She, She: Ha, Ha

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A new crop of women comedians is breaking into the Indian stand-up circuit with edgy content and smart acts

IN FEBRUARY LAST year, All India Bakchod, India’s biggest comedy collective, organised its first open mic event, Trial Ball, in Mumbai. Supriya Joshi was part of the line-up of comedians taking the stage for the first time. Although she wasn’t new to comedy—her Vine videos had made her popular and she was working as a writer with AIB at the time—getting up there was a scary prospect. A colleague, who insisted that she was funny, put her name on the list. Joshi had four minutes at the microphone and performed to a crowd of over a hundred people. Her set, which included bits on sexting and her struggles with Polycystic Ovarian Disease (PCOD), was greeted with thunderous applause. She later discovered that actor and comedian Eddie Izzard had been in the audience. “He told me that I was really good. That just did it for me. If Eddie Izzard is telling me I’m good then I should keep doing this. Why am I doubting myself?” she recalls.

One year later, Joshi has performed in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Delhi, Pune and is among the growing tribe of young women breaking into the Indian stand- up circuit, which until a few years ago included only a handful of women like Aditi Mittal, Radhika Vaz, Neeti Palta and Kaneez Surka. The trend is clear in metros that fostered the English language stand-up industry; Mumbai and Bengaluru now see greater numbers of women hosting and taking the stage at open mic nights, putting up performances at corporate shows, which were dominated by male comedians till recently. There are all-female line-ups too.

While open mics offer a welcome platform to aspiring comics, there are also women working behind the scenes to make the industry more inclusive. Two years ago, Jeeya Sethi founded Comedy Ladder, a comedy-focused events company that was started “to make the green room comfortable for everyone”. The comedian and producer says that they make an attempt to have more women participate in the shows they organise.

Last November, Comedy Ladder started FemaPalooza, an open mic series meant only for women. “It was created to encourage a safe environment for women to try comedy for the first time, or for the ones finding their feet. Knowing that you won’t be the only woman on the stage that evening, or even the fact that there are no men in the audience is kind of freeing. There is also less judgement and more support in the green room,” says Sethi. FemaPalooza hosted its third edition in Mumbai this June.

Many comedians were quick to notice a lack of women in the audience. While fostering an encouraging atmosphere on stage was important, there was something to be said about creating a safe space overall, where women could come together and have fun without being judged. When actor and comedian Sumukhi Suresh performed a bit on blowjobs at a show a few years ago, the crowd went wild, but a lady also ran out of the room. “She wasn’t angry, but blushing furiously, while the men were having a gala time. It hit me that many women were not used to laughing loudly, especially about topics like these. There’s so much sexual politics involved—the image you project in front of men when you laugh at a blowjob joke.”

“The same rules that apply to writing apply to comedy, except you don’t have two-three drafts. You say it 19-20 times to get it right” - Agrima Joshua

In 2016, Suresh started Disgust Me, a show with sex jokes aplenty but for a women-only audience, and has done editions in Mumbai and Bengaluru so far. “The response has been wonderful. When women get together, they’re loud and carefree, no matter their age. My show in Mumbai included a 21-year-old and a 65-year-old and it was great to see how everyone had something to take away from it,” she says.

Like in other creative professions, moving up in stand-up comedy is gruelling and calls for an unwavering focus on the craft. You rough it out at open mics, and if things work out, you move up to a 15-20 minute slot at a multi- line-up show. “You get to hour-long solos much, much later. Watching a show feels fairly simple, but it takes a long time to build content,” says Bengaluru- based Punya Arora.

Mumbai-based Agrima Joshua, who’s been performing for over two years, says that when you’re writing, you have to keep the audience in mind—what references and insights will hit home with them. “The same rules that apply to writing apply to comedy, except you don’t have two-three drafts here but a revision of the same jokes. You say it 19- 20 times to get it right. I sometimes do up to three open mics a day,” she says.

“When we go on stage, we’re not just taking our jokes but representing our entire gender, which is annoying” - Punya Arora

When Urooj Ashfaq, one of the youngest comics on the scene, performed her first set two years ago, her material included jokes about break-ups and being a Muslim. “They were really basic jokes, which I later found were a cause of embarrassment. When you start stand-up, you don’t know what the rules are. The only way to get better is to do bad material…. You’re allowed that space to make mistakes on stage because that’s where you learn and grow.”

While the gender ratio in the stand- up circuit is still heavily skewed in favour of men—they’re more visible on stage and off it—aspiring comedians face the additional pressure of busting the ‘women aren’t funny’ myth. There’s also fighting the stereotype of being unimaginative, of using the same old bra- period tropes. Mittal referenced this in her recent set at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, calling out the Indian internet’s discomfort with ‘boobs’ and ‘vagene’. “When a woman has a bad night on stage, nobody says ‘You’re a bad comic.’ They’ll just say, ‘Women aren’t funny’. When we go on stage, we’re not just taking our jokes but representing our entire gender, which is annoying,” says Arora.

