Why Are Indian Stand-Up Comedians Unfunny?

Mayuresh Didolkar

Feb 06, 2018, 11:35 AM | Updated 11:35 AM IST

Stand-up comedy in India ... unfunny and snooty
Stand-up comedy in India ... unfunny and snooty
  • India’s stand-up comedy is not easily accessible to the masses unlike in the West, and for us to delve really deep into the vein of observational humour we need comics who perform in the local language.
  • Back in 2015-16, I decided to try my hand at stand-up comedy. To my delight, I found out that Pune was fast becoming a hotbed of stand-up activities with various pubs and clubs regularly hosting stand-up nights with a generous section devoted to aspiring comics like me under the “open-mic” segment. In about six months I realised it was not for me, in spite of some modest success at making people laugh.

    It is not the purpose of this article to discuss why it was not for me. However, I still look back on it as a pleasant experience especially because some of my fellow comics were supremely gifted people who could make me fall out of the chair laughing, night after night. So, naturally, as a long-time fan of stand-up, I decided to check out the pros, the made-men and women of Indian stand-up scenes — you know, the ones who headline shows with costly tickets and who have their own Netflix/Amazon shows. I thought that switching over from American and British comics to home-grown ones would be a good idea since getting the local context would be much easier.

    Long story short — I am back to British and American comics now. And I am not the only one, believe me. Why do the comics performing in unknown pubs for little or no money could leave you gasping for breath while the professionals, the ones with the headline shows, elicit hardly more than an occasional chuckle?

    Here is a short list of problems that the stand-up scene in India is suffering from:

    The language conundrum

    Hindi and English are the dominant languages of the stand-up scene in India. I am taking a wild guess, but upward of 98 per cent of all comics perform in one of these two languages. Now, here is the problem — that still leaves a large section of the 1.25 billion-odd population which does not prefer either of these languages for their entertainment. This problem only intensifies further when you realise that among all the performing entertainment art forms, none depends as heavily on language alone as stand-up, which, shorn of all its bells and whistles, is essentially a guy (or a girl ) standing in front of you and talking.

    There is another way that language affects comedy, especially observational comedy, which forms a major part of the world’s stand-up comedy scene. From the late, great George Carlin to Ellen Degeneres and from Woody Allen to the heavyweight champion of rage-fuelled humour, Bill Burr, all the great stand-up comedians draw/drew heavily on everyday life and encounters with different peoples as source of comedy. In the West, since English is a common language, at least for North America and the United Kingdom, it allows the observational comics to use English, spoken with different accents, using different idioms and forms of expression, to convey the humour. For an Indian comedian delivering the humour of his encounter with, say a Marathi Hotel owner form Pune (who would have talked to him in Marathi) or the Tamil septuagenarian he meets every day in the jogging park, in English or Hindi takes away a lot of the fun inherent to the language itself. I remember in my childhood reading a story by the great humourist, the late C V Joshi (who wrote delightful stories about the lower middle class Maharashtrian families who had just discovered government jobs) where the protagonist who works as a clerk in a government office, has conjunctivitis. Now, in Marathi, conjunctivitis is referred to as ‘dole yene’ (literal translation — coming of eyes). So, our hero sends a note to his British boss that reads: “Sir, my eyes have come. As soon as they go, I will join work”.

    You will see easily how the hero fails to convey the accurate nature of his ailment to his boss due to the language barrier and how if the reader of this article is a non-Maharashtrian, he/she would still struggle to appreciate the true humour of this anecdote. Surprisingly, while the regional movie-making has gone big time in India (Bahubali anyone?), the stand-up comedians from different parts of the country, and performing in different parts of the country, still stick to either Hindi or English. My editor at Juggernaut says some of the most interesting writing in India happens in a language other than English, and I suspect the same is the case with comedy. For us to delve really deep into the vein of observational humour we need comics who perform in the local language.

    The Good Will Hunting syndrome

    In the 90s the movie Good Will Hunting generated immense buzz even before its release, primarily due to the story (assiduously promoted by their marketing team) of two childhood friends (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) writing a story about their experiences of growing up in Boston and making big time (getting a movie deal with a big studio). Two decades later, the most discerning movie goers agree that the movie by itself (nominated for six academy awards and winning two — one for Affleck/Damon for best screenplay and another for supporting actor for the late Robin Williams) was fairly average, full of every cliche about childhood friendship, misunderstood genius, and underachieving as a rebellion statement. The movie, in my mind, is a classic example of triumph of communication over content.

    This phenomenon has parallels in the Indian stand-up scene. A person in the know, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “the big guys in the current scene owe their stature to their tech savvy and social media skills as much as to the material in itself”. The natural synergies between a new art form like stand-up, and social media are easy to notice. So naturally, the current headliners, while they were trying to make a name for themselves, made extensive use of social media to build a following. Unfortunately, the content in some cases is yet to catch up with the communication. As a marketing feat it is commendable, but it also explains the relatively average material many of them produce/deliver.

