Tamil stand-up comedy is a growing platform in Chennai. While it is relatively new compared to English stand-up comedy, performing in one’s native language is surely finding a strong footing in the country.
A panel discussion titled “Madras Uncensored: Behind the phenomenal growth of Tamil stand-up comedy” organised as part of the Madras Musings-Chennai Heritage Lecture Series on Monday, acknowledged this expanding industry in the city.
Actor and theatre personality Vinodhini Vaidyanathan was in conversation with Annamalai L, Founder of Tanglish Comedy, comedians Jagan Krishnan and Guru Nicketan, on a range of topics from the origins of Tamil stand-up to the challenges they face with respect to language, censorship and more.
Annamalai founded Tanglish Comedy in 2016. When he started out, it was a movement of sorts in the Tamil stand-up comedy scene. The group meets regularly and invites new talents to perform for a small audience at select venues across the city. Over the years, their audience and talent base have grown phenomenally.
“Pattimandram (debate) is a great example where speakers would intersperse their speeches with comedy. Speakers like Cho and Gnani too had their own style of comedy which was more of satire,” said Annamalai. Jagan agreed with him, saying, “We may not have had the typical stand-up grammar like how our English counterparts had, but we have since adopted it.”
Jagan, who does both Tamil and English stand-up, understands the difference between the two sharply. “It is not possible for you to just translate your set from English to Tamil. Of course, when I made the switch, I had to learn this for myself. Humour is tightly wound with the language in which it is conveyed. For instance, my piece on Ilaiyaraaja fans just cannot be performed in front of an English audience. The references and the jokes would entirely be lost,” he explained.
Actor Vinodhini, who received appreciation for her role in the recent Tamil-Telugu psychological thriller Game Over, steered the discussion towards how Tamil stand-up comedians make a living, especially when English stand-up comedians seem to be having a wider reach.
Annamalai opined that since the corporate crowd usually prefers performances in English, owing to its multilingual crowd, it is easier for stand-up comedians in English to make money than a Tamil artist.
“But organisers have also accommodated ‘Tanglish’ performances and things are now changing,” he adds. Jagan joked that he usually puts the question (of language) to the audience and more often than not, he would end up performing in Tamil with the audience's consent.
Does the audience go by the comic or the content?
Vinodhini also talked about the perils of the audience choosing the comic over the content. “Do you think it is a worrying trend?” she asked the panel. Guru, who is most popular among the college crowd, explained that it was more of a validation trap. “People tend to brag as soon as they’ve bought tickets to a particular comedian’s show," he said, stressing that the audience too had the important responsibility of supporting the art and not just the artist.
Annamalai asserted that content matters during the early days for an artist, and that it also helps s/he gain recognition over a period of time. “Maybe shows are sold for the comedian now but a true comedy fan will prefer going to a show that promises him or her a good time. I believe we need more comedians to come up and for the audience to evolve,” he said.
But why do comedians tend to swear so much, sometimes sounding deliberate during their performances? According to Guru, the college crowd tends to lap it up when there’s swearing involved. While Jagan added that every comedian will have a clean set for 10-15 minutes, Annamalai closed the topic with - “I believe people are okay with swear words but we’re warned sometimes by organisers to stay away from discussing these three - sex, religion and politics,” he said, laughing along with the crowd.
Taking comedy seriously
The panel also discussed the quality of content in today’s stand-up performances. “International comedians like George Carlin tend to discuss more serious issues with their comedy. Do you think we are still scratching the surface with memes and comedy on Athi Varadhar and thermocol?” asked Vinodhini.
“Jagan has spoken about such topics but he is best known for his Harris Jayaraj video. Right now, it is more of pandering to the audience. New comics have great content but will it sell?” Annamalai responded with another question.
Jagan, on the other hand, explained that he found it too hard to make comedy out of issues that he found serious. “One cannot be forced to make comedy out of serious issues. I know a lawyer called Vikas who does stand-up and he does great political comedy. People do not know him yet. But I personally believe it is all about evolving as an artist. Richard Pryor had an epiphany on stage before he changed his comedy style. It is all an evolution,” he said.
On the topic of censorship, the participants also spoke about the Manoj Prabhakar-Mahesh Babu controversy, where the former was threatened and forced to apologise for a joke on the actor. Sharing his own experience, Guru said, “When I performed a set on menstruation, I was asked how I, being a guy, could be talking about it in the first place.”
Annamalai also added that self-censorship too was possible for an artist. “But with our low levels of ‘soranai’ (sense) we tend to use all that censorship too to expand our material next time,” laughed Jagan. The session ended with performances by the artists.