Disclaimer- This article merely covers the key insights provided by prominent comedians, on the standup scene in India, in the panel discussion titled ‘Tolerating Comedy’ held here in IIT Madras on 13th March. It does not mean to offend or hurt the sentiments of anyone.
No one can ignore the rising heat and subtextual tension in the atmosphere today, with a single word leading the charge- intolerance. While it remains to be resolved whether or not the dialogue on intolerance in the broad sphere of things can indeed be resolved, it is worth remembering at this point the one outlet we as a society have that yet remains as a tool to pick apart issues by their seams- comedy and freedom of speech. Admittedly, the latter is a notion thrown around in excess today, bearing the same weight as does an empty jute sack. It must be scrutinized how free we really are, and what the fine line is between comedy and insensitivity. Freedom of speech is a lofty ideal indeed, but as an irrevocable constitutional right granted to us under Article 19, it is time we had some sort of discussion on comedians exercising this right. In light of this, a panel discussion was held here in insti, with some of the most well known comedians in the stand up scene joining us to talk about tolerance in comedy. What ensued was an hour of very pertinent subjects related to this, with Daniel Fernandes, Azeem Banatwalla of East India Comedy, Naveen Richard, S Aravind and Praveen Kumar as panel members, giving us valuable inputs. The discussion was moderated by Ms. Mathangi Krishnamurthy, and was organised by the Oratory Club.
After a round of introductions, attendees wasted no time in jumping into the real stuff- with the first question relating to regional/ religious identity and the implications of using it as a device in comedy. This was met with an answer from Daniel Fernandes, who confessed that he does push the boundaries quite a bit, especially when talking about religion. Comedians, he says, do have the license to discuss such things as long as their intention is to get people to really think about deeper rooted issues beneath the surface, and not to incite anger or ill feeling. For instance, his videos on Syria had a lot of humour about Islamic origins which did have the potential to hurt religious sentiments- but as long as one is careful about not crossing the line, it is something one can get away with. This led us to wonder- is the topic of religion used as shock humour or to offer a new perspective to it? Fernandes had an answer to this too, saying that material on religion is written from a very analytical aspect; allowing you to retell stories from religious texts according to your own interpretation. Here too, caution is naturally a prerequisite as it is an extremely loaded subject, which has the potential to blow out of proportion. He cheekily added that he is okay with making fun of anything, but he is still careful- as is evident by the fact that he hasn’t gone to jail yet.
“Even the most powerful person in the world- the president of the United States- subjects himself to a roast in the White House.”
An important insight he offered, is that other countries have it much worse. In South Africa, for instance, comedy is an underground deal: with CDs being distributed in under the table deals and such. Compared to that, our country has a certain level of freedom which, all said and done, we should be grateful for. It is therefore important to be smart about the jokes you tell- Fernandes, for one, affirmed that he always runs his jokes by a lawyer. Praveen Kumar pointing at his “healthy” self added that it is important to make fun of yourself before making fun of anything or anyone else. Comedy is extremely important as a medium of taking on social issues or public figures, and getting away with it. Even the most powerful person in the world- the president of the United States- subjects himself to a roast in the White House.
How then, do comedians get around to scripting sensitive topics in a humourous manner? Here all the panel members express their unequivocal agreement to the fact that a line must be drawn between discussing social issues and engaging in social activism. Their aim is to introduce a new point of view, to talk about things other comedians aren’t talking about- after all, it is a competitive industry. So in order to talk about social issues without taking up the mantel of an activist, they admit, the only way is to incorporate dark humour into social commentary. This way, you make people laugh and you get them to think. Writing this is a mammoth task that involves a lot of research, possibly a legal opinion, and an understanding of the pulse of the situation. Underlying all of this, of course, is one’s own opinion.
Catching onto the last sentence, Ms. Krishnamurthi then opined that comedians now have become opinion leaders at some level. For instance- and she directs this to Fernandes- issues like marital rape can be spoken about in two divergent ways. The men on the panel however shared a different view. Aravind spoke about how it is more about finding your own voice rather than shaping public opinions. From this, we gathered that it is important to take to the stage to present yourself and add your voice to the crowd, and not to be their spokesperson. It was prominent from his eloquence that his is a comedy which has flourished from a stringent motive to make his voice heard, to stand out.
