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5-min read

'Men are Reaching Out to Us to Ask If Their Joke is Offensive': Indian Male Comics Adjust to #MeToo

Comicstaan Season 2 panel talks about making jokes in the post #MeToo era and gender representation in the stand-up scene.

Shrishti Negi | News18.com@shrishti_03

Updated:July 14, 2019, 5:11 PM IST
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'Men are Reaching Out to Us to Ask If Their Joke is Offensive': Indian Male Comics Adjust to #MeToo
Comicstaan Season 2 panel talks about making jokes in the post #MeToo era and gender representation in the stand-up scene.
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Stand-up comedy has long had a reputation for being exclusively a man's game. Female comedians continue to face an uphill struggle over representation as Indian and international TV shows continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by men. But in recent years, the industry has been trying to become more female-friendly. There have been tangible — if lopsided — efforts across all verticals of the entertainment industry to feature more women.

Last year, Kaneez Surka brought improvisation to mainstream comedy with her full-fledged special Improv All Stars: Games Night on Amazon Prime. Lilly Singh recently landed her own NBC late night show. And now, the judging panel of Comicstaan, one of India's biggest stand-up comedy competitions, is more gender-balanced than it was last season.

"It's a good thing because there's now more representation definitely," says Sumukhi Suresh, who is co-judging Comicstaan 2 along with Kaneez Surka, Neeti Palta, Kanan Gill, Zakir Khan, Biswa Kalyan Rath and Kenny Sebastian.

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Comicstaan 2 team

Sumukhi, who rose to prominence with her highly-acclaimed web television series Pushpavalli, however, believes that it has also to do with the admiration she's been getting for her edge and innovation and not only just inclusivity.

"I'd also like to believe that it's not purely because of representation, it's also because of what we bring to the table. The last one year has been good for me and Amazon has noticed how much I have done because a lot of my content is on their platform. So, I'd like to believe that it was more to do with the fact that I deserved it professionally and it was not only on representation basis. So, I'm very glad for both that fact that there's representation and that they like me and my work (laughs)," adds Suresh.

Echoing similar sentiments, Neeti says, "I'd like to believe that we're there (jury panel) on merit because I've been in this industry for long enough to know what I'm doing. Other than that, I thought the representation was really there in terms of the contestants who the show is really about. The same thing went in season 2 as well. It was gratifying to see enough funny females holding up the bastion, so to speak. There were no whispers to us, 'Give the girls more marks.' And, it's not just the judges grading them, it's also the audience members. So, we will see them proceed forward on merit or not proceed on merit.”

The first season of Comicstaan saw Nishant Suri lift the trophy, but it was Aishwarya Mohanraj from Mumbai who earned acclaim not only for making the audience laugh, but also for making them think by addressing sensitive topics that never seemed like ones that could be at the center of any content that's considered comedic. Aishwarya tackled harassment and sexual abuse through comedy and satire and brilliantly confronted the #MeToo era with her stand-up acts.

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Comicstaan season 1 contestant Aishwarya Mohanraj

And as the #MeToo era moves forward, the discussion on what is considered appropriate and what is definitely not acceptable humour has intensified. Sumukhi says, "#MeToo has made sure that everybody is more aware. They understand what responsibility they hold. And this is not only in our industry. That's how its reach was.”

Urooj Ashfaq, who is co-hosting Comicstaan season 2 along with Abish Mathew, points out, "There are some jokes that we have to leave behind now, because everyone has done it. So, there's a lot more introspection in terms of material. Like, 'Why do women take so long to get dressed?' That joke is done now and it's so silly. So, I feel people are moving past making the most obvious and stereotypical jokes on gender and trying to find a cleverer way to say things and maybe reflect and have better observation.”

Neeti, on the other hand, believes that there's been a detectable sign in comedy's shift in the wake of the #MeToo movement, with her male colleagues reaching out to her asking if their jokes are offensive. "We're in more aware and woke times. The rules are also changing — what was acceptable before is no longer acceptable. I have seen a lot of male comics reach out to us and ask, 'Hey, is this joke offensive to you?' And, I'd be like, 'No, please go ahead' (laughs). So, it has caused that kind of awareness and (belief) that le'’s not further propagate something wrong," she adds.

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Kenny, who is one of comedy's most omnipresent personalities in India, says earlier comedians would get feedback only on the basis of whether their jokes were funny or not and any other feedback was not taken seriously, but things have changed now. "Now it's like, 'Is it funny?' 'Is it misinformed?'," he points out.

But whether it's #MeToo, political comedy or jokes about changing societal norms, comedians are being scrutinised like never before. In short, nowadays, comedians have to watch what they say.

"I think comedy comes from a place of irreverence. It comes from a place of dissent. You can't please all the people and you shouldn't be aiming to please everyone in the first place. But that doesn't mean you have to deliberately be offensive. Comedy is voicing dissent. If something is not right, you will make a joke about it. If something is right, how do you make a joke about it? So, people are always like, 'Oh, why are you always focussing on negative?' Because that's what is funny," says Neeti on the developing debate concerning politically correct (PC) culture.

Kenny holds a very different view. "I don't have a very intimate relationship with stand-up in a sense that it's my voice or it's who I am. But some comedians do and I respect that. I always saw stand-up as entertainment. It's like working with a client for me, maybe not for other comedians. So, if a client says, 'I don't want this', I'll be fine with that because for me it's more important to perform."

"If you want to make your audience happy and you have a job of entertaining them and if the audience doesn't want something then 'change it' is what I feel. And if you have something to say then be a good comedian and find a damn way to say it and trick people into not getting offended. Because I have seen good comedians do that. They say some horrible sh** and just walk off stage and the audience doesn't even realise. Because that's a good skill to have," he concludes.

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