On Sunday, March 13th, evam Standup Tamasha brought together five amazing stand up comics for a panel discussion on the topic, “Tolerating Comedy” in IIT, Chennai as part of Laugh OK Please Multi.
The discussion was moderated by Mathangi Krishnamurthy, Anthropologist & Columnist. She has been a friend of evam for a long time and seen the evolution of the comedy scene in Chennai.
“Tolerance” is a topic that everyone has been talking about on social media and in the news in the recent past. How tolerant are we really? Is comedy being taken too seriously?
The discussion began with the introduction of the comics in the panel and their experience in the industry. The audience consisted of students of the IIT-M Oratory Club.
In terms of identity questions, what have been your set of choices when it comes to Standup Comedy?
Azeem: You can pretty much push any boundary when it comes to standup as long as you’re smart about how you do it. For me, I’ve always enjoyed talking about religion. I talk about being a Muslim, about Islam; which is a very controversial topic right now. I can push further than most people and get away with it because I feel like I have the right to talk about this. The whole idea of doing sets about religion is to make people think, “Oh I never thought about it THAT way”. That’s basically what it is.
Daniel: I am okay with making fun of anything but it’s just that you’ve to be a little bit careful. In India especially, you can’t say what you want and get away with it. That’s probably why we need to have this discussion today about tolerance.I’m assuming that we still have a certain level of freedom in this country considering I haven’t been thrown in the jail for my content. But what we need to understand is that we need to make a responsible decision. We can’t just go all out. One needs to be smart about it. Plan your career in a way that you get to say a lot of things for a long time rather than saying that one thing and never being allowed to speak again.
Praveen: Just to add to this. Make fun of yourself first before you start making fun of others. For example, first I talk about being a Tamilian and making fun of things I do. Then I can talk about others. Once you make fun of yourself, you indirectly get the license to make fun of the others.
Moderator: At some level, standup comics have become opinion leaders. People are looking to relate to their point of view. They’re not just a barometer for social views, but are producing a new way to think using the art of social commentary.
Would you rather do English comedy than venture into vernacular comedy? Is that safer? What’s your take on political correctness in comedy?
Praveen: All of us in the panel do English standup comedy. My reason is that, I don’t know Hindi. Jokes apart, English standup comedy is just five years old in India. We write our own sets and we follow some standard rules and ethics. Even amongst Indian comics, there are some who start off their set in English and then venture into other languages. So in my opinion, language doesn’t really matter.
Daniel: Do we get away with more because we speak in English? That’s kind of true. A lot of the so called “bhakts”, the ones who get angry and file cases or use it to gain political leverage, are neither fans of English comedy nor buy tickets to watch live shows. So they’re not consumers of the product to begin with. Plus, they don’t get the concept of sarcasm or satire. So only direct jokes that get popular and could potentially hurt sentiments, land comics into trouble. But this is all based on how exposed your content is to the public. The more popular you are, the more eyeballs your channel gets, the more the risk is of someone taking something out of context and getting offended.
Azeem: Honestly, it depends on how good you are as a writer. Layer your jokes in such a way that nobody can blame you for offending someone or something directly. Even when taken out of context, no part of your set should hurt any sentiments. Politically correct writing is an art.
Naveen: You can say anything you want, as long as you’re funny about it. But if you say something and no one laughs, then you come across as an asshole. You’re not a comedian anymore. You can say something controversial and get laughs in a live show, but you need to be careful about your YouTube content.
Moderator: We talked about how people are really offended. They are either expressing their opinion openly or using it as a political leverage or to file cases. I keep wondering whether there exists the capacity to be that offended. Everyone seems to be “really offended”. Your thoughts?
Daniel: My opinion is that no one gets offended in the truest sense of the word. You watched something and got offended. Your life doesn’t change in any way, right? I think it has become a fashionable thing to get offended nowadays. It takes a very secure person to say, “Okay I am not affected by any if this”. Offence for me, stems from a lot of insecurity and free time.
