Some US presidents could have been disappointed that the US Navy Seals did not get back the marijuana reportedly growing in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. But for most others, Operation Geronimo was a success. And one of the things that Bin Laden’s death sparked off was a surfeit of Bin Laden jokes.
One of these jokes was a meme that appeared on many internet forums. A meme, broadly speaking, is authentic material parodied and passed around for entertainment. This particular meme involved the now-historic image of Barack Obama and team following Operation Geronimo from the Situation Room of the White House. It was a set of ten versions of the image. Each had a character or quirk morphed into the room. One frame accommodated a character from the TV series Jersey Shore, The Situation, leading to the caption, ‘The Situation in the Situation Room.’ One had a velociraptor watching the screen in rapt attention with the others. One more had everyone, including Obama, wearing a hat Princess Beatrice wore at the recent royal wedding in England. In another frame, everyone in the room is Obama.
I found the meme funny, some didn’t. It set me thinking, not for the first time, what is funny? The answer to this question, one knows, is not easy. ‘Funny’ can be defined in contradictory ways.
For instance, one of the big debates in the world of humour is over sex jokes. For some stand-up comedians, they are a sign of weakness. This lot believes anyone can get a laugh out of a sex joke. There are other comedians who have no qualms relying heavily on sex. If it makes people laugh, it is good, they say. To get a few answers to what the rules are and what ‘funny’ is, according to pros, I attended a stand-up comedy show recently at Zenzi restaurant in Mumbai (‘show’ because, to say ‘gig’, you should either be a professional entertainer or not older than 21).
At one point in the show, a restless youngster with a rock musician persona strode on stage. His name was Varun Thakur. Pacing around the platform, speaking confidently, he started by taking digs at the Mumbai suburb of Andheri, where he lives, and the locality of Oshiwara, the home of struggling actors (he is one too). Oshiwara, he said, was the Kashmir of Mumbai. “Jogeshwari and Andheri both claim it is theirs.” He also called it a place where everyone called Café Coffee Day, Sissidi. At this Sissidi, struggling actors took shelter and waited for the big break to come through the door. They were in audition mode even while placing their orders. Thakur acted it out, sounding a bit like Shah Rukh Khan in an emotional scene, “Kuchh der pehele maine ek coffee order ki thhi (pause). Kya woh coffee abhi mujhe mil sakti hai?” (A little while ago, I had ordered coffee. Is it possible to get that coffee now?) And then, Thakur says, the struggler nurses the coffee till the cup grows fungus.
His acting skill and energy lift his jokes. The occupants of a cramped section of Zenzi, their hands around throats of green beer bottles, hoot. Thakur talks of rushing to a medical store for an emergency contraceptive kit. “It’s called Unwanted 72. Such a harsh name,” he says. “Why not call it Honest Mistake 72? Or Why-I-Did-Not-Pull-Out-in-Time 72?” The talent that won him first prize at a Vir Das Hamateur Night some time ago is evident.
Thakur moves on to cricket, his passion apart from cinema. He says Munaf Patel’s habit of running alongside the ball makes him look as if he is bartering with it. “Hey ball, don’t go so fast, yaar,” he says, jogging on stage, talking to an imaginary ball at his foot. “Slow down man, I’ll give you a hundred bucks.”
But his biggest idol, the man who he says changed his life, is Hrithik Roshan. “If I was gay, I would do Hrithik,” he says. “Imagine the foreplay.” He shows the audience a flexing thumb. They shake their heads and laugh.
A couple of days later, I ask Thakur for his take on sex jokes. Is it okay to do them? “It is, if you build a nice scene or story around it. That is what I attempted with my Hrithik routine. I was in seventh grade when I saw Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai. It blew my mind. In my set, I just took my childhood Hrithik fashion to another level.”
He recognises that his strength is in the performance. “My acting background helps,” says the young man who has a Masters in Film & TV Production from the University of Bristol. Thakur is cocky as well as self-deprecating. “I was thrilled to get an audition call from Dharma Productions once… till I found out it was for the role of a eunuch. I did it, though. Fortunately, I did not get the part.”
A sedate, grown-up contrast to the effervescent Thakur is Delhi’s Rajneesh Kapoor. His speech and hand movements are such that they produce a soothing effect. He could lend his voice to yoga CDs. Kapoor, who also does a comic strip for newspapers, has declared that his mission is clean comedy. His act at Zenzi is mostly about the habits of Delhi people—how they don’t obey traffic rules, are aggressive, and use the term ‘healthy’ for overweight women. “In Delhi, it ain’t over till the healthy lady sings,” is one of Rajneesh’s punchlines. He does not hammer in his punchlines, but gently floats them out so that the words linger on a while before trailing off. The last word is often stretched. “In Delhi, it ain’t over till the healthy lady siiiinnggs…”
“Any open mic you go, there are jokes about bras, periods, masturbation. (But) I like a well-constructed joke,” Kapoor says. Audiences, he feels, are partly responsible for the heavy reliance on sex jokes. “You do a good joke on India-Pakistan relations, you barely get anything. So you say, ‘Let’s talk about oral sex.’ There is immediate laughter.”