Joshua believes that such pigeonholing is just another way to dismiss women’s voices. “I think it’s also an ego issue because for the longest time, men had the onus of being the funny ones. When Radhika Vaz is performing in front of a large crowd, for those men and women, saying the word ‘period’ out loud is also shocking. When she does that, it’s an act of hilarious rebellion, ‘I’m going to say it out loud and we’ll see what you can do about it.’”

“If you hear something funny, chances are your restrictive thoughts will betray you and you will laugh, whether a man or a woman says it” - Aayushi Jagad

Ideas of accepted humour also have much to do with conditioning. Like in most professions, women entered comedy much later and for a long time, male stand-up comedians were what most people had access to. Content creator and comedy newbie Aayushi Jagad, who was once called a ‘sniper’ by a Russian man in the audience, believes that men don’t do gender-neutral comedy because to them, “their gender is the default [one]”.

It’s an issue women comedians globally have had to struggle with—American comedian and writer Michelle Wolf wasn’t spared the backlash when she performed at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, prompting critic Emily Nussbaum to tweet, ‘Been thinking about how mad people are at Wolf making ‘dirty jokes’. There’s a reason fem comics work blue, especially now—they’re seizing the weapon that is used against them.’ (‘Working blue’ is comedy-speak for profanity or sexual innuendo-laced content.)

For the new crop of comediennes, it’s a stereotype harboured by misinformed people who haven’t watched enough comedy, and they try not to get bogged down by it. Arora says that the only time she’s covered those themes is when they were commissioned projects. Much of the content they draw up is inspired by personal experiences—their roots, how they grew up, or observational quirks. Sometimes, their riffs are also subtle social commentary.

“It hit me that many women were not used to laughing loudly, especially about topics like blowjobs. There’s sexual politics involved” - Sumukhi Suresh

At her recent show in Bengaluru, Arora joked about being raised by a single mother. “Whenever I tell people this, they react with shock. Then I say, ‘Hey, I do watch Game of Thrones, you know,’” she said, as the crowd hooted with laughter. “Having a single parent is not actually funny, but I integrate comedy into it because I have a message to give—the whole beta chaahiye phenomenon is still prevalent in India. It’s why my mom got divorced,” she says.

The Indian audience hasn’t yet fully grasped how influential comedy can be, says Jagad. “If something is joked about, the notion is that the topic is not important to us, or that we dislike it and think it’s bad. This is simply not true. It’s the same reason that laughing at sexist material somehow becomes light-hearted and internalised,” she says, adding, “That’s the beauty of ‘funny’, laughter is involuntary. If you [hear] something that’s actually funny, chances are those restrictive thoughts will betray you and you will laugh regardless of whether a man or a woman says it.”

AS THEY BUILD a steady bank of material and hone their skills, newer markets are opening up for these women, offering opportunities to reach new audiences. Apart from Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, Ashfaq has performed in student towns like Belgaum and Manipal. She and Arora will be doing their first show in Dubai next month.

While more and more comics are hitting open mics, the drop-out rate is high too. Often, it’s too inconvenient; events tend to be at night and safety can become an issue. “It’s not just about encouraging women to do more comedy, it’s about keeping the women who already are. Having certain open mics early can help,” says Ashfaq.

“It’s not just about encouraging women to do more comedy, it’s about keeping the women who already are” - Urooj Ashfaq

Offstage too, we’re seeing changes. Mittal got her own Netflix special, Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say, last year, while Suresh created and starred in Amazon Prime’s Pushpavalli. TLC’s Queens of Comedy, which Ashfaq and Jagad were a part of, was the first women- only comedy show in the country. As the contestants performed material on everything from demonetisation and Aadhaar to cows and hunger strikes, the show made for refreshing fare, stripped off the prejudice-laden content that many all-male comedy shows are guilty of. Mittal’s hour-long special is much like her regular shows, where she animatedly presents sets on gender, sex, beauty and more. Pushpavalli , more a dark satire than a conventionally funny show, is a total binge-watch—Suresh is fantastic as the titular character who stalks a man she met once and fell in love with, offering an interesting role reversal on the subject.

“More of us need to start putting out content on YouTube. The biggest word- of-mouth is a stand-up video. Even if it’s a mediocre video, it’s a voice someone will associate with,” says Suresh, while Joshi recommends soldiering through the bad days. “There are times when I’ve walked off because I was tanking so miserably. But the five minutes you have on stage is when you can be your truest self—you’re looking straight at people and making them laugh. That sort of validation is the best adrenaline rush in the world.”