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The Audience is a Co-author – Notes on the Conservative Craft of Comedy

Written by Karandeep Mehra, 14th August 2020

It is always interesting to listen closely to the threats and hysteria of a frenzied crowd. Especially now when Indian comedians are at the center of a dispersed audience’s unbridled fury and rage, yet again. All this happened after Kenneth Sebastian’s tweet in defense of Tiktok led to the video of a year-old stand-up by Agrima Joshua being unearthed.  She, and other comedians, then became the focus of political fury and inanely violent threats for obliquely mentioning Shivaji in her set. Listening to the threats and rants of the MNS vandals at Habitat, of Shubham Mishra, or of the comments on twitter piling on against ‘Hinduphobic comedy’ – one finds a common but central theme that is mostly overlooked. Their anger at the audience, at their laughter.

The MNS vandal after wrecking the venue turns to someone who appears to be a caretaker and asks – “aap ke yahaan pe jo bhi kaam hota hai aap ko malum nahi hai? idhar hijre log haste hai kya?” (Do you know what goes on in your place here? Do Hijras laugh here?) It’s a confusing question. Is he calling the people who laughed hijras, or telling you that you won’t let hijras in to your venue to laugh? It would be impossible to answer this in that threatening moment, but easy enough to understand that he’s calling the laughter that took place during Joshua’s set itself deviant – an unnatural travesty.

Agrima Joshua, Screengrab from Video

This focus on laughter is true even for Shubham Mishra, who attacks the sound of laughter right after playing a clip of her set for his audience, and right before he calls her a ‘niggi’, and spews how Obama must have mounted her mother. But this profanity is provoked by the sound of laughter that he had heard in the clip – “kya hassi aayi isme? Ispe kya hassi aayi? Yeh nakli joh sound effect jo daala hai yeh peeche … Toh sabse pehle toh ye jitna show bhi chalta hai na, jo show chalaate hai na, unki bhi maa ka …”. (What in this is supposed to make us laugh? What’s there to laugh in this? This fake sound effect that you’ve got playing in the background… So first off, whoever organized this, made it possible …) He needs to first call the laughter fake, a sound effect. And the ones there who produced it are to blame too. And the thing (Agrima Joshua) that caused this laughter was a miscegenation – something unnatural.

It would be easy to dismiss this focus on laughter, and immediately address the violent invocation of the third gender and race. An invocation that allows both the vandal and Shubham to slide into violent speech and act. Yet, the focal point of this rage – the thing that leaves them apoplectic, and so disgusted that they want to reach for the choicest, vilest and most disgusting thing they can think of or reach for – is laughter. This focus on the audience’s laughter comes up against the comedians on Twitter too. One fellow writes the following over a bit by Vir Das pretending to be Ram – “don’t know from where this audience come and how could they laugh at this piece of crap.”

Deepika Padukone during the AIB Knockout 2015

How could they? How do they? How dare they laugh? This anger at the audiences’ laughter has happened before. Deepika Padukone and Sonakshi Sinha both were included in the complaints/PIL registered against the AIB Knockout in 2015. They were included in them for laughing. Hannah Gadsby too has posed such a question, in her much revered Nanette she skewers the complicity of the audience. Her set attacks how the demands of their laughter force jokes and comedy to be written in a way that can destroy an identity, a biography, a history, a person. Even liberals ask with lips curled in disdain – how do you laugh at the cringey/woke/preachy comedians? The comedian emerges as just a scapegoat for a larger anger directed at the fact of this laughter itself. If the audience hadn’t laughed, if they hadn’t tolerated it, their own anger and contempt would never be required. A failed joke, empty of laughter, is no joke. But instead the laughter requires a scapegoat, that if sacrificed would immunize against, or control the threatening deviance and abnormality of this laughter. For sure these disparate people are distinguished quite clearly by different contexts, reasons, and the scale of brutishness of their responses, yet the similarity in what provokes this response provides a valuable insight and a strange common ground.

In listening closely then, we all find ourselves in the company of strange political bedfellows. We all seem to understand that laughter is involved in the simultaneous production of what we respect and what we scorn; laughter accompanies both what we wish to conserve, and what we would joyfully see destroyed. The objected-to-laughter expresses the disrupted order of what is to be conserved and destroyed, deep within the bodily sensibilities of the audience.  In humiliating or calling out the comedian and making them apologize this order is somehow restored. This is what happened in the case of Agrima Joshua, and before her with other comedians too. The incessant repetition of asking a comedian to apologize illuminates a simple fact that left to right, all politics is deeply invested in the minutiae of how and why we laugh. There is always a political concern with the themes, targets, and timing of our laughter. More importantly, the audience’s laughter is not a knee jerk reflex to appropriate external stimuli of a good set, according to those embittered by an audience’s laughter it is something willed, wanted, and dared – it is an expression. In paying attention to the varied investments in this expression, what becomes clear is something about the immediate context of comedy. That the audience in a comedy gig is not a mute spectator, but an equal conductor of what becomes humourous.

