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Friday, November 27, 2020

One Laugh at a Time

Stand-up comedian and writer, Rohan Joshi, on life post AIB and working around cultural restrictions

Written by Ektaa Malik | January 17, 2020 12:45:59 am
One Laugh at a Time Indian Stand up comic Rohan Joshi.

It’s been a couple of years since we last heard from stand-up comic and writer Rohan Joshi. Ever since comedy collective AIB (All India Bakchod) disbanded, ‘what next’ seemed to be following the founders everywhere. Joshi picked up where AIB left. He mentored musician Vishal Dadlani in One Mic Stand, a stand-up comedy special, and last week his first ever stand-up special Wake n Bake streamed on Amazon Prime. In an interview, Joshi talks about going solo, Indian stand-up comedy scene and the way forward. Excerpts:

In Wake N Bake, your privilege of being a south Bombay, English-educated, Brahmin man is at the receiving end of many a punchline.

I wanted it to have a thread, and a theme, and while I was writing it, I realised that my privilege had to be one of the themes. When I started doing comedy, I was in my early 20s. And now I am in my mid-30s. My outlook and perspectives have changed. It had to be funny and I had to make sure that it didn’t get preachy. I can only talk about my own privilege, I can’t point fingers at the rest of the world.

How has life been post AIB?

Life is slowly returning to normal. I am discovering that I work at a slightly different pace. I am discovering new things about myself as a writer and performer. Earlier, going up on stage with a group of people, I always knew that if it’s an 80-minute show, I was only responsible for 20 minutes of it. If for any reason I bombed, I knew they would pick up the slack. As a solo artiste, you don’t have that safety net. On the plus side, it’s your name in bold, on the negative side, it’s your name alone on the board. It’s the difference between running a marathon and a sprint. While you are working alone, around the 45-50 minute mark, you find yourself losing energy, so you keep coming back to the source material. You try and decode the ‘silences’ — is the audience silent because they are bored, or are they letting it all sink in. Care needs to be taken that you don’t obsess with just the laughs, and lose out on the message.

The Indian stand-up comedy scene has been largely dominated by men.

It will require a generational shift. A lot of comics and comedy producers have registered that we can no longer have a token diversity hire. Shows are getting more and more egalitarian. Yes, producers have an onus that new comedians of all genders and experiences should be pushed forward. But it needs to be a multi-pronged approach. Not just female comedians, but we need to factor in female audience members as well. For a lot of younger women who come for my show, a key concern is if the show is at 9 pm. It seems small, but it’s a gigantic issue. Lot of young female comics have shared that they can’t be there for open mics that take place later in the evening. We are on that path, though many might say that the change is not being brought about fast enough.

AIB blended political satire and social commentary with loud laughs. Your stand-up, too, has a similar approach. In times of today, is that the way forward?

This distinction that ‘political comedy’ is ‘art’, while let’s say joking about Delhi and Mumbai is light, and not ‘art’, I think, is not fair. The best sets in the world today are about the simplest things. Seth Meyers on his show is going hammer and tongs with politics, but in his special he is talking about being married, his children, or being Jewish. As for political comedy, we sadly live in a country where the legal system is set up in a way where the chances of you being harassed for being a free speaker are higher than your chances of getting legal remedy for being a free speaker. We don’t have the first amendment protection like in the US. Even when we did On Air with AIB, it was a struggle to get sponsors. For our ‘Roast’, the backlash was insane. A Zakir (Khan) or a Kamra (Kunal) have the same visibility as a Bollywood star, but they don’t have the same protection or power.

What does the future look like for the Indian stand-up comedy?

This is the end of the beginning. We will get more varied narratives. We have moved beyond the urban educated, metropolis-living, male-dominated vision. I think we will soon have a a breakout transgender comedian, or an angry Richard Pryor like guy.

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