The only expression that is all pervading, and never ceases to bring a smile to anyone’s face, is that of laughter. In this day and age where video streaming websites such as YouTube and Vimeo have become ubiquitous, almost every youngster has seen a show of a stand-up comedian. The highest priced words are ghostwritten by gagmen who furnish the raw material for comedy on the screen. They have a word-lore of their own, which they utilise judiciously to entice the audience and send them into raptures.
“When my comedy gets someone to react… anger, laughing, crying, whatever… I know I did my job”
― Johnny Corn
For years, India’s only exposure to stand-up comedy was through a video on a computer or the television. George Carlin, Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K’s sardonic yet amusing quirks had appealed to the Internet viewing audience; and the 2000s saw a lot of youngsters – myself included – taking a predilection to stand-up comedy. I used to quote Russell Peters’ “Somebody gonna get hurt real bad” to defuse a serious situation with humour frequently, although I did get admonished by my parents for using it far too often. Jerry Seinfeld, in fact, had an entire show – and a pretty damn good one too – about his daily life as a stand-up comedian. However, India always looked at quality stand-up comedy as a treasure of the West, and the pine for dark, twisted, hilarious, rib tickling, non-Rohit Shetty humour still remained.
The past decade has seen a slight change in the stand-up comedy situation in India. While the job was initially jeered at and often termed clownish, it is now a well-respected and popular profession amongst those who have the ability to captivate an audience, inveigle them with the buildup of their joke, and elicit boisterous guffaws as they deliver their punch lines with panache. Vir Das, Papa CJ and Kapil Sharma, who have become popular through media or reality shows, as well as comedy groups such as All India Bakchod, East India Comedy, and The Viral Fever, who gained repute via the internet, have now become household names.
The similarities between Indian and Western stand-up comedians start and end at the mannerisms and the construction of their jokes. Both use common daily situations and anecdotes as ingredients and cook up a story that seems palatable to the senses, but there always seems to be a twist – a sour garnish, almost – that truly appeals to the audience and elicits laughter from them.
The content, however, is vastly different. Western stand-up comedians have heavily relied on sexual intercourse, politics and racism as a basis for their jokes, thus giving their humour a dark, black tinge to it. India is yet to accept criticism of it’s traditions and feels reticent to foray into taboo topics – such as sex or inefficient governments; the jokes usually revolve around India’s funny accents, awkward situations in foreign countries, or the most popular one – engineers and their inability to flirt with women.
India’s comedy content has generally stayed within the ambits of what is considered acceptable. A joke about a woman and how she must stay in the confines of a kitchen – blatant sexism at it’s finest – is considered reasonable, but a slight diatribe against a person in power is considered sacrilegious and will immediately get you in trouble. Whatever be the content, and the proscribing that certain factions feel the need to enforce against what is essentially freedom of speech, there is no denying that stand-up comedy in India is here to stay. A “Roast” may be censored, a video about a politician may be rebuked, but the universal appeal of comedy will never be bogged down by the shackles of certain laws. In fact, the constant banning and censoring of comedic content will just add fuel to the fire and provide stand up comedians with more fodder for their jokes.
This is an age of comedy, and with the youth adopting a more unorthodox, free-spirited attitude towards life, jokes will continue to push the boundaries and stand-up comedians will continue to attract large crowds. The malaise that afflicts India’s orthodox mentality – the malaise that prevents it from laughing at itself or accepting a slight mocking of it’s traditions - will require some sort of a medicine eventually.
And, as we all know, there’s no better medicine than laughter.
Photography By: Mit Ladola