, aunties, grandpas and yuppies, then you get to make the bucks,” Fernandes points out. “If you can keep them hooked for so long, you deserve it!”

Follow Amrah Ashraf on Twitter @hippyhu

Manish Paul

A typical Delhiite who wouldn’t let the lady pay, loves puns, hates sexist jokes and once got his mother to write ‘Mard’ on his chest because he loved Amitabh Bachchan.

Because the extempore specialist has never learnt a joke in his life. Because he can take digs at KJo and get away with it. Because SRK thinks he’s funny. Because we like a pretty face that can also make us laugh.

anish Paul, madcap host of the last two seasons of Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa and several TV award ceremonies, is making us crack up with his off-the-cuff punchlines. But he doesn’t think he’s funny. “People often ask me how I come up with witty one-liners and I say ‘I don’t know’ because I really don’t know,” he says. “My wit is observational. I like asking questions and my questions are so damn stupid, people are forced to laugh.”

Those wry observations and silly questions have changed TV hosting. Paul is known for ditching the script and going extempore: “Jhalak’s scriptwriter, Siddharth Dey has given up. He knows the script is just a floor map for me. I’ll pick on people’s mannerisms, clothes or one wrong step and take off. Mechanical hosting is passé. Even audiences don’t find it funny.”

But he is careful, even on an impromptu set. “It’s easy to be rude and offend people in the guise of good humour. But I keep a check on my lines. Because what I think is funny might hurt someone.”

Does that mean Indians are still incapable of taking a joke? “That’s rubbish!” he exclaims. “Indians love to laugh. We laugh at almost everything. But comedy does not give you the license to humiliate.” Still, his digs at Karan Johar are pretty audacious; no fumble is left un-lampooned. “There are two reasons I get away with it. One, Karan knows I’d never say something that would leave him red-faced on TV,” says Paul. “Two, when I pick on someone (in good humour of course), I also pick on myself. Balancing the funnies is serious business.”

Aditi Mittal: Stand-up comedian

Aditi Mittal
A teacher who’s also a stand-up comedian. She is also 477th in the line for the Mittal steel fortune. So be nice.

Because she reminds us of Tina Fey and Kirsten Wiig. Because Kajol, Sonam Kapoor, Jackie Shroff and Manish Malhotra have been the butt of her jokes and they still love her.

It’s fashionable for people to say that Indians are very prudish and don’t like to laugh. I don’t believe that at all,” says Aditi Mittal. “They love to laugh. Just don’t make them feel like they are a part of the problem. We love to point at the other dude.”

Mittal or her oft-deployed alter-ego Dr Mrs Lutchuke (an elderly Maharashtrian sex-specialist!) is known for her straight-faced humour. Mrs Lutchuke speaks in a Marathi accent and asks men to not treat women “like radio-knobs” during foreplay. “We are so closemouthed about sex. At at least this way, I get to probe people in the least offensive manner,” she says.

Mittal believes that while Indians are laughers, not all our mirth comes from being amused. “We laugh when we’re nervous, clueless, embarrassed or bored. Sometime we laugh because everyone else is laughing,” she says. Mittal once did a short set about Sonam Kapoor while Kapoor was in the audience. “I called her an ostrich. But she just sat there, laughed loudly,” she says. “It could’ve been any kind of laughter – embarrassed or nervous – but she laughed. That’s kind of where India is today. We can take a joke.”

Still, she tweaks her material to her crowd: “You can’t make a sanitary napkin joke in front of 50 male CEOs. It’s just going to make them uncomfortable.” But she’s out there talking about taboos just the same. “Taking a dig at censorship is my favourite thing. People love it.”

Srinivas Rao
A lonely advertising guy who’s scared of crowds.

His tweets have pissed off Deepak Chopra, Sonam Kapoor, Sreesanth and Tusshar Kapoor. But his 20,000 followers are amused.

ave we finally learnt to laugh at ourselves? Of course not,” says Srinivas Rao aka @14_yr_old_Etard. “Try joking about our million Gods or Bharatiya sanskriti.” It’s all pretty hypocritical, he finds. “We won’t laugh at certain things because deep down inside we feel our culture requires us to be offended instead.”

Rao’s style can be summed up in a popular tweet: “Sarcasm is like electricity; half the villages in India are yet to get it.” And he understands that comic progress, like India’s development, is slow-moving. “We have only recently learnt to laugh,” he says. “But at least we are laughing more than our parents.”

Srinivas Rao: Funny guy on Twitter. @14_yr_old_etard

His tweets draw from the everyday and the everything. “Seventy per cent of them come from simply paying too much attention to the least interesting parts of my life.” Rao once tweeted about how unfair it is that beggars at traffic signals ignore two-wheelers to peep into cars with tinted glass. “That’s so classist of them!” he’d said, turning our social hierarchy on its head. “I joke about my vulnerabilities. I think it makes people forget their own issues and laugh at me.”

Rao has all the makings of a stand-up comedian, except the desire to be one. He finds it too daunting to face an audience. “Just because you know how to swim, doesn’t mean you have to cross the English Channel,” he says. “If you make a bad joke on stage, your audience can boo you off and your career is pretty much over. But on Twitter, a bad joke is quickly forgotten. Plus, you always have the choice of being anonymous.” He loves his anonymity. He even put up a fuss to get photographed for this story (we convinced him, of course) and he refuses to reveal how old he is: “Believe me, I’m 14.” He’s not!

Jamshed V Rajan
A corporate guy who’s made a running joke of his life and his conversations with his wife.

Because last year, he wrote a post called ‘I thought Clitoris was a Greek God’. Because if you are a married man, you have to read his Husband series. And if you're south Indian, read his Life In North India posts.

"I was not a popular kid. I’d spend sleepless nights wondering why my classic Dravidian looks, complete with greasy hair, were not charming the girls," says Rajan who prefers to be called Jammy. “All the ajjis and ammas loved how slick my hair was!” Eventually, Jammy figured that his Tam-Bram charm could be applied to a younger demographic with more romantic results, and started a blog. Ouch My Toe mines, exaggerates and twists reality to make a joke. He recently had a blog post about ice after sipping on his whiskey. He wrote that ice has no will to live, no motivation at all.

As a bachelor, his umpteen failed attempts with women were more tragic than comic. Now married, his everyday banter with his wife offers great fodder for humour. “A couple of days ago, I asked my wife why she didn’t kiss me before leaving for work,” he says. “She said the last time you asked me that, we had a son.” Jammy believes this is what makes his blog popular. “The moment the reader can relate to my life, he will see the humour. And if he can laugh at me, he will.”

But what truly inspires him is India, its idiosyncrasies, moods, regions, people on railway stations and “the crazy peeps”. “India is your best subject and your best audience,” says the writer who’s lived in Canada and London. “We laugh at every Sardar joke, gender stereotype and profanity. Cackling is second nature to Indians.”

Jamshed V Rajan: Blogger, Ouch My Toe

But we should be bolder than we are, he thinks. “Now anyone can take jibes anonymously on Twitter or blogs. Even when a comedian takes a jibe at Sharad Pawar, he knows social media is backing him.”

From HT Brunch, September 22

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