“It is one thing to talk back to power, and quite another to hurt the marginalised.”
Next, the issues of language were brought up. How relevant is it that the medium for most comedians is English? Does it offer them some sort of protection, or is it even dangerous to some extent? This topic raised a lot of key issues faced by comedians in their line of work, especially given the highly politically charged atmosphere today. We were told that it is indeed something stand up comedians do think about while writing their material. While it does offer some protection against certain sections of society who are aligned on either extreme and are prone to taking offence easily, it does not do to not be mindful of being politically correct. It is one thing to talk back to power, and quite another to hurt the marginalised. So yes, there is a distinction between marginalised sections and ideologically aligned sections, and using English as a medium of comedy allows for one to be sensitive about the former and escape the notice of the latter, as they do not constitute the consumer base of comedy.
Political correctness also entails a certain level of subtlety. Sarcasm, wit, are all devices to convey a joke, albeit potentially offensive, without directly offending a particular group of people. The disastrous effects of direct insult humour was evident to the entire country with the AIB Roast. The key is to make jokes in such a manner as to not allow them to be taken out of context. The humour should be such that nobody will be able to exactly pinpoint a particular sentence as having been offensive or insensitive, without adding the right context to it. Coming back to English as a medium for comedy- the tradition is apparently five years old, and the comedians write their own jokes in it. Popularity is also a variable in this situation- the more popular a comedian is, the riskier their situation. Writing jokes in English, however, buys them more time.
“A laugh makes the difference between comedy and a hate speech.”
It is also worth noting that it is more likely for comedians to be taken to task than other artists because they are seen as a financial target. It is therefore doubly important that one is politically correct in their humour- to some extent- and that depends on one’s skill as a writer. Humour needs to be layered, and that requires smart writing. If it isn’t, your material can easily be misconstrued by someone or the other, as it always is. At this point, Daniel Fernandes offers this gem: “A laugh makes the difference between comedy and a hate speech.”
When a question popped up about religious satires and the way they are taken by today’s populace, we had the expertise of Azeem who has found his niche in this domain. More often than not, he quotes, his comedy starts with he being a Muslim who doesn’t have a ‘Khan’ as his last name and how people find it amusing to guess his religion. Not a surprise that his comedy comes from this background- A question of identity. He finds some people to have bowed down to scriptures, blindfolded. The only thing that he does is try and push them out of the bliss of their ignorance. He stands by his opinion that comedy is, in some way or the other, a satiric manifestation of one’s own personality.
“The role of comedians in society therefore, regardless of the offence culture, is to challenge their audience to think differently.”
At this point in the discussion, we are steered towards the relatively new social phenomenon of ‘offence culture’. Everyone seemed to agree that this is now a legitimate thing, wherein someone or the other is always going to be offended by anything almost as an iron rule of law. This should not be accepted as a fact of life, but must be taken seriously. One would be taken to wonder why it is only in recent times that this culture of offence has been on the rise. While it is important to examine the reasons, it is equally important to keep this in mind whilst writing material for stand up. It is also equally important to prick the bubble and offer something different to people, and leave them to be the judge of its sensitivity. As long as you raise newer, more intelligent topics that entail either lighthearted observational comedy, or take on society itself in a satirical manner, you are contributing something important to the present comedy scene in the country. There is still much scope for growth here, as India as a country has not evolved fully in terms of maturity. Cross dressing jokes are still a thing- on a popular national television show, no less- and this is still considered to be the funniest thing by many people. The role of comedians in society therefore, regardless of the offence culture, is to challenge their audience to think differently. Offence should not, however, play a role in altering material as long as you know it is important to talk about it. This is because offence has no barriers- people are as easily offended by jokes about beef as they are about jokes about Manchester United. Naveen shared his experience on the backlash he once received when he spoke about N Srinivasan as a prominent figure in sport in Chennai: people lashed out at him for forgetting about Vishwanathan Anand. Offence therefore, has no genre, people are willing to take offence for anything at all. It is all about the mentality of the audience.
