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Finding the impulse to laugh

The comedy scene in India today is gradually becoming a part of popular culture by claiming its spot in the mainstream entertainment industry. People are willing to spend an evening at a comedy club as opposed to going to the movie theatres in the weekend. Therefore, we see a growing market of people ready to expend their time and money in comedy. While reality shows on television like The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, The Great Indian Comedy Show and others have been popular before, the format has gained even more popularity, with mainstream Bollywood movie stars increasingly resorting to shows like Comedy Nights with Kapil for the promotion of their movies. Sitcoms like Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai, Office Office, Zabaan Sambhalke, Shrimaan Shrimati, Dekh Bhai Dekh and Tu Tu Main Main have all been popular through the years. But in its true essence the industry of comedy has developed in India independent of television, through YouTube channels and other digital forums such as Amazon Prime and Hotstar.

As of now, standup comedy may be said to be the most popular genre of comedy. The definitive aspect of standup is performing live to the audience. Of all the genres that have manifested in India, the stand up scene has gained the most popularity with artists like Abish Mathhew, Kunal Kamra, Karunesh Talwar, Kanan Gill, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Abhishek Upamanyu, Neeti Palta, Radhika Vas, Aditi Mittal and Varun Grover among many others, performing live at comedy clubs and venues across the country. Comedy groups such as All India Bakchod (AIB), Schitzengiggles, East India Comedy, The Viral Fever Videos, Random Chikibum and others have also made a significant contribution to the Indian comedy scene. Comedy clubs are still a new addition to the entertainment industry and most have developed in and around Mumbai. Canvas Laugh Club, Andheri Base, The Hive are some of the popular destinations in Mumbai while Urban Solace and BFlat Bar are popular comedy clubs in Bangalore. Similar clubs are also coming up in Pune, Hyderabad, Goa and other destinations where upcoming artists can hone their skills in open mics and choose the format of comedy that they are comfortable working in.

Comedy as we know it today

For a culture that was unfamiliar with the larger global scene of comedy, it has been a bitter pill to swallow. The one event that can be held exemplary of this outrage is the AIB Knockout of 2015, a roast of actors Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor by a handful of comedians including members of AIB and Abish Matthew, Aditi Mittal, conducted by roastmaster and film director Karan Johar. The kind of controversial reputation it gained included legal ramifications with complaints and FIRs lodged against almost everyone involved. While the controversy served to sensationalize the event itself, it eventually served to educate a sizeable section of the population about the conventions of insult comedy, a tradition accepted and appreciated worldwide in the comedic meter.

Since then there has been a steady rise in the audience for comedy in the country. Humour is an indispensable part of the experience of living. L.W. Kline in The Psychology of Humour has defined humour as  “…the one universal remedy; a medicine for the poor, a tonic for the rich, a recreation for the fatigued, a beneficent check to the strenuous, a shield to the reformer and an entering wedge to the recluse…. It is a universal solvent to human temperaments, and like a touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” If that be the case, India needs this ‘medicine’ more than ever in the resolution of differences that mark our largely diverse population.

Comedy in ancient India

One of the most severe criticisms of the AIB Knockout was that it claimed to be against Indian tradition and culture as it extensively used abusive language and profane comedy. Even this accusation is largely rooted in ignorance and lack of knowledge about the ancient Indian comedic traditions in Sanskrit. Lee Siegel in his book Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India focuses on this ignorance as he recounts his experience researching the topic, revealing how the comedic aspect of ancient Indian texts and mythologies is deliberately suppressed to fit in with the cultural construct of what Indian culture is, or should be. Siegel takes on the search for comic traditions created and preserved in Sanskrit Literature and uncovers an ignored boisterous and bawdy voice of comedy and laughter. He has gone back to the Puranas and translated relevant sections to uncover the sensibility of humour inherent in texts. He makes the necessary distinction between sacred and profane comedy, what he called the ‘taste’ and ‘erotics’ of laughter. He studies laughter and humour through ancient Sanskrit plays like Mrrchakatika and uncovers a strand of profanity and vulgar humour as a part of the so-called Indian tradition preserved across art forms ranging from plays to ancient cartoons. Propagation of the idea that profanity is disrespectful is a handy way to suppress the voice of art. The powers-that-be have continued to foster the myth of culture and suppress free-speakers and thinkers. Comedians and cartoonists are subject to harassment for asking questions and destabilizing the power structure as the spirit of questioning things is gradually snubbed out.

