If you've ever told a joke, you know that there's a moment in telling when the universe is hanging in the balance. All eyes are on you, expecting the big bang. The outcome could be a roar or a snigger, depending as much on the content as on its delivery. At that precise moment your job is as capricious as diffusing a bomb. To quote Jerry Seinfeld, "According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death…This means for the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better-off in the casket than doing the eulogy." Hence, it's not a wonder that while there are many actors and politicians-all working in the domain of public speaking-there are very few stand-up comics. Because, it is an darn tricky job to make people laugh.
Coming to the Indian sense of humour, it is still dominated by slapstick and theatrics. English stand-up comedy in India borrows heavily from the West. And while in the West it broke into the scene with anti-establishment undertones, in India it is elitist. Only about 40-oddblokes, in the entire country, have taken to the microphone to make people laugh. "The money is fairly good too," says comic Raghav Mandava, one of the four comics we caught up with, who are cracking things up, and have changed how Indians see stand-up comedy.
THE RUDE BOY OF COMEDY
During a show at India Habitat Centre that was full of Delhi aunties, I did an act on faking a female orgasm. 20 per cent of them had this guilty-pleasure look on their face, 30 per cent were hiding their faces or slipping under the seat, and 50 per cent were utterly confused. I still cannot forget the look on their face"
I have never been the cool guy who makes women laugh out loud at parties while making drinks for them," says Vir Das, the excitable and cocky but very successful stand-up comic and Bollywood actor. "I am the guy who would be found sitting in one corner in that party, observing that idiot do his tricks," he says. The audience has had a love-hate relationship with him (while his tours are mostly sold-out, his TV shows have been, well, passable). He shares his secret of success on stage: "With Indians you just have to slap them around and shove your hand down their throat and yank the laughter out of their gut in the first two minutes of a show, and if you can manage to do that they're yours for the next 120 minutes and they'll give you more than any audience in the world." It is this 'shock humour' he employs in his acts that are mostly about sex. "People either have sex or want to have sex. You might not be clued in with the politics but sex is a common knowledge," he says. "It's very fashionable to say that Indians don't like to laugh at themselves, or that Indians are prudish, but I just don't buy that. I think that any Indian comedian who claims so is just being lazy."
Das broke into the comedy scene in India in 2004. Today's heavyweights like Cyrus Broacha, Boman Irani and Ash Chandler were setting the stage for standup at the time. Soon Das started performing at shows for 200-odd spectators. From there, this self-confessed rude boy of live entertainment, spiralled into stardom with a key role in Delhi Belly. After all, in Indian cinema, not many can deliver a dialogue like, "This girl has given me blow job."DADDY COOL
Once, a few of us got pulled over at 3 am for drunken driving in the UK. The cops took us to the police station. Meanwhile I started to humour them in the car. The 'act' lasted till 6.30 am in the station after which the alcohol test showed below limits. We got off lucky."
Papa CJ's face is an uncanny mix of clever and sweet. He is how we imagine a comic. Slightly underdogish, long-haired, bespectacled, with the look of a superhero masquerading as a geek. CJ draws his power from behind the mic and is quick with his improvisations. His real game lies in adapting to the audience that can be as varied as a bunch of youngsters in a pub to corporate bigwigs. "You just need to know how to manage the crowd and their underlying hypocrisies, but once they put their trust in you they will let you take them down any path," he says, "Just give them a couple of drinks, turn off all the lights and then let it rip."
He quips about how he fell into comedy after he found out that his career in pole-dancing failed because people laughed when he took off his clothes. "I thought I might as well get into a career where a laughing customer indicated a good result," he says. After a good thousand stand-up acts, he can safely say he has been successful the second time.MISTER WISECRACK
There's a little transparent box in every metro station in Delhi, which instructs commuters to drop extra tokens. Now, why would a person buy two tokens? And if you have lost your child would you be first dropping the token in the box before rushing to the police station?."
Raghav Mandava dropped the job in a TV news channel to become a stand-up comic. His genre of comedy is kind of niche-daily angst and social satire, but he has the right idol for inspiration. Someday he wants to be like Lenny Bruce. He believes that hero-worshipping isn't imitating. "While Aerosmith started as a cover band for The Rolling Stones, they eventually left their mark," he says.
"At times my age is a hindrance for my comedy because people take me as well-to-do young kid," he says. This geeky 25-year-old lad has learnt the ropes well: A little more than a year ago he launched his comedy company, Cheese Monkey Mafia, and has hustled his way up from five-minute slots to hosting entire evenings.THE ACCIDENTAL COMIC
Improvisation on stage is actually more comical. At the comedy store in Mumbai a close friend of mine was enacting the Srk-Shirish Kunder slapping act and kept getting the name wrong. People still kept laughing.."
Gursimran Khamba is one part of the duo that created a first-of-its-kind comedy podcast in India. Its attention-grabbing name, to put it mildly, is a testament to the biting sarcasm it doles out. "The idea behind All India Bakchod was to be able to give comics a voice and a platform," he says. The episodes are 14 to 35 minutes long and voice their witty opinion on a range of subjects like Karnataka MLAs watching porn in the Assembly and Shah Rukh Khan slapping a drunk Shirish Kunder. Khamba agrees that there's still a long way to go to get the Indian audience at large interested in their direct-to-internet content. But things are going pretty great, as he and his business partner Tanmay Bhat recently got Russell Peters to join them for a show.