For almost a decade now, middle class households have embraced comedy, and allowed it a seat at their dining tables and living rooms. The Great Indian Comedy Show (2004), The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (2005), Comedy Circus (2007), and their subsequent seasons and alternate versions created a bawdy brand of humour that relied on socio-political gags, celebrity mimicry, and conjugal jokes. Indians have clearly graduated from reading jokes in isolation to collectively watching and laughing with stand-up comedians. In 2013, himself a product of this tradition, Kapil Sharma changed the dynamics of comedy with Comedy Nights with Kapil.
This show reminds me of circular open-air stages with trap doors, ‘heavens’ from where the ultimate Khiladi, Akshay Kumar, can descend in his true daredevil style, and simple props like Kapil’s cardboard goat that remains inanimate till he brings it to life with his playful words. To cut it short, it reminds me of the Elizabethan stages where Shakespeare and Marlow presented their plays and the king, the whore, the peasant, the knight all came together to enjoy the bliss of life and participated in the act, unwittingly erasing the boundary between the actors and the spectators. Though conceived after BBC’s The Kumars at No. 42 with similar gags, live audience, an extended family, and the celebrity guests, Kapil’s show differs from its British counterpart by ensuring greater interaction between the audience, the on-stage actors, and the celebrity guests. It is not the gags, the dances, or well-rehearsed deliverance of jokes, but this interactive session that makes it so popular. All the directors now knock Sharmaji’s door on their way to a Friday release, leveraging on his popularity to promote their films. There is hardly any actor left in Bollywood who has not been squeezed and forcibly kissed by Dolly daadi, seduced by Pinky bua, or made to dance with Gutthi and Palak. The playhouses made a fortune with this format in the 16th century, and it continues to do so in the 21st century; to say the least, it secured Kapil Sharma a profile in the Forbes magazine.
But many of his jokes, especially ones involving women, have not gone down too well with certain NGOs and women’s rights activists, many of whom have filed cases against him. But it is not the individual cases that concerns me. There is a paradox that makes me uneasy about this popular show and its brand of comedy. The compelling force of the show – the interpersonal exchange between Kapil and his live audience, is actually the most unscrupulous part of the show. Kapil’s show has two distinct sets of audience, a live audience at the studio, and a television/internet audience, which is far spread and far greater in number. Generally, Kapil’s interactive session is basically a ten-minute slot where he hand-picks individuals from the studio audience and ridicules their physical appearance and clothes, mocks their jobs, and insults their opinions and make us laugh.
It is generally accepted that the man who stares is a powerful man, as compared to the man who is under the stare. The gaze that should conventionally stay on him, the performer, is astutely transferred from him to the studio audience. And doing this, the show turns them into a laughing stock and gives us good reason to laugh out loud in the security of homely comfort. Kapil does this so effortlessly, that even the people he pokes fun at laugh at it. Strangely, the studio audience seem to be willing to become the butt of Kapil’s jokes and our laughter, in exchange for their ten minutes of limelight.
In all of this, what is missing is the reformative agenda that comedy, satire, or lampooning inherently had. Apart from Kapil’s innate sensitiveness, humble persona, and occasional statements on the empowerment of women and so on which, under the design of the show, unfortunately seem phony, there is nothing quite substantial, because by now, the other annoying character of the show – its repetition of jokes, tropes, and celebrities, has killed whatever humour was left.
While in India we are happy with The UnReal Times and Faking News that nourish our funny bones with news spoofs and comic sketches, All India Bakchod and The Viral Fever that entertain the youth, and Cyrus Broacha’s half an hour television show, The Week That Wasn’t, which presents parodies of preceding week’s major news stories; in America, a new, refined brand of comedy has arrived with Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The British comedian John Oliver presents a “half-hour satirical look at the week in news, politics, and current events”, but it is refreshingly new, because in the episodes, he seems to explore serious issues such as the prison systems in America, Gay rights in Uganda, and the Indian elections, which we usually do not associate with a comedy show, and would rather expect to see in Suhasini Haidar’s World View or Amir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate. Jason Zinoman makes a similar point in New York Times when he says, “Mr. Oliver’s extensive deskbound polemics demonstrate a focus and sustained thought”. But unlike The Week That Wasn’t or World View, Oliver doesn’t scatter himself on every other headline, but focusses on a subject which is often ignored by the mainstream media, and puts it in perspective. This not only leaves us with aching ribs, but some interesting thoughts to ponder on as well.
The Last Week Tonight is generically slightly different than Kapil’s show. But an evocative poem, a stimulating novel, and a provocative short story have a common quality: they give you pleasure and make you think. So when Comedy Nights with Kapil goes off air this September, let’s hope the worn out format comes to an end, and an intelligent brand of comedy, which wouldn’t burlesque its own audience or compromise itself by serving as a promotional platform, is reinvented. We shouldn’t forget that if tragedy is the reality of the world today, then comedy should hold the key to the world we wish to live in tomorrow.