When we tend to speak of comedy, we often assume the comedian is somewhat similar to a playwright, a novelist, or a poet – someone who thinks up the joke, or the bit, and in isolation  fleshes it out. However, the comedian is drastically different from them; no novelist or poet takes a rough intuition of their fiction or verse onto a stage in front of an audience which could hiss at, heckle, or completely ignore them.  The comedian instead takes a rough idea of what he finds funny, and pays attention to the responses of the audience. A comedian listens for and to their approvals, what gets their attention, what gets them to laugh, what doesn’t, what irritates them, what bores them. This is repeated again and again, in front of an amorphous and changing audience, night after night; the fat is cut, portions re-arranged, emphasis and pauses placed, call backs to previous bits, call outs to audiences plotted and planned. Getting a laugh, getting that bit to work is not the work of a secluded Hemingway-esque author bashing away at a typewriter distanced from the world – but a constant dialogue with a real, and an imagined audience. The final burnished set, even if only 10 minutes long, is a cipher of the many edits and inputs of past audiences. Think of the audience as a backspace key, invisible in the final product, but its imprint lies across each line.

When comedians are at their very best, it seems like they are conducting a crowd – every minute action evokes a response, sends the audience down one line of thought only to snap them back into another, deviously sneaking out a laugh. However, a set seen over the course of its development points to the exact opposite. The comedian transforms to please – in telling and constructing bits according to the inclinations and predilections of an audience, so much of what comes to be seen as the comedian’s art is determined. It can determine the changing emphasis that alters the target of the joke, how it finally sounds, and over time it can even determine the style and voice of the comedian based on what the audiences respond to most favorably.  The comedian and the craft of comedy then is the embodiment of l’esprit d’escalier – or staircase wit. It pertains to that moment when you think of the perfect retort or witticism long after the moment that required it has passed. The experience of belatedly considering what you could have said or done so that it would’ve gotten a laugh makes up much of the comedian’s craft. Think George Costanza in the Seinfeld episode called ‘The Comeback’ – Costanza is insulted during a meeting, unable to think of a comeback he is forced to leave humiliated, he flies back home, finally thinks up the perfect retort, and now has to arrange a similar meeting with the same conditions so he gets a chance to use his witty retort. The episode captures a truth about comedians, that they are always planning and crafting their bits according to the responses of their audience, and wishing on getting that good room in which their pre-crafted wit can kill. An aspect that continues to work even when comedians choose to turn against a demanding audience, and choose to instead rail at and harangue them; it’s only with their leave – as long as they get that laugh.

The sequence from “The Comeback”

I do not wish to undermine the comedian’s genius, for ultimately they must determine how the audience must be pleased. But nevertheless, they are not the sole well-spring of what comes to be their set. This does not take away anything from comedy, but what makes it distinct. Women comedians are perhaps more keenly aware of this distinction, of how the audiences’ feedback is a containment of the comedy that they as a comedian can perform. An audience can ripple with irritation when women comedians broach periods, or anything else that that particular audience deems “women’s stuff” – a dynamic and ungainly list. Yet this feedback is not only limited to being a restraint, but is always present as a positive direction – even the sometimes blank and confused looks goad comedians to sharpen their act. It makes comedians aware of the tight rope they must walk between what they want to talk about/make fun off, and the peculiar ways that individuals’ self-worth, ego, and dignity comes entwined with laughter. How much we want to laugh, get the joke, be funny, and make other people laugh, but also not be laughed at, ridiculed, or find aspects of ourselves that we hold dear subjected to the cruel contortions of another’s tongue. 

However, it’s not only the comedian who feeds off the audience’s responses, in fact the comedian’s attentiveness to the laughter of their audience is mirrored by the audience too. People in the live audience feed off the energy of the room, often looking towards their companions, or simply taking permission from the audience to laugh heartily, or less reservedly than they otherwise would have. This holds equally true for distant strangers looking at a screen, who also take cues off of the audience’s laughter, sometimes with no heed given to the actual joke. As such when dispersed audiences try to stymie the laughter of others, or are enraged by it, laughter here is not significant to their politics because it is inherently subversive, violent, dangerous etc. It’s important because it’s the purest expression of our collective sensibilities – sensibilities that our ideals of reasoned debate can only justify and articulate, never create. But it is created and affirmed joyfully in stand-up comedy, with and through the pleasure and permission of an audience.

