Gursimran Khamba tells about the art and craft of stand up comedy
In a nascent stand-up comedy scene in India, Gursimran Khamba has swiftly become a bankable name. He is co-founder of All India Bak***d, India’s most widely heard comedy podcast. At ‘No Country For Cynical Men’, an evening of comedy held recently at India Habitat Centre, Khamba put a diverse range of events and people, ranging from Uday Chopra to Manmohan Singh, through the sword of his sharp, risqué jokes. Tempting as it is to quote them here, he requested us not to compromise his punchlines. So we got him to reply to a few questions instead. Excerpts:
Can you describe the process of writing a joke — how long do you have to work on one? Do you think of how it ought to be delivered while writing it?
This is a very individual process. Mostly we all keep notes of thoughts or lines or ideas that we have or observations that we make. Sometimes that leads to jokes on that situation emerging instantaneously but sometimes those ideas fester for a year before you get a second line. The disciplined approach that most comedians follow is sitting everyday with a blank piece of paper and writing down their thoughts which can then be moulded according to certain joke templates but I’m not someone who can work that way. For me it stems from an observation that I make and then seeing where I can take that exaggeration – ideally still keeping it personal to my experience.
In your jokes, you poke fun, among others, at politicians, celebrities, religions, and South-Indians — often in ways that could be called ‘politically incorrect’ or ‘offensive’. Is inoffensive, politically correct comedy possible?
Is it possible? Yes. Do I like that kind of stuff? Not really. I think stand up is one of the last bastions left where you can still speak your mind and be truly free. You don’t have any other art form left that hasn’t been censured and it’ll be a matter of time before this is as well. Lots of people do clean comedy about nothing but it’s a personal thing I guess about what makes one tick. Also, politically incorrect and offensive are subjective terms. I could find your questions offensive even if they seem harmless from the outside – so that’s not a criteria to judge it on anyway.
Tom Waits described the stand-up comedian Bill Hicks as “a blowtorch, excavator, truthsayer, and brain specialist” — an unusual description for a man who is only expected to be funny. Do you think stand-up comedy has a purpose beyond making people laugh?
I don’t think it’s unusual at all. If you see all the greats that people still remember and respect today – Red Foxx, Lenny Bruce, Hicks, Carlin, Kinnison, Giraldo, Pryor…I could go on, they’re all talked about simply because they were all these kinds of people. Even in the current crop, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Lewis Black, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart… I could go on – stand up historically has always been about truth to power. We’re used to in India a kind of comedy that is without fangs but even that’s only recently – our newspaper cartoons, hasya kavi sammelans, local art forms like nautanki have all been about subversion more if not along with humour. It’s an audience thing in terms of what their idea of comedy is but if they think it’s all about jokes then it’s their lack of understanding.
In an earlier interview, you say you belong to the first-generation of comics. Was having no tradition of stand-up comedy to refer to or fall back on, exciting or scary?
Mostly exciting because we have it easy – there’s less competition, greater novelty for audiences and you can get away with easier jokes. That said, it also adds a greater responsibility. We’ve to make sure we educate the audience about stand up, most of whom have no idea what it is and its history. The other is to make them enjoy it enough that they come back for more, which makes it easier for the next generation to come into the picture. All of this without having any real mentors besides Youtube; so you’re learning along the way and taking audiences with you on that ride.