Comedy as reality

Although India has its indigenous comedy traditions which are being studied, most of our knowledge of comedy comes down to us from the western traditions, rooted in the ancient culture of the West. Voltaire was of the opinion that Heaven has given us two things to counterbalance the many miseries of life- hope and sleep, to which Immanuel Kant in the l7th century added a third, the concept of laughter. The study of comedy can be traced back to Aristotle’s treatise popularly known as Poetics, which touches on comedy as a genre of drama in ancient Greece. While regarding comedy as an art form decidedly inferior to the tragedies of the age, Aristotle has chalked out how the heroes of tragedies were larger than life, as opposed to the comedies where the characters fell short of the tragic stature, closer to the common folk in who they were. This may be regarded as the more realistic outlook, something that the comedians in India stick to. Honest and realistic depiction of the Indian society, its culture and norms are constant in the various forms of comedy in India. While references to this honesty are constantly found in jokes, the series of Honest Videos in the AIB YouTube channel may be held as particularly compelling examples.

Society, Culture and Comedy

“Humor is no joke”, comments Thomas P. Kasulis in the introduction to his journal article entitled Philosophy East and West. Humour builds the bridge between polarities in the functioning of any society and seeks to grant stability to the community at large. But even with its community-building spirit, “Humour has seldom been a topic of much philosophical interest. In fact, when Western philosophers have explored it, they have generally been more supercilious than appreciative. Emphasizing the vulgar, they have overlooked how it suggests our universal humanity.”

Kasulis is of the opinion that cultural anthropologists have taken up the slack for the general neglect of comedy by philosophers, attempting to cross the divide of culture. Scholars like Janice Porteous have sought to explain a deeper universality, like the importance of the smile with regard to evolutionary anthropology, in the development of the species of man by enabling them to overcome differences. The world is full of people, dissimilar and different, each entitled and possessive of how he or she is. In the scenario of conflict and possible aggression, a smile and laughter act as an icebreaker where it acts as the proverbial Social Contract in a Hobbesian world of primordial chaos. Nowhere should this hold truer than in a country as diverse as India. People are different with respect to the language they use, the clothes they wear and the food they eat and if there is anything that can bring everything into one fold, it is the spirit of the comedic form.

Comedy is essentially communal and rooted in a culture, often making it difficult to translate to another medium of language and another culture. The norms in each culture are born out of a shared social context among the people of a particular society, which is why a joke may not always translate. Comedians touring the country often start with a joke as a reference to the city they are performing in, to build that initial connect with the audience.

Robert Heilman a liberal-theory critic in his thesis ‘Comedy and the World’ advocates the ‘civilizing’ force of comedy, as it evokes in us “some awareness that deviancy is ‘normal’, some recognition that we ourselves participate in disparateness.” It calls upon a wider tolerance imbued with a liberal spirit to aberrations in behaviour and expression, which teaches us to laugh at what may be considered a threat to the social order. Our enhanced tolerance is the humane objective of good comedy. In a community where tales of intolerance are rampant and often take on bloody and violent turns, the spirit of comedy is vital.

But can comedy always be considered to be a civilizing force? Roger B. Henkle in The Social Dynamics of Comedy has pointed out how it can be double-barreled. On the one hand it can clarify, reform or conserve the normative values and relationships  of its time and on the other, it may take a completely different route with an impulse which is non-socializing irrational and anarchic. He argues that comedy was once “an instrument of social correction in Moliere’s day, or in Jane Austen’s when comic writers shared the prevalent cultural values, but that as those values have come into disrepute in the 19th and 20th centuries the relationship of comedy to the social order has changed significantly.” If the comedians today are being labelled with the derogatory tag of being an ‘Urban Naxal’ it is merely to fill in the vacuum with social values that the Indian society is in dire need of.

Pitfall of comedy

Comedy may act as a means of establishing community. Bearing the brunt of a playful joke is one way of indicating that someone is being inducted into a group or a community, but herein is the greatest pitfall of comedy as well. Ridicule and sarcasm can often create a chasm in the community building spirit. “Insofar as humor can form or delineate the boundaries of community, it can also be used to ostracize and exclude,” says Kasulis and this is often aimed at all the classes and groups of people who have been relegated to the background and the margins of societal existence.

Ethnic jokes often fall into this category, as they can be used to reinforce prejudices and stereotypes. A joke on the Dalit community would be to this effect, alienating the community even more than it is already. But majority of the comedians in India take a definite stand, as voiced by Tanmay Bhat in an interview with Samdish Bhatia for ScoopWhoop Unscripted, “There’s this theory in comedy called punching up, which is, those jokes are better which punch up to the oppressor, which often means societal ideas or society or institutions – anti-establishment.” He continues, “For me, personally, the best jokes are those which punch up.”

