In a column in this very publication, writer and arts administrator Deepa Gahlot had plenty to say on the subject of adult, explicit comedy. Short version; if Narendra Modi woke up as Rahul Gandhi one morning, he could not have more contempt for himself than Deepa Gahlot has for a crotch joke.
It’s a contempt that strikes at the heart of my trade as a comedian, and I take some issue with her words. In case you need references, “Hilarious!” said NH7, of my work. “The poster said Russell Peters, that’s why I’m here” said Piyush at the bar. Let me be clear though. I do not take issue with the fact that Ms Gahlot has an opinion, and that it is different from mine. As a comedian, it would be hypocritical and also silly of me to have a problem with the fact that someone has a different worldview from mine.
And I’m not angry or offended, because that’s exactly the sort of delicate mindset that makes doing comedy incredibly difficult in this country. I just find it a bit worrying that an arts administrator at a prestigious art center would denounce an entire form of theater because it’s not to her taste. I disagree with Ms Gahlot’s disdain for the d*ck joke, and I take issue with the place from which much of this disdain comes.
There are 800 words in Miss Gahlot’s piece, some of which make valid points i.e stand-up comics in India have it relatively easy, and there is such a thing as successful clean comedy. But there, we come to the problem. People most often split comedy into two types; clean, and “thoda adults hai uska joke.” It’s a distinction Ms Gahlot makes quite clearly in her column, leaving no doubt as to which of the two she prefers; “For a really intelligent comedian, there is lot of material out there our leaders, celebs, stars, socialites deserve to be ‘roasted’, pity that so many comedians still choose to focus on their crotches,” she writes.
For starters, there’s the implication that only a comedian who finds other material out there (“leaders, celebs, stars, socialites”) is a truly intelligent comedian. If your jokes are about sex and genitalia, you’re a lower life form, unintelligent by comparison. Never mind that Louis CK’s meanderings on masturbation are a better portrait of urban loneliness than any book I’ve read in the last ten years. If we talk about our d*cks, we must all be Grand Masti.
Miss Gahlot also mentions the necessary ‘roasting’ of leaders, celebs, stars and socialites. Fine as they are, those subjects are not a measure of intelligence; if anything they’re an even lower common denominator, the template for every single Tonight Show/Movers & Shakers/Late Night monologue in history. They’re the softballs we lob at the crowd in our first five minutes, because they require no insight greater than a newspaper headline to comprehend.
They key word in that quote from Miss Gahlot though, is ‘roasting’. She seems to have based her entire critique of vulgarity in English stand-up in India off the Weirdass Tandoor of Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak, a celebrity roast in the style of the New York Friars’ Club Roasts of popular American celebrities. And by doing that, she’s done herself and her readers a disservice. Was the roast sexist, vulgar, offensive and smutty?
Yes, because it’s supposed to be.
I know and have worked with every single person who was on the roast that night. I’ve seen them destroy audiences with tales about a weird day at the gym, and potholes in Mumbai, and the idiocy of Miss World, and the tyranny of management graduates, all of which had not a single “dirty” joke. These comedians weren’t sexist, misanthropic and filthy at that roast because that’s all they know; they were professionals performing a form of theater in the way it is meant to be done.
There’s irony in the cruelty of a roast; when you say something filthy on one, you’re not oblivious, you and the subject of your joke are hyper-aware of the vulgarity of the premise. It’s the difference between swearing at someone’s mother and telling a Yo Mama joke. One is meant as insult to YOUR mother. The other’s just a celebration of entertaining wordplay. A roast without dirty jokes is like a ballet without toes.
Also, so what if I just want to tell a dirty joke? No subtext, no higher purpose. If it’s funny, why is it a crime? A comedy stage is the opposite of a sacred space. The most liberating thing about it is that you can talk about whatever you want. And if it’s a leader or a celebrity, so be it. But by that coin, if it’s about sex, so. Be. It. If I spent four years talking about sex in college, they’d give me a psychology degree.
Why is it so galling to you if I do it at a comedy show? A joke lives or dies on its own merit, not the subject. If it’s a great joke, they’ll laugh. If it’s terrible, they won’t. If it’s pointlessly offensive, the audience will try, and then execute the comedian on the spot; death by silence. I’m tired of defending my right to tell a “non-veg” joke to an audience that understands I mean no harm. I’m also tired of them being called “non-veg” jokes. They’re jokes, not a tenant some people won’t rent a house to.
Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo. You can also contact him on www.facebook.com/therohanjoshi