Comedy that lacks a punch

It is as much the job of a comedian to shock the audience with unpalatable truths as it is to make them laugh

Updated - September 25, 2019 11:47 am IST

Published - September 25, 2019 12:15 am IST

The collective intellect of a society can be gauged by the art it appreciates and emboldens. What passes for comedy in India today caters predominantly to the lowest common denominator of ‘collective conscience’ rather than collective intellect.

Punch up

In recent years, we have seen a wave of stand-up comics in India, similar to the wave of software engineers we saw post-liberalisation. Stand-up comedy has become an aspirational career choice for many. We even have right-wing comics today and all they do is punch down (picking on the powerless).

I have come across many comics who believe that their job is to make people laugh — nothing more, nothing less. There are a few popular tropes to achieve this goal, such as the use of cuss words, misogyny, blatant casteism, Pakistan bashing, and body shaming. Since these constitute the favoured menu of our society today, a generous dose of these tropes is guaranteed to fulfil the objective of making the audience laugh.

I vehemently disagree with this understanding of comedy. Stand-up comedy is all about speaking truth to power. Today, with large sections of the media being pro-establishment, good comedy and satire have come to occupy the role of the fourth estate. Holding the mic in front of a captive audience is a powerful opportunity to drive home a point, and with humour. But for that to happen, comics must expose the patterns in the way power is constructed and operates. The comic needs to hold a mirror to society. It is as much the job of a comic to shock the audience with unpalatable truths as it is to make them laugh. Personally, I have no interest in going for a comedy act that does not ruffle feathers.

However, very few comics are aware of or are willing to talk about the frightening fault lines in our polity and social and cultural lives. In India today, freedom of expression has become an expensive commodity that few can afford. Stand-up comics who speak against injustice and obscurantism are at the front lines testing and expanding this freedom. They are vulnerable because they stand in front of a crowd showcasing their art. Many have been threatened online and offline with court cases and even physical violence. It is not exactly a conducive and enabling environment to be a comic today. But aren’t the worst times for satire also the best times for it to flourish?

I have come across many ‘safe comics’ who say they are not political. This is a diabolical statement. It means either you are blissfully unaware of the world you live in or are deliberately choosing to ignore the ruthlessness of power structures. Either way, this ‘apolitical’ posture reeks of privilege.

Jokes about privilege

What then does it mean to be a comic in today’s India? The answer lies largely in the social capital most comics bring on stage with them. Most are largely upper caste, urban, privileged males. More than their sense of humour, it’s their social capital that has helped them occupy the stage. It would be nice if every once in a while they acknowledged their privilege and made a joke about it.

The Indian comedy scene is caste agnostic. There is almost no conversation about caste on stage. While I was moderating a session at a media conclave recently, I asked a panel of female comics why there are no female Dalit comics in the circuit. One answered: “If they have talent, nobody can stop them.” What is this if not the upper caste construct of merit? The panel of female comics was vocal about gender, but remained oblivious to caste barriers.

But it must be said that it is empowering to see a number of female comics out there. I find the sets and stories of female comics far more captivating. Let’s accept it: every woman in our society has a bone to pick with male privilege. And all of them have comic sets that are personal. They punch up to patriarchy in every way. That men in the “circuit” rarely talk about that patriarchal privilege acerbically and in a self-reflexive way is not surprising but disappointing. After all, it requires courage to implicate one’s own self in the structures we inherit and perpetuate. While many women have been relentlessly pushing the feminist arguments in their comic sets, most men are still stuck at stories of their rejections by girlfriends. In fact, they talk of how they took it like a “man”. It goes without saying that these male comics enjoy a cult following.

India today is standing at a fork on the road. It can choose to either build on its foundational ideas or descend into further chaos. With performative journalism mostly holding forth, it is comics who can even be the new breed of journalists. Some of them have a huge following and an enormous reach. They must leverage this clout. Indian society is full of anecdotes. If you scratch the surface of these seemingly hilarious stories, you’ll find horrors beneath. We must not stop at surface laughter. That is low-hanging fruit. The real work of comics is to keep scraping and peeling the layers until uncomfortable realities are exposed.

The comedy scene in India is fairly well established now, albeit not as organised as one would wish. Coincidentally, the fault lines of our society have never been more visible and treacherous. The dispensation of the day — rulers and thought-shapers — is autocratic. This is the perfect time for comics to push the envelope even further. The more arrogant the powers, the more they expose themselves to ridicule. Unfortunately, barring a few, comics are limiting themselves, sometimes through self-censorship and sometimes because of total ignorance. Self-censorship is perhaps the most dangerous form of censorship as it does the authority’s job without the authority getting its hands dirty. I am yet to find a reasonable explanation for ignorance. We are living at a time when ignorance is celebrated. If you are reading too many books or taking longer to finish your PhD, you can be accused of wasting the taxpayer’s money or labelled an ‘urban naxal’.

Challenge the status quo

And too many comics are more invested in the technique of a joke. They believe that as long as they get the technique right and get the laughs, their job is done. Comedy and satire then become those routines for which Kota is famous — teach children how to crack the JEE without really giving them a scientific temperament. No wonder then that we find a lot of IITians wearing astrological stones. Similarly, the upper caste comic may have cracked the technique of telling a joke, but has not understood how the hegemony of caste and gender works, and will never speak against it.

That remains my fundamental problem with the majority of Indian comics. By not reading enough and challenging the status quo, they risk becoming a mirror of society rather than showing the mirror to society. The best thing about stand-up comedy and satire is that it can be local, non-elitist, intelligent and biting, without being complicated in its language and expression — all that the liberal elite intellectual is accused of. It is time for comics to seize the day.

Sanjay Rajoura is a stand-up artist and actor

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