Naveen: It’s about how small a bubble you live in. Like, if you’re living in a tiny bubble everything will seem like a big deal to you. If only one would step out of that bubble and see how their life remains unaffected by all this.
You tend to steer clear from making fun of any particular cause and play safe. Why don’t you do controversial comedy, SA?
Aravind: Your comedy is the extension of your own personality. I enjoy doing sets about being single, arranged marriage etc. I enjoy doing comedy that makes me feel comfortable. I like to stand on a stage and be confident about defending what I talk about. This is my comfort zone. To each their own is my belief.
Does the fact that your content is readily available to everyone make you want to talk about national issues?
Azeem: EIC’s Outrage is all about that. It’s about not just making people laugh, but to also educate them about the current issues. People have come up to us and said that they watch Outrage to find out what the latest news is. Along with expressing opinion, I feel there is a large need to inform people.
Daniel: The power of your set hits you when you realize how much your reach is. What you choose to do with that reach and power is up to you. Your success as a comedian is defined by your audience. At the same time, they can quickly decide that you’re no longer funny or successful and therefore, no longer famous. The trick is to stay true to who you are as an artist and hopefully there are enough people in this world who will like what you talk about.
Do you censor/tweak your content based on which part of India you are performing in?
Aravind: Definitely. I went to Delhi and did jokes about Chennai MPs. I can’t imagine even trying to do that in Chennai.
Daniel: It’s a smart move to be mindful of the environment you’re in. Also, some comedians are angry comedians. That’s a risky space. If you don’t communicate that anger in a smart way it becomes a hate speech, in any part of the country. So play safe.
What is your opinion on people taking offence to sexist jokes?
Daniel: See, there are sexist jokes and there are jokes about sexism. As a comedian, you know your intent. If it doesn’t work on stage, you tweak it and reduce the generality of it. If it still doesn’t work at all, dump it.
Azeem: If a person is categorically being sexist on stage, that’s a problem. Some comedians try to be ironic about sexism and that doesn’t come across with all audiences. You just work on your craft and become better at it.
Aravind: I have a set which I had been told was sexist. Now I had a choice. I could go back and reword it to reduce the generality of the statements I make or face a lukewarm response to it every time. So I made some changes. Didn’t make much of a difference to my audience but I could live with it because information was given to me and I acted on it to make amends. That’s how you improve as a comedian.
Praveen: People have walked upto me and asked why I make fun of my wife. My response is “because I don’t have a husband”. I’m not making fun of all the wives in the world, I am only talking about my experience and my wife.
Do you think you can ever say anything without offending anybody?
Daniel: I’d like 50% of my room to laugh and 50% to take offence. That’s the kind of space I like to play to.
Praveen: When your set mostly involves making fun of yourself & your personal experiences, chances of people taking offence is low.
How do you figure out what it is a good way to talk about sensitive topics?
Azeem: Along with comedy, interspersing hard facts and statistics, putting actual news reports helps give you a lot more credibility.
Daniel: I think after a while, when you build a credibility of your own, that also works in your favour. The maximum research I did was for my feminism set. I can’t even begin to tell you how much time and reading up it took to research feminism. Our idea of feminism is just so misconstrued!
Praveen: The maximum research I did was on the topic of biryani. I don’t talk about serious topics and that’s just my style. Don’t think too much. Go with the flow and just keep writing till you’re happy with the content.
Naveen: I tend to incorporate my opinions about sensitive topics into my sketches. People tend to get a feel of what my thoughts are through that.
Aravind: I learn by performing and writing. I make mistakes, I tweak and I come back. The stage never lies. As someone who is doing well in the field of standup, I feel it is my responsibility to take feedback positively and work on my content.
Thank you for hosting us, IIT-M. We also thank Mathangi, Praveen, Daniel, Aravind, Azeem and Naveen for agreeing to have this discussion with the students.