Stand-Up Comedy: A gendered art!

London’s Hyde Park has always had a ‘Speaker’s Corner’ where anyone could stand up and present a monologue. In the nineties when we first visited London we came across this corner by chance and heard a very interesting political commentary by a young man who had a very large audience in splits of laughter! The Indian Express recently carried a newspaper report from the New York Times on the Australian stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby. Her stand-up show, Nanette, was apparently creating waves. The show is now available on Netflix and we watched it. It made a great impression on me, for her boldness, her approach to gender and capacity to tell a story of discrimination of the LGBT community with humour and a dramatic punch.

Stand-up Comedy has been around since the beginning of civilization I suppose. But I got introduced to this form of art recently. Yes, it is a form of art! Perhaps it is being used more effectively now, or there just are more artists and avenues to present Stand-up Comedy. Whatever the reason I now find that it is everywhere, on TV, reviews in the newspapers, YouTube and the most internationally viewed platform, Netflix. Netflix is becoming the haven for many art forms, including really ‘loooong’ films that can be serialized. Major advantage of Netflix and YouTube is that it is not censored!!

It is tough to be able to stand up in front of an audience and hold a monologue for an hour. Well, we professors do it all the time! Ah ha! But to make the audience laugh for an hour, well that is a unique skill and no doubt requires a lot of guts!

The Stand-up Comedy show has been a male domain, well just about as all professions I suppose. I started to view these shows and found them vaguely uncomfortable. My major concern is with the abundant use of foul language with an erotic slant. The most common words that pop up all the time in these shows are ‘fuck’, and that’s actually mild, ‘penis’, ‘masturbate’ and so on in similar tune. Worse than the language is the action that accompanies these words! The other reason for my discomfort is the gender insensitive language and themes of many of these shows dominated by male comics. This was true whether it were the American or Indian comic stars. The act is punctured with the Ma Bahen galis, swear words referring to the mother and sister. Mother fucker (Matherchod in Hindi) and sister fucker (Bahenchod) were liberally used.

Maybe I’m a prude, but the audience seems to enjoy this tremendously and these comedians get a lot of loud laughter and guffaws. Maybe it is a generation gap. Gen Next and the Millennials are perhaps more comfortable with this form of art, its content and the language. I’m curious if others in my generation with a middle class upbringing feel squeamish about such language and themes. Doesn’t quite sit right with what was hammered into our heads when we were young! When I went home for the summer holidays from the college hostel, my mother objected to what she called my foul language. Actually the only ‘foul’ words I knew and used at that time were ‘damn’ and ‘shit’, except that I used it in each sentence. My mother would systematically weed out such words and by the time I went back to college my English would be ‘clean’ and meet my mother’s standards!  

In India the TV show ‘The Great Indian Laughter Challenge’ has been instrumental in popularizing Stand-up Comedy. India’s top stand-up comedians Raju Srivastava and Kapil Sharma have benefited from exposure on this show. The Indian comedy shows are less explicit with erotic content as they have large family audiences. These comedians appeal to very base instincts of the middle class audience to garner the laughs. But they also make a political point in their own not so subtle way.

Among the relatively new breed, Abhijit Ganguly comes off as a sophisticated comedian who does not have to resort to erotic or low comedy. His political dig at the current politicians and policies is brave. He has a hilarious take on how the current political regime has hoodwinked the public into loving a series of new tax laws though it severely cuts into their pockets! Vipul Goyal’s show with similar themes is equally hilarious.  Cyrus Broacha is strictly not a stand-up comedian, but his show, ‘The Week that Wasn’t’ is also a hilarious political commentary. Rajasekhar Mamidanna takes up mythological themes which is another taboo in India. To be able to maintain a balance between content and humour without offending the numerous political ideologies and social identities is a skill that raises the level of this art form. These comedians are younger, belong to the upper middle class and are a growing breed.

Women stand-up comedians are rare. Recently we watched an all women Stand-up Comedy show titled Ma Bahen (Mother-Sister) in “Amaaru Amdavad” (Our Own Ahmedabad) by a newly formed feminist group in the city called Mahila Manch (Women Forum)! Why Ma Bahen? It was their feminist answer to the fact that most swear words in Hindi were about Ma Bahen, in a country where Ma is revered as a Goddess!

