How We are Funny

Two online humorists tell us about what led them there, and where they go next.
Laughathon
Twitter is Aadisht Khanna's latest mike for his comic act.(Photo: M LAKSHMAN)
Anand Ramachandran craves a return to the 'garbage' he wrote for his fake news website.(Photo: RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI)

Anand Ramchandran isn’t having much fun being funny these days. “I want to go back to garbage.” Tall and thick-set, in a T-shirt with superheroes all over it, Anand nestles in a black beanbag by the window of his Versova home and considers why he wants to return to garbage. He writes five humour columns a month—three of which are about fake cricket news—besides his own humour writing, game designing, comic doing, and other random stuff like helping create a slapdash birthday music video tribute to a friend the other day. Sometimes people get the random stuff, sometimes they don’t. But that’s okay. This is the Holy Grail of what he does. The random stuff, the garbage, is what he wishes he was doing more of.

In 1995, Anand and his friends had started their own design studio. Five years later, they decided to do something new with the humorous banter they shared. They figured they’d take it online. They called it Bosey (bosey.com), and wrote that it was ‘India’s First Three Weekly Humour Site! Not monthly! Not Fortnightly! Not even weekly! Updated every 21 days!!’ The online digest went about twisting current events, sometimes brutally. One story, headlined, ‘Match fixing scandal rocks book cricket’, included a pointed passage in which a former captain of Pakistan said, “They had once used a book without page numbers, hence allowing the batsmen to claim whatever page numbers they wanted to. This fact was hidden from the umpires and match referee by shutting and opening the book at great speed, with the excuse that this was done to avoid a slow over rate.”

The exercise lasted nine months and 13 issues until the friends split up. Says Anand, “No one was in a funny mood for a few years.” He thought about it. “We would have headlines like ‘Man tucking in tummy while talking to women’. That’s garbage. I think I’ve lost that.” 

A life needs garbage, the stuff that makes an interest worthwhile. He did plenty of it once. Like in moral science class, where he’d regularly write a story featuring the class teacher. Born to Tam-Brams, Anand says that while he grew up on Mad magazine (“Did you ever wonder why Mad, an American phenomenon, showed up in India? And do you know why so many of them had a hole in the centre? I heard a story about sailors using stacks of the magazine as ballast!”), he can’t discount the influence of his genes. “Both sides of my family had a strong sense of humour. A quirky sense of humour.”

The loss Anand refers to when he says he lost the feel for garbage, is the change that came over him as he grew more aware of his audience. The feedback puzzled him at first. A piece that he thought was exceptional brought in lukewarm reactions. And sometimes, he found humour that he didn’t think was very good being praised as his best work. One article on Cricinfo’s Page 2, a humour site, was titled: ‘Pakistan launch academy for veterans.’ One responder wrote, ‘Another step backwards for Pakistan! Why not have a coaching academy for the veterans where they can learn to become coaches and pool their talent and time into the Pakistan cricket infrastructure. Not every player knows how to coach, and with this skill the younger generation would benefit more, not by frightening them into losing their place to someone who is 20 years older.’ 

The joke wasn’t lost on only a few regular readers. The piece was so effective that it was reported as real news in Pakistan. Anand says Cricinfo’s editor wrote to him soon after, calling him the ‘darling of the Pakistan media’.

Aadisht Khanna, who operates from a factory in Kanchipuram,  Tamil Nadu, is aware of his audience and what they 

can do. Khanna writes a fortnightly column for Yahoo!, besides maintaining a blog where he baits “Bongs, mommy bloggers, and other categories”. The mommy blog tale is well-known among Indian bloggers. It didn’t go down well. “They move in swarms!” He doesn’t rock the boat with his column because “the blog and Twitter are personal—if some guy takes offence, you can make fun of him in the comments and timeline, or if he completely misinterprets you, you can email back and clarify. [But with the column], the comment space is an echo chamber. So it’s not possible to have a conversation.”

Aadisht, 27, says he began writing when he was 18 or 19. “I was probably a little good, but teenage arrogance would have made me think I was very good.” A decade ago, he says, he thought he could write a fantasy novel, and wrote two chapters before discovering a guy named Terry Pratchett. “I read Pratchett and realised that he’d done the same thing far better,” Aadisht says, “Threw it away. ‘Far better’ is probably as understated as it can get.” The writerly feeling wore off, he says, and he went to college. But writerly feelings don’t die easily, and when a friend asked him to write something funny for his website soon after, Aadisht took up the offer. In 2003, like everyone else, he started a blog. “The first funny thing I wrote that was probably massively popular (by blogosphere numbers) was this thing I did in 2004 which was a conversation between doped-up BJP cabinet members.”

An excerpt from the piece:

Advani walks over to computer table, and extracts the ‘stuff’ from a drawer. He rolls a joint with care, lights it, and passes it around.

Vajpayee [now speaking at normal speed]: Aaaaahhh. Good Stuff.

Jaitley: Advani, push Like a Stone.

Murli Manohar [now very high]: Yaar, suppose we push BSc (Astrology) onto the university course. Too wild!

Advani giggles hysterically.

Aadisht raids his ideas file for his writing. What goes in is a funny conversation or a thought with potential. He knows what’s funny because, “If people found it funny the first time around, it’ll probably be funny as a column too.” He takes a fortnight to flesh out a column. One week for thinking, the next for writing and tinkering. The thinking is important. In a column titled How to Survive Weddings, he wrote: ‘There are also the little kids who run around screaming. This in itself would not be so bad, except that they’re usually about as high as your crotch, and they run very fast. Collisions can be painful.
Collisions when you’re holding a cup of tomato soup double the pain. The worst part is that if you try to kick the kids, a wrathful granny immediately descends on you and starts screaming even louder than the kid. It is tragic.’

Aadisht says that the bit about ‘kids running into you at crotch level’ was originally from a non-wedding context. “At school, the nursery and primary class kids used to have a ramp instead of stairs, and during break they’d be running down it at high speed, and a friend of mine once did get the wind knocked out of him. So I whacked that joke, and then added the bit about it being even more dangerous with soup—because tomato soup at weddings is this other stereotype you can make fun of.”

When he began, Aadisht says, the kind of humour he was interested in was conspiracy theories. “I knew about The Onion, but it wasn’t something I could visit very often or keep browsing… The inspiration was more that those were the days when X-Files was kvlt [pronounced: cult], so the possibility of doing humour with that was very strong.”

“It’s not cerebral for me,” Anand says. People find all kinds of meaning in his writing, but “I’m like, ummm… no.” Asked the difference between doing things online, as opposed to, say, a newspaper, he says that print gives something added weight, makes it more solid. But that said, it’s also controlled by people of a different generation. These days, he’s looking at Twitter. He wonders if someday they’ll find a way to make money off it. “You can do stand-up comedy on Twitter, and it’s relatively censor free.” Twitter’s short message format forces writers to get to the point, and that brevity makes for good comedy. “It’s brought a lot of new talent up front.”

Of course, established talent has also shined. On Tuesday, as Anand answered editorial clarifications (including the definition of kvlt), he tweeted about the shiny black speaking box that Volkswagen had stuck on the morning’s newspaper: ‘Those of you who think the VW ad is ‘innovative’, just wait until your front page story starts sounding like Arnab Goswami.’ That’s three victims right there, in less than 140 characters.