Comedy in India

It’s a strange predicament being an Indian who grew up in America.  When I would go to India, all my creature comforts in America were gone. I couldn’t get pizza, donuts, or watch movies or TV in English.  I had to adapt to a new land and learn new customs.  I took up cricket and carrom, washed myself using little buckets, and got used to removing geckos crawling on my bed.  Over the years, India has modernized, and become more “western”, to the point now that there is a growing community of English-speaking standup comedians in Mumbai.

I was intrigued at the opportunity to perform for an audience whose primary language wasn’t English. I figured it would be a challenge to make my material on nachos and homelessness relevant for people who don’t know what nachos are and think begging is a viable career path.  More so, I was curious to meet the comedians who were doing standup comedy in English in India.

I was asked to perform at a bar show in Bandra, a vibrant part of Mumbai with many bars, shops, and restaurants.  However, I was staying with my family in Goregaon, a suburb of Mumbai, with little to nothing of interest, other than my family.  I had to take an auto-rickshaw to the show, which was no small task, as I don’t speak a lick of Hindi and the driver kept asking me for directions. Fortunately for me, “left”, “right”, “stop”, and frantically gesturing to turn around are universally understood.

 The cultural attitude of my family in India could best be described in American terms as somewhere between Amish and Fundamentalist Christian. They mostly don’t drink, and meet that stereotype of the white-collar IT employee who works 18 hours a day and doesn’t do anything for fun.  So, while they knew that I did standup comedy, it was a chore to convince them that performing in a bar did not make me a godless heathen.

Bars in India are where the über-wealthy go to play; I saw several BMWs and Audis parked in front of the bar.  I tried getting change for a 500 rupee note from the bar, and after much discussion a man offered me change by going out to his Mercedes-Benz, and pulling a large briefcase filled with money.  I was pleasantly surprised when he left immediately after, because I was terrified that that interaction made me part of the mafia.  And I am really terrible at breaking people’s legs (other than my own).

The comedy show took place in a corner of the bar, without a stage, with a swarm of people just standing around the corner.  While this isn’t really an ideal situation for comedy, I was still very impressed by the number of people that were present and attentively listening to standup comedy, even open mic standup comedy.

Most of the acts were people who’ve been doing comedy for less than one year.  A couple of 18 year olds got on and said they were doing it for their first time.  It was funny watching these kids, because I realized that bad open mic’rs are the same the world around.  One kid’s entire act was about how little sex he was having. I couldn’t help but think, “You’re an 18-year-old in India! How much sex could you possibly have?” 

I was introduced with a question to the audience: “Do you want another sexy young 18 year old, or a man with a sexy accent?”  After an awkward silence, one woman intrepidly offered “an accent?”  Then another chimed in “Accent!”.  Then the host got the crowd to start chanting “Ac-cent! Ac-cent! Ac-cent!”.  I’m assuming they weren’t expecting my Kentucky drawl, as it is low on the list of sexy accents. If you’re keeping score at home, it’s just above Ugandan.

My set didn’t start off well, and, in my hubris, I decided to try out some new jokes. I had written a couple of minutes of material while in India, mostly about my experiences dealing with Indians there. Unfortunately, the crowd did not enjoy those jokes, which flustered me, then led to a downward spiral of failure (commonly referred to as “bombing”, but that term is unpopular in India, for obvious Pakistani-related reasons).  One woman in the crowd even heckled me with “Enough about India!”

In my mind, I thought I was setting the world afire with my astute observations about India, but in reality, the audience simply didn’t care.  They would much rather hear jokes about how Delhi people are dumb, or how Gujuratis are cheap, and Punjabis eat too much.  They didn’t care for my joke about how Hindi is the national language of India, despite the fact that no one in the 4 southernmost states speaks it. 

So, my goal to do standup in India failed miserably. When talking with my family about this, they said it wasn’t because I’m an outsider, it was because I was talking about things that Indians don’t like to talk about.  There are still a lot of taboos in Indian society, even with people that will come to a comedy show in a bar in Mumbai.

When I discovered that there was standup in India, I was excited, just like I was when I discovered Domino’s had moved in, or my family installed a shower in their bathroom.  While there is standup in India, it’s a very different standup from the kind you’ll find in the US.  It’s a kind of standup that makes fun of society, but without ever really addressing important issues.  It’s the kind of standup where million dollar homes next to the squalid huts, a Mercedes Benz stuck in traffic behind a herd of goats, and major cities losing electrical power for no apparent reason are unacceptable topics of comedy.  I look forward to the day when that will happen, hopefully as soon as the geckos stop crawling on my bed.

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