But, he adds, “It’s not that Indians like cheap jokes and nothing else. Jerry Seinfeld and Russell Peters are very popular in India. Their jokes are not always about sex. It proves that good writing works. Good writing is a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to Indian comedians. We need new performers. It is the usual suspects at every show. There is one bright newcomer, Sanjay Rajoura. He is a Jat boy with the background of an infotech career in the US. So he brings a new dimension [to comedy].”
Kapoor says he does not buy the theory that Indians are not funny. “As an art form, stand-up is new. We are going by the 20-word-set-up-followed-by-punchline formula. We need some story-telling. I think we’ll be good at it.”
Of his own comic writing, Kapoor is confident. It’s the rest of the package that needs attention. “I’m working on the performance part... George Carlin did not have the greatest lines, but he had great stage presence.”
On two occasions during the show at Zenzi, Mumbai comedian Aditi Mittal feigned a hunched back and tottered up to the stage to enact her popular Mrs Lutchuke routine. Mittal is a member of the visiting faculty at National College, where she teaches media studies, and St Xavier’s College, where she teaches creative writing. Like her, the character of Mrs Lutchuke is a college teacher, but a Maharashtrian one who gives sex advice to students in a strong Marathi accent. She pronounces ‘boobs’ like ‘books’, without emphasis on the ‘oo’. Among her many tips is, “Don’t fondle them like you are opening a bottle of jam.” She also demonstrates, with the help of a banana, the right way to use a condom. By her side is her assistant, Urvashi Phadnavis, played by Thakur. The act, almost entirely about sex, is a hit.
Like most comedians, Mittal, prone to using ‘haan ji’ in real life conversations, finds humour in everything. “But I’m gravitating towards subjects that people do not normally talk about,” she says. That includes sex. “Observational humour is observational humour. If it is about sex, so be it. There is a difference between using something as a crutch and using something as a tool.”
Mittal thought of talking about sex through Mrs Lutchuke’s uninhibited character because she did not like the way sex is portrayed in the media. “It is not as dramatic as portrayed on television, nor as sanitary as suggested by newspaper headlines like ‘48 per cent Indian youngsters are having sex’.”
Mittal has been doing Mrs Lutchuke for three months. She based it on a combination of her Marathi teachers and the grandmother of a Maharashtrian friend. “I find the Marathi accent hilarious, but also endearing. The language can be crass sounding, but it’s from a good place.”
Mittal has also noticed the tendency of Indian comics to use the set-up-and-punchline formula. What will help them think beyond this, she feels, is greater exposure to global acts—many of which visit the Comedy Store in Mumbai, a sort of café dedicated to humour. “There are comics doing all kinds of stuff. One of my favourites is Mark Walker. He talks about songs you cannot strip to, and tries to strip to Heal the World. He also has a gay Spiderman routine. It’s hilarious. We are discovering new things.”
The last act of the day at Zenzi represented a brand of comedy that is perhaps the most respected: political and social satire. But not everyone can make a go of ripping the establishment to shreds. To do so, you need sustained anger towards everything around you.
Gursimranjeet Khamba has that anger. It fuels his diatribes against an Arnab Goswami, a Sania Mirza, NRI girls studying in unfancied overseas colleges, and “the one who recently left us only in a physical sense” (Sathya Sai Baba). It is a bit surprising that Khamba, a man who has made an impression with his informed, articulate and scathing English blogs, uses a fair amount of Hindi, especially the word ‘bhenchod’, as part of his stand-up repertoire. But Khamba sets his own rules. At the conclusion of his act, he urged the audience to trust their own judgment and form their own opinions about things.
“There is a lot of snobbery in English stand-up. But some jokes work better in Hindi,” says the tall, thoughtful Sardar who greets your questions with a “Hmmm... sure” and has enrolled at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences for a Masters in Media and Culture Studies.
Asked if trenchant social commentary should be the real objective of stand-up comedy, Khamba says, “I struggled with this at one point. I thought, ‘What’s the point of making people laugh with the same sex jokes and fart jokes?’”
Now he seems to have achieved some middle ground. On the one hand, he says, “There needs to be an Indian voice. And you do need to make people laugh.” Yet, he maintains, “The anger is still there. The censorship issue, for example, has pissed me off. But the more you are suppressed, the harder you hit back. The same thing led to some great comics like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Hope it happens here too.”
One of Khamba’s blogs is about the difference between North Indian and South Indian porn. At Zenzi too, he had a few sex jokes. He said one renowned Indian saint discovered that he could detach his legs while having sex.
Sex, evidently, isn’t always overdone. “Some subjects get you cheap laughs,” says Khamba, “Arnab Goswami, Sreesanth, sex. These are fine as fillers. But it can’t be your entire act. Where you come from also matters. In Delhi, there are comics from Ghaziabad and Faridabad. They do not have electricity for hours, and they talk about it, which is funny. Then there are other kids who only talk about sex—because that’s their preoccupation.”