Political comedy is no joke

While some comedians stick to observational humour, staying clear of anything that may spark outrage, others stay political, no matter who comes after them.

India’s comedy scene is not all about laughs.

While some comedians stick to observational humour, staying clear of anything that may spark outrage, others stay political, no matter who comes after them.

The trolls’ attacks vary from death threats and comments on the comedian’s appearance to abuses directed not just at them but also their families.

Comedians’ responses are varied. A universal one is to turn the attacks into material for upcoming shows. There are others.

“On the Internet, your video only goes into the algorithm depending on how many people are commenting. The algorithm is not looking at whether people are calling you ‘MC/BC’ or saying ‘You are the best thing that happened on Planet Earth’. So, I am okay, they are helping my video grow,” says Akash Banerjee, journalist-turned-comic known for his alter ego ‘Bhakt Banerjee’, a parody of the trolls who come for him.

For Sanjay Rajoura, one of a trio that forms the political comedy group ‘Aisi Taisi Democracy’, the trolling got to a point where he couldn’t stand it anymore.

He locked his Twitter account and now only approved followers can see what he posts.

Sorabh Pant says trolling is not just an Indian problem. He finds parallels in other countries.

“Globally, if you take up issues, it’s a bombardment. I don’t want to deal with it anymore. I want to make people laugh without choosing a side,” he says.

Rajoura, whose shtick is known for angry rants, minced no words in expressing his disdain for comedians who seek refuge in the world of innocuous comedy. He says those who do that are people who can afford to do that.

“Most people who are in comedy right now are urban, upper-caste males who have never questioned the authority of their parents,” he says.
Rajoura, who does not agree with the “bigoted” point of view of his own parents, did not invite them to a ceremony last year when he was honoured for his contributions to Hindi satire.

Upper-caste comedians are not aware of the caste privileges they enjoy, he says.

“And then they say ‘I don’t know my caste, I do not believe in caste’. Have you ever seen a Dalit comic? You are wearing your caste, yaar.”

“I told a female comic that since Independence, very few Brahmins have been hanged. Two of them were the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi. Everyone else is either a minority or lower-caste person. And she says those are the people who commit the most crimes. That person is a stand-up comic. Calls herself a feminist,” Rajoura says.

Those who take up satire have to deal with a double-edged sword.

Many TV news channels have taken a pro-government stand, leaving no air-time for satire. “There is not one channel in the US that doesn’t have a satirical show. In India, Kerala has a culture where every channel has a satirical show,” Banerjee says.

This also means that comedians have taken over a field left open by journalism.

‘Journalists in India have become comedians, so comedians are taking up the role of journalists,’ is a comment left under political comedy videos across social media platforms.

In this regard, many Indian satirists both follow and envy their US counterparts. The American comedians are followed because their comedy comes very close to journalism; they are envied because of the freedom and space to do what they do. Local comics count contemporaries like Hasan Minhaj and John Oliver as influences, but no name comes up as much as Jon Stewart, who vociferously took on the George W Bush administration in the early 2000s.

Banerjee calls Stewart the “baap” of modern satirists. Pant says, “One of the reasons why I enjoyed political comedy was — this is something that Jon Stewart once said — the purpose of journalism is to have an almost predatory relationship with the government and politicians. It’s not supposed to be a symbiotic relationship.”
He, however, says it’s a myth that not touching politics will spare comedians the outrage.

“People who are entitled and angry are not all political. I have got death threats from communities I won’t name. I got 17 death threats in a day for the most innocuous tweet that I put out,” he says, “One friend of mine got threats from DJs, another got threats from doctors.”

When asked what the tweet was, he jokes, “I am not going to tell you what the tweet was. You are really reaching, man. You are out to destroy my life.”

But the responses to political comedy have changed over the years. The success of a joke depends largely on which side of the political spectrum the audience wants to laugh at a given point in time.

“I was not surprised in the least when Modi won in 2014, because when I joked about Congress and other Opposition parties, there was an absolutely thunderous response. Jokes about Modi didn’t do as well,” says Pant.

“In 2019, the responses to both sides were almost even. Like, you knew (BJP) was going to come back to power, but not in the resounding way that they did.”

When asked how satire would change when Narendra Modi steps down, Banerjee jokes that it is “anti-national” to even think that Modi would step down.

“The conversations I find in my community are not about whether we can do something creative or whether there is funding. The only question being asked is, ‘Will we be sent to jail tomorrow?’ or ‘Will there be a raid on me tomorrow?’ Those are the only questions that every satirist has on his mind today,” he says.

“In a fascist regime, the intellectuals go first, then the press, and then maybe even the comedians,” he says, “The first two have already happened.”

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