What really is stand-up comedy? It can be defined as ashow of embellished laughters or a setup of monologic paradigm, which inculcate the perpetual ideas of shared humour, as well as spontaneous conversational jokes. Twain’s tours of American lands can be seen as the commencement of this type of entertainment. Stand-up comedy developed in the writings of comic lecturers which were later swallowed by popular art. In contrast to the contemporary art of stand-up comedy whether overseas or in India, it has taken shape into something similar and different at the same time from what it used to be, originally.
Bob Hope, a former emcee of a vaudeville house, a style of theatres which were found in America in the late 1800’s, was the one who brought stand-up comedy in the mainstream popular culture of America and he was the one who created business out of this sort of art. In India, stand-up comedy sees its root in epic performances of the 1600s but this ancient art form metamorphosed into the contemporary modern art via television shows.
The evolution of comedy
The earlier setting of stages was different than they are now. Previously, the idea of stand-up comedy was limited to group stage performance which involved juggling, comical plays, satirical songs in the presence of an audience as spectators.
But in contemporary times, the idea of comedy has evolved by including spectators’ participation in the performance resulting into shared humour. Moreover, in the emerging time, the art has lost its essence of being an art of popular culture. Initially when introduced, it was an act of leisure for the bourgeoisie. However it has become a more preferrable means of entertainment for an economically privileged class today.
The journey of stand-up comedy in India
Stand-up comedy has come into the mainstream in India, resulting into this being adopted by individuals as a profession. There are numerous artists who do this for a living. However, the field has a huge gender gap as the artists performing stand-up comedy are mostly men, and the irony is that the content they are creating is sexist, promoting gender stereotypes, and mostly revolving around the objectification of women. In the very first Indian telly-series, marking the commencement of stand-up comedy on television, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge Raju Srivastav, a comedian who later turned into a politician body-shamed the sitting Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. He at that time portrayed a very derogatory image of women’s cricket.
The whole show is filled with remarks that are sexist, misogynistic, gender stereotypical, women-objectifying, vulgar and transphobic. Srivastav, the king of comedy at that time, addressed women as, “Hari bhari” which is a colloquially used slang for women. Moving on with his performance, he glorified crimes against women: ‘Pichle hi hafte local train main do logo ne in ke upar tezaab daal ne ki koshish ki tab se ye bahut itra ke chalti hain’. Further he stereotyped gender role and demeaned the idea of women’s sports by comparing the act of polishing balls with washing dishes.
Later, Srivastav digs deeper into his misogyny, lampooning a pun on delivering balls stating ‘aaj ye bahut achchi delivery de rahin hain jab ki inki apni ek bhi delivery nhi hui hai’. Moreover, he degrades women by using metaphors invoking perverse feelings. The performance doesn’t end here. He goes on to break all ethics of gender sensitivity when he addresses the trans community by calling them “chakkha”. This signify the standard of national television and what was accepted by the audience as humour. The objectification of women in society is all too real because programmes like these were enjoyed and praised by many without questioning the laughter.
Not just in India, but the phenomenon of objectification of women in comedy is global. Henny Youngman, a British born-American comedian was known for his one liner comedy and dark humour that he used to perform while fiddling. He later became famous for his historic comic punch line ‘Take my wife….please’. He explained further that the line was misconstrued as a facet of his comedic humour. Nevertheless, he continued to use the phrase in his performances because it became symbolic of his identity and fame.
Sexism in contemporary stand-up comedy
The popularity and trend of stand-up comedy is unmatched in the contemporary time and stand-up routines have become the preferrable entertainment, with events attended by many, from youth to the elderly. Clips from stand-up comedy shows have millions of views on the web. These clips become viral and are watched and shared. But watching and sharing comedy content which is gender-insensitive and sexist to its core must be criticised as it questions one’s state of mind. The majority of stand-up routines are centred around portraying women as dominant, illogical, demanding and self-centred gold-diggers.
Madhur Virli, a Delhi based comedian known for his dark, witty and relatable humour has used vulgar terms while sharing about his personal sexual experiences, addressing his partner using a very derogatory term. By publicly demeaning his partner and presenting it to the audience, he manipulates them into becoming misogynistic in their mindset.
This kind of comedy has been hugely accepted by society. It has also has entered each and every nook and corner which has revealed the internalisation of misogyny in the society. Often, this has been accepted and appreciated by women audience as well, in a blatant display of misogyny. The very notion of objectification in comedy has almost never been challenged and there have been no counter comedic movements to break the monotony, thus, making it more biased.
But with the emergence of female comic,s the idea has been challenged. There are female comedians calling out toxic and hegemonic masculinity in comedy. As consumers of comedy, society plays a pivotal role in demanding and supporting content. Often, supporting sexist comedy and misogynistic comics further motivates more gender prejudices to be accepted into mainstream culture. The situation is alarming; interventions similar to the Indecent Representation of Women Prohibition Act, 1986, and the IT Act, 2000, should be implemented to further control it. Also, it points to the need for an ethical public consciousness which can bring about a cultural shift that prioritises humour without compromising the dignity of any individual.