Comedy without without caution – Times of India

Chennai News
Comics defend their right to autonomous scripting, political and cultural expression in light of what happened at the Oscars
Years ago, when Karthik Kumar was on the early rungs of his career as a standup comedian, it was common for elderly audiences at his shows to spring off their seats and yell at him to stop talking. He of course, wasn’t making light of someone’s receding hairline or diabetes, but at most perhaps, the idiosyncrasies of their neighbourhood, or their poor breakfast choices. Anna Nagarites would be furious he perceived them one way, and Mylaporeans would hate his guts for branding them another way.
Karthik would have to write furious emails to the organisers asking them to stand up for the performers they called upon. “And most of them would turn around and say, ‘you shouldn’t have gone there.’,” he says.

Today, the public is divided on whether Chris Rick ‘should have gone there’, with his dig at Jada Pinkett’s struggle with alopecia at the Oscars, but comedians including Karthik, are united against being ‘hit back’ into silence. The young, Indian comedian’s understanding of comedy as an art form is rooted in its affable liberty to ‘cross the line and leave it there’, with the kind of gaiety and light-heartedness they believe mainstream media can never do.
From the beginning of the millennium – when comedians like Karthik set the challenging precedent for comedy as serious business – to now, when the quagmire of social media commentators have made a mockery out personal discretion, the ‘line’ to be drawn is nothing but an implausible boundary, say comedians. Their creative fuel comes from Tina Fey’s mockery of Donald Trump’s hair or more historically, Bill Hicks’ savage digs at the American government’s war on drugs.
But through all this, they maintain that those taking offense are well within their right to do so, and the key really lies in “coexisting with dissent”, as city comedian SA Aravind puts it.

“An argument like this would only gather heat in India, where the bar for offense is extremely low,” says Agrima Joshua, the UP-born comedian who some years ago, found herself at the eye of a political storm after she joked about the Devendra Fadnavis government’s Chhatrapati Shivaji statue project. “The history of political comedy dates back to the jester’s privilege, which essentially allowed the court jester to mock the ruling leader, without his humour being regarded as heresy.”
An audience’s reaction to comedy is intuitive and visceral. You can never be prepared for how a joke would go down, she adds.
“In that sense, today in India, there is real outrage and manufactured outrage. What sparked Will Smith’s ire following a joke on his wife was perhaps real outrage, but a year-old video of mine being pulled out to rile up people is manufactured outrage,” she says, referring to the apology she had to issue in 2020, a whole year after her joke on the Shivaji statue project went up.
While the ‘outragers’ keep growing and receding, the country’s roast culture, which the controversial and now disbanded comedy company All India Bakchod pioneered in the beginning of last decade, is literally altering the face of Indian comedy by monetizing a genre that is rooted in raunchy, no-holds-barred public shaming. “Crossing the line’ is its very USP. It would be safe to say that a massive chunk of auditorium audiences who once shied away from sexual innuendos or being called out for their cultural conditioning, are absolutely obliterated from this movement.
Day and night a whole crusade of gen-Z roasters like Carry Minati (15 million Instagram followers) and Angryprash (936k followers on Instagram), is churning out content that an entire generation of young audiences is ravenously consuming for its brazen, obscenity and meme-laden mash up of insults directed at film stars, fellow YouTubers and even the government. The ‘lines’ are blurring, even within the relatively young business of Indian comedy.
“The day after the Oscars, A-lister comedians like Andrew Schulz brutally roasted Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, and this content went viral,” says Aravind. “So much of people’s personal information is out there; whether someone cheated on their partner or is going through an illness: some comic somewhere is going to comment on it. This is how both the craft and business of comedy runs world over, and a radical acceptance of the nature of this business is the way forward,” he says.
But, in a country like India, for standup comedians to make a living out of the art form in itself is a first-generation attempt.
“I wouldn’t crack a joke that risks everything I’ve worked hard for,” says Aravind. “Unlike the West, here, there is nothing redeeming for a comedian taking a risk like that, beyond a temporary phase of visibility. A Comedy Central for instance, is going to be making jokes on conservative media day after day, no matter what happens. Our culture, on the other hand, is voyeuristic enough to tear apart one infamous joke online and move on to the next person in a day or two. We don’t have a counterculture for such a comedian to get integrated into. While this may not change in my lifetime, I’m just happy we’ve found pockets to work out our ways in India.”