    Elite nature of the art in India

    While thinking of stand-up comedy in India, I can’t help but compare it to the fast food outlets like McDonald’s. McDonald’s that caters to the working class and/or student population in many countries in the West, still remains fairly pricey and out of range for the working class (or students from non-urban areas) in India. Similarly, stand-up comedy shows that are produced for and consumed by masses in West, are still fairly exclusive in India. Most of the shows are held in pubs or nightclubs that are fairly expensive, and that means the crowd attending the shows come from the upper strata, highly urbanised one.

    Now, in an art that is almost entirely dependent on audience appreciation, it is no secret that the comics who perform regularly in such venues would write material aimed at this audience. For the average Indian, whose idea of comedy might be the simple, slapstick humour of actors like Govinda and Johnny Lever, the topics (where I performed, the television serial Game of Thrones was a perennial favourite among both comedians and audience. In spite of being a regular reader of English fiction I frequently struggled to follow it) as well as the style adapted by these comics is extremely unlikely to resonate. In Indian stand-up scene, we have really not had a phenomenon like Chetan Bhagat or Amish Tripathi who freed English novel out of the clutches of the perfumed elites, and delivered it to the masses. India’s stand-up comedy remains as snooty as it is unfunny.

    It’s all politics

    Irrespective of your political affiliations, one would agree that excessive political messaging through any art form can get old quickly. In USA, famous late night show host Jay Leno recently lamented about Trump jokes becoming old. Personally, I stopped watching many comics like Bill Maher and Sarah Silverman, whom I used to love earlier, only because these days their material is 100 per cent politically motivated, and targeting one person. Your degree of dislike of Trump might be different from mine, but if that is all that you are going to talk about, then at some point, I am going to wonder if in the audience-entertainer contract, you are keeping your side of the bargain.

    And Bill Maher is genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. Imagine the predicament of us poor Indians, when people whose material is borderline funny at best, start using their platform to talk about intolerance, Hindutva terror, patriarchy and that bad, bad species called Indian male. You open the twitter feed of any Indian comic worth his/her blue tick and five minutes of reading ignorant virtue signalling is apt to drive even the most patient of the people up the wall (that the Mexicans were going to pay for!)

    Political correctness overdose

    Admittedly, this is not an Indian problem alone, and the so called millennials have some heavy lifting to do as far as assigning blame for this is concerned. Taking offence at people whose sole job is to create humour through meanness has become the world’s favourite pastime. It has reached a stage where comics like Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry the Cable Guy have stopped playing colleges because of how easily the students get offended. And if you think audiences taking offences quickly is bad, wait till you hear the stories about the comics who do the same. In my short stint as an amateur comic, I have seen examples of comics picking out seemingly innocuous comments made in private chat groups, taking them out of context, and posting the screenshots in public, for the sole purpose of shaming their own colleague. Almost all the humour is derived at the expense of someone, and it is almost never 100 per cent fair to that someone. If a comic cannot try out her edgier material in the privacy of her own peers, then it is not hard to see why nobody is trying to push the envelope.

    Ethnocentric world-view

    During my book launch last year, filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri told an anecdote about Karan Johar saying how all the Punjab he had seen was through Yash (chopra) uncle’s films only. Well, a similar problem is present in Indian stand-up as well, where most of the performers are young and from the large cities in India, so most of their observations about rural India or conservative India are through the Twitter feeds of their celebrity friends and from the lit-fest circuit. This affects in two ways in that it severely limits the number of topics these people can speak comfortably about, and the authenticity of the experience they present.

    Diminishing returns of social media

    The large following built by the headliners on social media comes with a pay-off. Most of the entertainers have allowed their timelines to become heavily politicised to the extent of forgetting that the primary reason why a comedy fan would follow any stand-up comedians is to keep himself abreast of his/her tour schedule, and get a few laughs. What you get instead is a huge daily dose of political correctness (from comics, he cried!), fact-free rhetoric about intolerance, and recycled issues like racism and patriarchy that have “made in West” printed in big letters all over them.

    As a long standing comedy fan, I value those who can make me laugh. As a long standing free speech advocate, I firmly believe that if creative arts are the final bastion for protection of free speech, then stand-up comedy is its final outpost. When it gets overrun, we know we have lost. Unfortunately in India, the sentries of this outpost, with a few exceptions, view free speech at best as a liability and at worst a nuisance that sometimes forces them to listen to the unwashed masses. Their inferior material is bad enough, their attitude tells me not to wait for a change in the scene anytime soon.

    The writer is a investment services professional and novelist. His latest novel The Dark Road was published by Juggernaut Publications.

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