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Comedy - A Serious Affair!
Anyone going through a bad phase, or even good, in life will definitely relate and associate with the idiom, ‘Laughter is the best medicine’. For years we have grown up watching people on screens make us laugh with their witty humor, impeccable timings, one-liners and sketches. But, have we ever taken a moment to find out where did comedy even come from, and how did it evolve, especially in the Indian context?
Feb 06, 2019 at 00:00

 

 

“When I grow up I want to become a successful entrepreneur.”

“I just want to grow up and make people laugh about almost everything. I want to be a comedian!”

 

While we often come across the former statement, the latter is not something we hear everyday. In fact, how often is it that we come across people who have the ability to turn any moment into one that can make you smile? As we sit back and watch people perform on stage and crack witty one-liners, we think, “how difficult can it be?” After all no one needs to do a course on ‘how to become a comedian’, and there are no preset rules or guidelines. But, what we don’t understand is that comedy is no child’s play. To stand up in front of a crowd and say ‘anything’ without offending your audiences is a rather tricky business. It’s one thing being funny and an entirely different thing crossing that rather thin and sometimes, invisible line between being funny and insensitive. But, before we get into the nitty gritties of how comedy has evolved, we find out how it all began.

 

 

Comedy, as a form, has its roots in Greek literature and theatre. Ancient Greeks took their entertainment very seriously. Comedy was one of the two major forms of theatre in ancient Greece, apart from the more sombre Tragedy. The plots of these comedies revolved around satirical takes on men in power, and later on, ordinary men. Though, the plays evoked a sense of amusement for the crowd, it never was without raising a serious question or commenting about the society that they lived in. Greek Comedy invoked the very sense of the root word, ‘parrhesia’ from which Comedy is derived, a figure of speech used to speak candidly and later ask for forgiveness for doing so! From Greeks the genre was adapted by the literary genius Shakespeare, and with the invention of the printing press, there was no looking back and comedy (like other literatures) slowly found its way around the globe.

 

But how did it move from a theatrical performance to an individual act? The earliest references to stand up can be traced to 1800s, which witnessed comedy routines finding a place in between live music hall events, mostly as fillers. But the term Stand Up itself came into play much later, we will get to that.  

 

While Hollywood stalwarts like Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen, Robin Williams and Ellen DeGeneres were making their mark as comedians in America,  India was redefining the existing form of comedy, the existence of which in India dates back to the 16th century! Even before the era of television and comedy clubs emerged, a local dance form ‘Chakyarkoothu’ from Kerala combined satire with poetry. What started as plain acts of mimicking established personalities, later transformed to more ‘serious’ comedy.

 

From a restricted comedy line up that went on to dominate our telly screens for years, to the outbreak of Stand Up comedy, comedians in India definitely took comedy to greater heights.  What must also be said about comedy is that it has evolved in the imagination of the Indian audiences over the years. From sitcoms the newer generation has found its funny bone tickled through Stand Up comedy and YouTube, and there has not been any looking back.

 

Image Source: Netflix

The first major shift in the stand up comedy happened when many a non-resident Indians returned to India after spending years overseas. The earliest proponents of stand up in India, Vir Das and Papa CJ were exposed to stand up in the west, which had already evolved into a full-fledged form of entertainment. Since they knew the scope and caliber that the form held, all they had to do was utilise their skills to shake up the the Indian entertainment market. Sounds simple right? Wrong. It took many a stumbles and failures before any of them even received an applause from their audience. For instance, Vir Das was sent off stage 15 times before his eventual success on his 16th attempt. It’s here when you realize that if laughter is indeed the best medicine then one ought to take it seriously.

 

Image Source: RusellPeters.com

Stand Up took many tenuous routes before finding a foothold in the Indian context. One of the first names that became immensely popular in the genre was Russell Peters, the Indian origin Canadian comedian. Peters, who faced racial prejudices growing up, used his wit as a defense mechanism to turn his personal experiences into an act on stage. Indian audiences related with Peters for he used very controversial racial stereotypes, which people could either relate with or laugh at!

 

Image Source: YouTube

Right about now will be the correct time to mention the role that the online platforms played in the far reach of comedy in India. India saw the ultimate thrust of comedy as many comedians went online to showcase their comic talent and gain instant recognition. The ‘Triple K’ wonders - Kenny Sebastian, Kanan Gill and Kalyan Rath (Biswa) and later, Zakir Khan amongst many more popularised YouTube as a medium to showcase their witty comic acts and soon, gained a large number of followers.

 

 

Image Source: YouTube

Initially stand up comedy catered primarily to the English speaking audiences, but soon it caught the fancy of the different Indian languages, as well. The Comedy Factory from Gujarat, released a Gujarati version of ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ online (3 million views within a fortnight) and replaced the Punjabi Mehra family with the Gujarati Mehta’s family. Following the trail of the Comedy Factory which was established in 2011, came the Maharashtrian BhaDiPa (Bharatiya Digital Party) in 2016. From a regional YouTube channel where they created a series ‘Secret Marathi Stand-up’ (SMS) to now organizing private gigs, BhaDiPa has got on board 12 Marathi comedians. One of the keys to comedy getting accepted widely in a country as diverse as India, soon meant building content in regional languages as well. The more comedians experimented with content and language, the more they realised that the audience did not mind so much if something was said from colloquial quarters.

 

The rise of these online sensations meant that people in India were learning to laugh in a different way through a different medium and in different languages! As much as one would like to believe that it was YouTube that made them famous, it can be argued that it was equal parts these artists that lead to the popularity of YouTube as a medium.

 

Slowly but gradually comedy emerged from a side act to an individual industry in itself. The emergence of local and colloquial stand up comedians bought a fresh lease of life to comedy as a the whole. Along with this, a new generation of audience demanded newer forms of entertainment. Cafe and club owners soon realised that they needed more than just good music and food to keep the audience coming. This realization lead to the mushrooming of various comedy clubs like Canvas Laugh Club, Tuning Fork and The Cuckoo Club in the urban cities. Newer and newer artists were (and continue to) selling out shows in smaller towns, as well.

 

When content is king, the means to take control over a kingdom can be a tough ask. As competition grows, sometimes the lines between comedy and base humor can get blurry.

As much as the comedians need to stay away from crass humor, we the audiences need to recognise that it is very difficult to make it out there in the funny yet frizzled world.

 

The newer generation now looks for more than just mimicry. Today, there is far greater acceptance of comedy being the medium for raising political and social issues (with a pinch of humor). One can argue that stand up artists hold a mirror to our society, and make us question the very things we are laughing at.

 

The next time you go for a comedy show or see or read something on the internet, just enjoy it. And, if at all you don’t agree to something said by a comedian or beg to differ on a comment made publicly by them on a platform, simply stop following them. Much of life, as transpired in reality, contained equal parts the tragic and the comic.

 
A eureka moment that lead to solving the water woes.

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