Comedic content and emerging trends

Kasulis was of the opinion that “In humor we challenge not just our intellectual word games, but also the very patterns of behaviour sedimented in everyday life.” But, what generates laughter? There are a number of theories that decode what may be identified as the humorous stimuli. A feeling of superiority is often an important part of laughing, as we laugh at someone or something. The second aspect that generates laughter is an incongruity. A classic example of both may be found in age-old fables. Animals, inferior to human beings are anthropomorphized, and these human characteristics generate incongruity, which accounts for much of the humour.

L.W. Kline in The Psychology of Humour chalks out animals and their actions, man and his actions, clothes, customs, manners, words, thoughts and language as possibly humorous stimuli. The slapstick variety of comedy has to do more with customs and manners of human beings, where the situation or action contributes to humour. The use of ‘bits’ in any piece is often to this effect. The involvement of language, words and thoughts gives rise to a more cerebral kind of comedy, which is witty and compels the audience to use their intelligence in order to arrive at laughter. Political humour largely belongs to this category.

Political or not, the industry of comedy is India is expanding to include many forms. The Amazon Prime venture titled Comicstaan sought to educate both audience and contestants with mentors focusing on anecdotal, topical, observational, sketch, improvisational comedy in each of the episodes in the first season. While the first three may be a part of the stand-up routine, sketch comedy is more dramatic in construction, while improv and comedy of terrors break off from the usual mould.

Comedy shows like Pushpavalli and Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare are popular in the web series format. Amazon Prime has encouraged the comedy scene in India to grow, with plenty of opportunities for rising as well as established comics. On March 12, 2018, Amazon announced 23 brand new comedy specials many of which have already been released. Kanan Gill’s Keep It Real, Zakir Khan’s Haq Se Single, Biswa Kalyan Rath’s Biswa Mast Admi, Kenny Sebastian’s Don’t Be That Guy are some of the most acclaimed specials to come out of this deal. With regard to improv comedy, Something from Nothing presented an interesting experiment and the new Improv All Stars Games Night that was performed under the supervision of Kaneez Surka takes it a step further. AIB’s take on the news in an hour-long show on Hotstar in On Air with AIB presented a comedic take on the news, covering the current affairs in the country. Abish Matthews’ Son of Abish emulates the format of late night television in America. This is only the beginning of the journey of popular comedy in India.

Inclusive initiation into the comedy scene

Comedy in India is still in its nascent stage as artists experiment with different preexisting genres of comedy, applying and adapting it to the Indian context. Collaborations between comics are common and the hunt is on for newer and fresher faces from all over the country. Amazon Prime's Comicstaan ventured at finding the new face of Indian comedy and earlier, YouTube’s Comedy Hunt also brought together popular comedians to select fresh talent from all over.

From its very beginning, there is an attempt to make the industry as inclusive as possible. An attempt to create equal opportunities may be perceived in the way the show Queens of Comedy came about, seeking to slowly balance the number of male and female comics in the industry. Comedy has breached the language barrier as well, as we see comedians choose the language they are comfortable with, in order to present their material to a flexible audience. Comedians like Varun Grover, Zakir Khan and Abhishek Upamanyu use both English and Hindi in their performances and most comics shift back and forth to get their point across, often wringing the maximum laughter through this change in the medium of communication. But there is still a long way to go as the comedy scene develops further, from the educated, urban population of metropolitan areas, gradually spreading to Tier-II cities. While primarily aimed at entertainment and imbued with the objective of making people laugh, comedy also performs the fundamental task of asking questions, reinforcing and pushing limits of the democracy that India constitutionally claims to be.

References:

Henkle, R. (1982). The Social Dynamics of Comedy. The Sewanee Review,90(2), 200-216.

Kasulis, T. (1989). Introduction. Philosophy East and West,39(3), 239-241.

Mintz, L. (1985). Standup Comedy as Social and Cultural Mediation. American Quarterly,37(1), 71-80. doi:10.2307/2712763.

Vexler, J. (1935). The Essence of Comedy. The Sewanee Review,43(3), 292-310.

Webb, R. (1981). POLITICAL USES OF HUMOR. ETC: A Review of General Semantics,38(1), 35-50.

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Written By Ishita Sen

A student of English literature with confused clarity.

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