God knows we’re all in need of a few laughs after the tumultuous events of the last fortnight, particularly the incredibly unfunny Raj Thackeray’s rabble-rousing in Mumbai. You know what would really be funny? It would be really funny if all the North Indians, every last one, actually did leave Mumbai, and refused point blank to come back even if he begged, which he would start doing pretty soon. And then there were a lot of unfunny bombs all over the place. And the Canadians had an election, though that was pretty funny in that it went completely and utterly unnoticed.
Then, just when I needed it, the heavens re-aligned and gave unto us a comedy night. I’ve never seen a stand-up comic perform in India, so it was a treat to catch Russell Peters, particularly after spending an hour and a half in traffic trying to get there. (If there’s an easy barometer for just how staggeringly stupid and obnoxious we are as a people, traffic is it.) I’ll say this for YouTube: it may not be as much fun as watching something live, and it drives you crazy if the Net is slow, but there are a lot fewer morons on the way.
There’s something irresistible about a guy who refuses to be nice to anyone, especially people who are trying to be nice to him: Peters picks on people with pitch-perfect skill—large swathes of the peoples of the world, as well as you, old guy back there, and you there, lousy Bollywood actor, and hey, you too there in the fourth row with your hands on your crotch. He makes fun of names, accents, immigrants, cultural habits, success and failure, political stances, histories and sex. (His jokes about sex often provoked, after gales of laughter, a lot of excited chattering in the audience.)
Laughter is one of those complex psychological mechanisms that serve to process internal conflict. So, like all good comics, Peters makes discomfort—from the most obvious broad cultural strokes to the most delicate individual nuance—his field of expertise. If it’s potentially painful, it’s grist to his mill, but in the most constructive way possible. He’s just rude enough to shock, and just pleasant enough to turn the shock to laughter rather than anger. Besides, how can you fail to like a guy whose eyebrows work that hard?
In India, stand-up comedy is, how shall I put it—not all the rage. We’re very good at laughing at other people’s discomfort, but our own goes by the name of ‘our sentiments’ and we are apparently utterly humourless about those. I was quite disappointed that Peters didn’t make fun of our politicians and our religions and our food and our hypocrisies, sticking instead to his largely immigrant shtick. Then I realised that he was just sensibly doing what he knows best.
I’m yearning for someone home grown, who knows us very well, to rise through the ranks of sentiments and start beating up on them with a big smile and the kind of intelligence that is so admirable that you can’t possibly fail to laugh along with it. We have a long, long way to go, if the clips of Vir Das on YouTube are anything to go by.
Veterans of Peters’ show said he’s been better. Still, I emerged from the show with my face and sides hurting from laughter, and the rest of me weak with vestigial giggling. You could do worse than that on an average working night.