Coming to the standup scene in Chennai- Praveen had something to say about the anglicisation of the city. The audience consists mainly of middle to upper middle class people, whose problems are entirely different here in the south- they include arranged marriages, brahmin jokes, and more relatable humour, something to which the city can more relate to. So it is not always about taking a social stand, even observational comedy works really well and your material depends on your agenda as a comedian. It is therefore important to decide what your aim is regarding your contribution to the scene. For example, if one takes up the topic of beef, there is a lot that the masses do not know about it and it could be your job to educate them on the fact that beef comes from sources other than cows- which many people were indeed unaware of. So if your agenda is to inform and empower audiences, you have a different type of material you need to generate. Else, you can stick to the safer side of observational, light hearted comedy. There is a freedom to choose your role as a comedian here. After doing this for a while, you get a feel of the influence you have and once you have a certain reach, you choose what you want to experiment within terms of content. In the end, your success is decided by the audience so it is important to stay true to who you are as an artist.
“It is now hip to be a liberal or an atheist- or both.”
All this naturally leads one to assume that the political implications of humour vary from place to place. Do comedians factor in location and censor their jokes accordingly? We were met with ambiguity. It depends, said Naveen, on how much trouble you’re willing to get into. And how much does the comedian’s own ideology creep into their content? Here we get an interesting answer, where everyone on the panel agrees that it is now hip to be a liberal or an atheist- or both. Some of them therefore admitted to having let their religious views come into their humour as part of dispelling this very notion. For instance, Aravind gave us an example of how he incorporated ‘Tam brahm’ humour into an incident he narrated about a Hindu friend marrying a Christian girl in her style of wedding and feeling unfamiliar to the proceedings. As long as the incorporation of your beliefs is lighthearted and funny this way, it’s perfectly alright and even adds a uniqueness to your style of humour as it is basically an extension of your own personality.
The discussion was then drawing to a close at that point, with the last question allowed by the moderator being that of the presence of sexist humour- isn’t making a blanket statement, therefore, about how people who don’t get one’s jokes are stupid, an uncritical approach when derogatory humour like this still persists? Here the moderator adds her own question- does intent suffice when it comes to such things being brought up in comedy? The men agreed- sexism exists everywhere and isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Jokes may come across as sexist when the intent is to hold a mirror up to sexism and convey the irony. So no, intent does not suffice when ultimately your joke is read as sexist. It is therefore important to work on one’s craft and be open to criticism and opinions: know what you’re trying to say and if it doesn’t reach the audience effectively, rewrite the joke. Having said that, they also opined that stand up is, after all, an art and art is subjective. It is therefore not the gospel and is open to interpretation. Those who are not willing to participate in an interpretative approach; humour is not for them. Jokes have everything to do with the context.
“If they could choose when and where to do standup, it would always be in this time and in this country.”
In conclusion, the panel had a few parting words of advice for all aspiring stand up comedians. Apart from what they can take away from the hour long discussion, they also need to keep in mind that it is important to work on one’s craft and not to approach it with fear despite everything going on in the country. It is still a very positive environment. However, there will never be such a thing as offence free comedy because art is subjective and open to interpretations. So it is imperative that one allows room for this in their material and stays true to oneself- after all, if you’re not offending people with your comedy, you’re not doing it right. In the end, do whatever is funny, educate yourselves at the same time- back yourself up with research and build your own credibility. Make mistakes, and accept suggestions when the audience tells you you’re pushing it. All of them then asserted that if they could choose when and where to do standup, it would always be in this time and in this country. With a wide grin, Fernandes suggests, “Don’t take us too seriously people, think, but don’t over-think, because humor isn’t for everyone” The most important thing to remember is that you aren’t a standup comedian if you’re the funniest guy in the group. You’re a comedian if you have the drive, and the need to be heard. That’s all that matters- the stage never lies.