Ma Bahen Comedy Show was a team of five not so well known comedians, Aarti Boriya, Aarti Nair, Shefali Pandey, Vidya and Pooja Vijay. These comedians were novices, but put up a good show. Aarti Nair was introduced as a Malayalee from Nadiad (Gujarat). Her forte was about being a Malayalee speaking Fluent Gujarati and a South Indian in North India. So Aarti here is one to add to your repository of ‘on being a South Indian’. While I spent my school growing years in Kolkata, my parents moved to Patna, Bihar when I left for college. Patna is where I first encountered the true blue blooded North Indian, the Bihari/UPwala/Punjabi etc! The reaction of one discovering that I was a South Indian: “Really? You do not look like a South Indian?”; “Oh, Why?” “You are not dark, do not have curly hair and do not have protruding teeth!?” Whew!! Dark and curly hair I had heard before, but why should a South Indian have a monopoly to teeth sticking out?? You work that one out.

The surprise elements of the show were Vidya and Pooja Vijay, both had a personal story to tell. Vidya (not her real name obviously) came out of the closet and on the public stage declared that she was transgender. Her story was actually tragic, but she laced it with humour and tugged at people’s hearts. Pooja Vijay is better known and has gained some press as the only stuttering comedian in India. She makes the audience comfortable at first engaging them with jokes about her stutter. I checked her out on the net and found that she has been doing this show with the similar dialogues all over the country. Amazing how funny and natural she makes it sound after so many repeat performances. A true performer!

The commentator or MC was one of the founding members of Mahila Manch! While trying to relate to the audience she came up with the standard male Comedian tactics that did not quite appeal to my rather delicate sensibilities. The rather young audience in the room even in a small city like Ahmedabad did not seem too uncomfortable with it. Good for you Amdavaadis! Interestingly the hall was full to capacity with the youth population as the announcement of the show was made through posters in colleges and on Facebook. Very good turnout, but then as the MC remarked tongue in cheek, there is very little else to do for ‘free’ in ‘Amaaru Amdavad’ on a Sunday evening.

With my rather minimal exposure to this genre of comedy, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette appeared to me of a class apart and addressed the real issue of abuse of children and women. She declares herself a Lesbian and talks about how she suffered for a decade before she decided to come out of the closet. She grew up in Tasmania, a remote island in Australia, where homosexuality was a crime in the 1990s. She tells the story with humour and in some sense pathos of how differently she was treated from her brother as a golf player and how she suffered multiple incidences of assault for her gender and because she was ‘different’. She expresses ‘dismay’ in comic style that a Lesbian was considered lower down in the hierarchy of the LGBT community. After all what harm can a Lesbian do? A cuddle is harmless!! As the newspaper report says ‘Nanette should be required viewing if you are a human being’.

Hannah studied Art History and uses it to full advantage to expose the aura around great artists like Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci and Picasso for their depiction, view and attitude towards women. Art history taught her that there are only two types of women, a virgin or a whore. She presents a hilarious image of woman as read from the paintings of that era. She calls out all the male artists who recently abused women. “If they’re having a bad time the rest of us are gone!” She looks both strong and vulnerable, she shows compassion and anger. Truly she paints a graphic picture of gender discrimination and abuse as volumes of articles in reputed journals of Economics, Sociology, Anthropology and Psychology are unable to depict. After her final show she said she would quit stand-up comedy. She however said if Louis CK comes back to stand-up comedy after what he had done she will not quit. “If Louis CK finds his audience, I will definitely not quit stand-up because my work is not done.” That is perhaps the best protest to the inappropriate behaviour of this stand-up comedian and his admission to it. P.S. And he is back! 

Perceptions of sophistication, subtlety and substance are a function of our own sensibilities. Mine may be seen as old fashioned. Other sensibilities are equally relevant and legitimate, may be more so in the current context. The topics chosen and the use of cuss words by these young women is also liberating in a sense. Feminism comes in many forms. Trying to claim back the language and the subject of sex can be seen as one. Kudos to these young women emerging free and bold to express themselves without bearing the burden of gender and social appropriateness!

3 thoughts on “Stand-Up Comedy: A gendered art!

  1. Thought-provoking! I often ask whether intelligence is circular or a straight line. Currently, it seems circular because there is a point where stupidity meets wisdom. At first glance, both kinds of people seem to be making arguments around liberation. However, as soon as we explore through a finer lens, we realise how one group is totally unaware of sexualisation, objectification, exploitation in the name of feminism.

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  2. A different side of you. I don't go much for stand-up comedies and like you, the standard fare that makes people laugh makes me squirm. I like Ashish Jaiswal's take that “Stupidity meets wisdom”, but I also feel that not all kinds of stupidities meet wisdom. I believe out morals and our sense of social niceties are there because of an evolutionary advantage associated. May be being able to use cuss-words is freedom for some, such freedom does not appear particularly enticing to me.

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  3. These …. words have become common place in our Indian school system and even though we find ourselves uncomfortable the school kids consider it as normal day-to-day vocabulary! I think the generation has changed and so has definition and usage of terms in their vocabulary.

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