The excitement in the air is palpable — it’s not often that you get two acclaimed comedians from outside Chennai together on the same stage. Kunal Kamra and Daniel Fernandes have deserved reputations as funnymen, but this would be the first time I’d be seeing them live and the stage is its own beast.
Kunal makes his brand unapologetically clear from the word go — he’s not really familiar with the nuances of South India in general, and so he’s just going to get on with his set. We chuckle (almost thankfully, in retrospect) and applaud when he’s done. It may not have incorporated a regional flavour, but it’s very funny.
Daniel is up next, and we’re ready for him to keep the momentum going. But he’s keen on coming off as aware of the geographical location he’s in, so he chooses to go with a Rajnikanth joke. The odd laugh comes almost reluctantly, and he moves to the better parts of his set, tackling the larger state of the country, gender issues and more. These are his forte, and the crowd is more than happy to laugh along.
He ribs on a few front seaters to great effect, until he asks a couple what they do for fun. “Party,” they say. “In Chennai? Seriously? What sort of boring parties do you have here man?” he retorts, grinning at the crowd and clearly expecting uproarious affirmation.
The laughs don’t come. Daniel comes back to this cringeworthy bit on and off, to evidently zero effect.
We’ve heard the jokes about Chennai being the boring city a million times (never mind the huge turnout for the very same comedy show). But when a popular stand-up comedian riffs off the same ideas we’ve seen in Whatsapp forwards from sniggering North Indians, it’s highly disappointing for a fan of the scene. This is doubly true for a supposedly progressive form of entertainment, one that rejects the low-hanging fruit for a more cerebral approach to comedy that reflects the changing milieu of the nation.
How then, does a South Indian believe in the anti-mainstream narrative of Indian stand-up, when it regularly gives into the very same mainstream cliches it usually rails against?
The problem with the lens that comedians from outside the region train on South India is that it only mines the superficial layer for easy laughs — there is no attempt by these comedians to approach us from a fresh angle. Thanks to decades of cultural bias, anything South Indian is funny by the very virtue of being from the region.
A comedian’s usual audience will laugh along to decidedly mediocre comedy as long as it makes fun of the “other”; the bumbling South Indian with his stereotypical accent, love for Rajnikanth, rice, software engineering, and apparent lack of knowledge about anything outside their immediate surroundings (how ironic).
Stand-up comedy’s true strength, however, lies in subverting stereotypes to expose the absurdities behind them. Good stand-up presents to the audience an idea that might’ve been hiding in plain sight, but in a way that makes them laugh at its inherent ridiculousness or strangeness.
In the legendary George Carlin’s special Life is Worth Losing, he uses caricatures of “big, fat motherfuckers” to make a scathing indictment of American consumerism and mall culture. While he ribs on the the appearance and movement of the extremely obese, it’s primarily a means to point out the absurdity of the country’s material excess. Carlin was a master at these realignments, using themes that may appear in more cliched comedy, while applying his own hilarious spin, to get to a deeper truth that may not be considered conventionally funny.
It’s easy to make a joke about what everyone sees — the number of South Indians in IT, for example, but to make a joke about what most people miss while concentrating on the surface such as why IT is the profession of choice all over the region is what makes a good comic.
This superficiality extends to how the average Indian comic interacts with the South Indian ethos. When Rohan Joshi complains (at a Chennai show, no less) about how people in the city speak no Hindi, or little English, the punchline is that basic observation.
There’s a veritable treasure trove of jokes to be made about the disconnect between Hindi and Tamil speakers that would highlight the unique absurdity of our diverse nation but the joke never goes beyond the obvious.
Vikramjit Singh tries to offer a fresh take on the brainy South Indians trope, only to begin with a cringe-worthy reprisal of the infamous “Naaka Mukka” song and then devolving into a ham-handed Tamil accent. The bit is titled “Down South,” but talks almost exclusively of Chennai and Tamilians, which is another implicit stereotype the South has been trying to rebuff for decades.
While there are a number of opportunities here to pivot to smarter jokes on the cultural differences between Punjabis and Tamilians, most of the bit relies on guaranteed laughs.
If comics reassessed how they viewed the South, they’d understand that humour can be derived from the silliness of the interactions between wildly different peoples from the same country, and not just by relying on the mocking of our perceived otherness.
While the rest of the country gave into ignorance, South India decided to take a stand. A bunch of new comics from the region have carved out their own niche, representing a brand of comedy that understands the weird, colourful tapestry of the South. Names such as Kenny Sebastian, Aravind SA, Karthik Kumar (or KK) and Naveen Richards have transcended the role of a regional favourite to perform all over the country (and in some cases, the world) and land an Amazon special or two. They have successfully blended their local sensibilities with a keen understanding of what their audiences have paid to see.
They have bits about North India too, but significantly, these riff off the hilarity in the national disconnect in a revelatory way — there’s few jokes, if any, about a Delhiite not speaking Malayalam. There are bits on how differently language is used in areas outside the South, and an amused appreciation for how gregarious North Indians can be. The other comics miss out on a relatively untouched goldmine of jokes because, well, they’re lazy.
It would be easy to call me easily offended and dismiss the talking points here. But I’m not offended by the cliched jokes — I’m disappointed in them.
The Indian stand-up scene has been, in many ways, at the forefront of entertainment that doesn’t stick to the beaten path. Comics offer refreshingly funny perspectives on what many in society consider taboo, so it’s frustrating when the same comics don’t seem to care about putting in the effort to unravel a traditionally misrepresented region of the country. The ones that do will reap the rewards of a loyal and appreciative audience. Our IT guys have a lot of disposable income.