But what is this sensibility that audiences collectively author? It lies in what might be the chief characteristic of contemporary comedy – commentary. The direct address of things that populate our lives, big or small, rendered comedic. How comedy talks about the stuff of our life, whether sincerely or in a manner most buffoonish. What we watch, what we eat, how we do, why we do… – they like to sink their teeth into all matters personal and political. Many also bring together the personal and political, implicitly or explicitly, with a caustic and brittle anger. The comic rendering of different aspects of our lives expresses disbelief, disappointment, even despair at how strange, odd, ludicrous, and ridiculous things are. In pointing out how things are absurd, or odd, this commentary affirms how things ought to be, how they are supposed to be through the ongoing acquiescence of audiences. This collective pleasure in the face of a messy world, celebrates the ideal by silently and collaboratively composing an idea of how it should be. This collective joyful agreement confirms that the rhythms of the audience’s emotional life are in harmony with the idea of the way things are supposed to be. Stewart Lee, a British comedian, in an especially irony laden set, takes the sharpest dig at this tendency of contemporary comedy and comedians to feed off of the agreement of audiences – “I’m not interested in laughs, I prefer applause. “Is it supposed to be funny?”  That’s what the critics say. No it isn’t. I’m not interested in laughs; I’m interested in building … (segues into mockingly mimicking his audience having a conversation) “Did you see Stewart Lee? Was it funny? No, but I agreed the fuck out of it.” … I’m not interested in laughs. What I’m aiming for is a temporary mass liberal consensus that dissolves on contact with air.”  The American comedians, Seth Meyer and Tina Fey, pithily call this mixture of laughter and applause, clapter.

Many comedians believe this is a recent occurrence, something that has made us lose our capacity for real politics, and for natural laughter. They instead seek a laughter untainted by sanctimony – one that explodes rather than concurs. However, they have only chanced upon the ideas of a particular thread of scholarship that understands satire and laughter as being at its heart conservative. Since this facet of comedy only reveals itself when a riven polity wars over what laughter must conserve, the fact that it must conserve and proclaim an idea feels new, rather than the fact that the ideas it was conserving just hadn’t been challenged in some time. For example, towards the end of the 19th century it was George Meredith, a novelist and poet, whose essay on comedy claimed “Folly is the natural prey of the comic”, presaging our own notions of comedy as social criticism, outlined it as a scourge upon the fools that beset us. Before him it was the Earl of Shaftesbury, who wrote in defense of humour, wit, and raillery, as something that exercised and energized the virtues of well born men. Both of them made laughter and comedy acceptable, they civilized it for the genteel, as a way of improving and legitimating the worthy powerful. These ideas persist in our own conceptions of humour, just consider the importance attached to a sense of humour as a personality trait. This conservative, rather than heretical picture of laughter goes back to Judeo-Christian religion, and its interpretation of the laughter of Sarah. Sarah who laughed in disbelief when God told her she would bear a son at the age of 90. She did, and when born, his given name Isaac meant laughter in Hebrew – and the idea of faith as joyful celebration lies between the axes of a laughter in disbelief, and the deliverance of laughter. This thread is quite apt to understand contemporary comedy as it comes co-authored by an audience.

Esoteric as these references might be, they evince a deep kinship to our own ideas and beliefs about comedy and laughter, and what they give to us. The list is long and varied – how it helps us survive, renews our faith in sanity, makes us more critical, helps unearth truth, its ‘tragedy mein comedy’, it’s about punching up not down, it’s a tiny revolution, it’s a weapon against fascism etc. Yet this laughter isn’t against power, or opposed to it – it affirms how that power should be exercised so that it can be joyfully adored, despite its failure.  Take for example the comedy group Aisi Taisi Democracy – lampooning democracy, but also signaling how it should be. On the other edge of the spectrum is Bhagwan Makrand, a Hindi teacher from Kaman in Bharatpur, and a hasya kavi. His comedic poem is about how it’s a good thing that the events of the Ramayana aren’t taking place in our contemporary modern state. He jokingly lists the absurd hassles the rehearsal of Ramayana would face today. Two of them being how if the Kewats were asked to wash Ram’s feet – Mayawati would take offence on the behalf of Dalits, and and the other a silly speculation about how Hanuman would manage to go to Lanka without a visa. Makrand ends with a larger message that the absurdities, and extremities of the contemporary world can only be addressed by the audience coming together to bring about a Ram Rajya. In both these cases the idea both disappoints and is comically mocked, but is hailed implicitly or explicitly. In both these cases, people who chanced upon the laughter got pissed off about what was being laughed at.

What one finds then is an unwavering focus on the audience’s laughter by both the comedians, the audience, and then by remote viewers; it’s capacity to leave so many enraged and embittered is perhaps because comedy is the new arena of political faith. And sometimes it feels natural, which is why so many praise comedy’s potential to restore reason, religion, hope, and compassion. At times it is unnatural, because we are rudely awakened to how this political faith and devotion have nothing to do with precepts from religion, reason, or compassion, but seem to be internal to the petty, hedonistic, and sometimes malicious vagaries of the laughter and pleasure of transient groups of people. 

Experience Further: The song was a tribute to the comedian Lenny Bruce, who gave us the brittle and caustic style of comedic commentary that we now know so well. Grace’s lyrics in the song portray Lenny as a preacher calling him a ‘Father’, and she sings “Father Bruce is back in town / You know he’s our kind of preacher/Ain’t none of us gonna put him down”. The song always struck me as cheekily prophetic, given how comedians have become akin to preachers today. How people I know watch their favourite comedians before they fall asleep, taking comfort in their witty insights. That the comedy hall has become a new place for truth and illumination, our church of the contemporary crises. And we’ll defend, and quote our choice comedians come what may – because ‘woh ekdum toh sahi bola’.

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Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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