The joke is on me

Jul 12, 2015, 08:25 IST | Anju Maskeri

Offsites are so last financial year. Offices adopt a not-so-nice medium of insult comedy for team building among employees

If no one else, at least the funny boys from All India Bakchod (AIB) will be happy to hear they’ve kicked off a craze that won’t run dry, even in the face of criminal action. And, Karan Johar, who agreed to be the butt of prurient jokes before a stadium full of people, including his mother.

Employees of Aurangabad firm, Omond, crack up during a Roast conducted by The Awkward Fruit
Employees of Aurangabad firm, Omond, crack up during a Roast conducted by The Awkward Fruit

In December last year, from India’s most famous and audacious comedy collective came the Roast, a custom dating back to 1949 involving comics and celebrity guests, who agree to be mocked in front of thousands. A recording of film stars Arjun Kapoor, Ranveer Singh and Roastmaster, director Karan Johar being cooked by a Roasters panel saw three lakh hits in two days, and later, FIRs against 13, with sections ranging from criminal conspiracy to speaking vulgar, obscene and pornographic words publicly before a women audience.

Four months later, the Roast is alive and thriving at the most unlikeliest of venues, the workplace.

This time, its purpose stretches beyond taking off someone’s pants for fun to conflict resolution, stress redressal and upping output. Instead of Kapoor’s poor academic record and Johar’s sexuality, a rumoured office romance and smoke breaks that stretch over hours become fodder for insult comedy.

Kamal Trilok Singh and Akshata Agarwal conduct a week-long research module to dig up dirt on employees before the Roast. Pic/ Bipin Kokate
Kamal Trilok Singh and Akshata Agarwal conduct a week-long research module to dig up dirt on employees before the Roast. Pic/ Bipin Kokate

Entrepreneur couple Kamal Trilok Singh and Akshata Agarwal, who run comedy club, The Awkward Fruit, tried their hand at dragging the Roast out of the club and into the office this April when digital services and products firm, Gozoop allowed them entry into their Santacruz headquarters.

“Standup acts in the office aren’t new, but usually, sexual, political and cultural content isn’t touched. The Roast is braver,” says Agarwal, who handles the research and logistics of the eight-month-old business, leaving creative output to Singh.

It takes research
Preparations began a week before the Gozoop Saturday Roast, with Singh dropping in for a hushed meeting with the HR team to gather field information on employees. “Once we’ve selected the Roastees, we make elaborate notes on each one. Sometimes, we don’t spare the HR either. By joining hands with an insider, we’ve managed to dig up dirt on them too,” says Singh.

Shy, reticent, latecomers or staffers who can’t boast of impeccable hygiene usually make perfect Roastees. “The idea is simple. Focus on inter-department relationships, office romances, taboos and the weird aspects of agency life that allow the staff to have a good laugh,” says Gozoop’s 30-year-old founder, Rohan Bhansali.

Rohan Bhansali
Rohan Bhansali

Singh, who was allowed access to social media groups frequented by the Gozoop staff, says the employees weren’t aware of his presence, helping him catch them off guard with his scripted gags. Bansi Raja, HR head, helped Singh identify the sensitive and emotional from the lot to avoid breakdowns.

On the appointed Saturday, Raja ushered all 150 members of the staff into their conference room where an informal stage was set. Bhansali, who sat it in the front row, was the first to be roasted by Singh. “The moment you see your CEO in a vulnerable spot, but laughing his head off, you know you can loosen up,” says Singh. From the much-married colleague who downloaded Tinder “just to see how it works” to a hapless staffer named Osama, no one was spared.

But a riotous Saturday wasn’t the only consequence of Gozoop’s initiative. Bhansali claims the most tangible change he has observed is rising spontaneity among his team. “Things we never addressed, like a certain someone’s annoying habit, were joked about publicly. Honesty, a key element of the Roast, has brought us closer, made us a more cohesive force,” he explains.

Bagging clients
Getting a corporate outfit to agree to being the subject of ridicule, and cough up money for it, isn’t easy. The couple had to keep at clients for months before cracking their first Roast deal. But the inquiries are now trickling in, and word of mouth is their strongest weapon. JP Morgan and Motilal Oswal are part of their roster.

The AIB Knockout, and its infamous YouTube success, may have also done the Roast’s image more harm than good, believe some. “The Roast is now synonymous with outright insults, but it could very well have elements of harmless humour,” says Amogh Ranadive, member of Weirdass Comedy.

The outfit launched by actor and standup Vir Das, who is a regular at corporate comedy events but isn’t too comfortable handing the Roast format. “My brand of humour doesn’t involve picking on people. Ripping into them doesn’t excite me. My style is more about burps and farts,” says Das.

But he’s excited about the prospect of comedy charting new frontiers, and finally getting its due. “The more the comedy, the better,” he smiles.

Wit at work
Khyati Birla, psychotherapist and professional coach, thinks the Roast may work in the corporate arena provided the age of staffers is taken into consideration. “A younger workforce doesn’t mind being targeted. I’m not sure how seniors in management would take to it. It’s a perfect ice-breaker as far as start-ups go,” she says.

How  it all began
The history of professional Roasts can be traced to the 50s, when a private organisation called the Friars Club in New York gave members the chance to crack offensive jokes at comedians

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