In the early days of the VCR video cassette recorder, a gadget now extinct enterprising producers used to come up with all kinds of content to sell to people who had invested in expensive players.There were films, of course, mostly pirated; compilation of hit songs, one-camera recordings of plays, mushairas, hasya kavi sammelans and Johny Lever’s comedy cassettes.
Johny Lever was one of the earliest stand-up comedians in the country, when this form of entertainment was not as popular as it is now. Actually, he was a mimicry artist who punctuated his ‘items’ of mimicking various film stars with jokes and gags. And a laughter-starved audience lapped up his very rudimentary comedy shows.
If Johny Lever’s comedy seems unsophisticated and very simple, it cannot be denied that he knows his audience he makes them laugh not because he is superior to them, but because he is just like them
Then, the stand-up comedy boom happened and created its own stars with their devoted fan following. And after 16 years (so said the host of the show, Kiran Kotrial) Johny Lever came back to reclaim his territory. And his show, Johny Lever Live, has been a huge hit. People who are snooty about Bollywood also flock to see it, and are surprised that an actor who had been reduced to buffoonery in Hindi cinema (as so many comedians are), can hold his own on the stage.
Unlike many stand-up comedians on the scene today, Lever has come up from humble origins and his observations of life are more varied. He has seen life on the streets, selling pens, and getting customers by mimicking stars. Interestingly, in those days, actors made it a point to develop a particular style of delivering dialogue, dancing or striding.
Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor can easily be imitated, and Dev Anand virtually launched a mimicry industry all by himself. But, others such as Ashok Kumar, Om Prakash, Asit Sen, Jeevan could be identified with the eyes closed, because of their distinctive speech. Today’s stars are so bland and similar, which must have halted aspiring mimics in their tracks. But, the old-timers are still a gold mine.
At a time when the mimicry artiste was a filler between music acts or star shows, Johnny Lever travelled with Kalyanji-Anandji as the ‘comedy track’. With self-deprecating wit, Lever narrates an incident when people would mistake him for a Keralite due to his dark skin and curly hair, and that was the time Indian airports would be crowded with Malayali returnees from the Gulf; harried Customs officers forced him into the line of Keralites, and by the time his turn came, they were too exhausted to open his bags. He brought the house down imitating a Malayali who conned Customs men by pretending he didn’t understand what they were saying, and they would let him pass with his bags of contraband, simply because they had no energy to argue with him.
Simple everyday incidents like traffic jams are grist for the comic mill, Lever acting as the busybody who gets off to direct traffic and after clearing a path for his car, gets in and drives off. Or the tendency of people to state the obvious, like waking up a sleeping person by asking, “Were you sleeping?” The way he acts it out is hilarious.
Again, unlike so many stand-up comedians who make fun of audiences and when there is an attention deficit, get people to giggle by using vulgar or sexist jokes, Lever’s comedy is squeaky clean and as they say in the industry for family audiences.
He can get the adults chortling by mimicking everyone from Narendra Modi, L K Advani, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal, to the eminently lampoon-able Mamata Banerjee, and slyly slipping in some political satire; he gets the young whooping with his very energetic aping of the dance moves of Shakira, Sunny Leone, Michael Jackson, and do a belly dance without even getting out of breath. His impression of a drunk trying to act as if he is sober, is side-splitting. One of his gags is that of an old woman trying to hunt for Balika Vadhu on TV and getting every channel from Sansani to CID to KBC his takes on these shows are spot on. And then, he copies Saroj Khan teaching dance on a TV show and the audience is practically rolling on the floor. (His daughter Jamie J is a chip off the old block, who performed an act making fun of reality show judges and imitated the styles of Madhuri Dixit, Kirron Kher, Anu Malik and brought the house down with her mimicry of Asha Bhosale.)
If Johny Lever’s comedy seems unsophisticated and very simple, it cannot be denied that he knows his audience he makes them laugh not because he is superior to them, but because he is just like them; he finds the same things funny that they do. Everyone understands his jokes and everyone has come across at least a few of the characters he lampoons. Match his comedy with effective lighting and attractive stage design, and the show’s a crowd pleaser. Hearing a thousand people laughing together, knowing that they will leave the auditorium smiling must be a high for any performer. And to do this without offending or embarrassing anyone, that’s what comedy is all about.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. You can follow her on twitter @deepagahlot