I won’t laugh! Don’t ask me

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A stand-up comedian in India has to do a complicated little dance with his audiences, says Papa CJ

Illustration: Samia Singh

AT A time when magazines publish articles about the lack of freedom of expression in India I feel privileged to work in the field of stand-up comedy, which, in my opinion, is the last bastion of free speech. I’ve done over a 1,000 shows across four continents and not once have I ever been asked to censor my performance before a public show. Of course, I have been in situations where, after a show, people have tried to stab me but that’s a different issue!

About performing in India — I always say that while we are the largest democracy on the planet, we are also the largest hypocrisy on the planet. We may not be offended by a joke but we need to show that we are offended on behalf of others. That is what we feel our society requires us to do, even though the group actually targeted in that joke might not be offended at all. Also, as Indians we are very conscious of who is looking at us laugh at what. We may love the risqué stuff but we don’t want to be seen to be enjoying it. We take a higher moral ground about sex yet the population of our country today is clear evidence that the aunties and uncles never really held anything back in the bedroom. So, the trick for stand-up comedy in India is to ply the audience with alcohol before the show and ensure that the lights are only focussed on stage, so that the audience members are in the dark and can’t see each other laugh while the performance is on.

Having said this, a lot of shows I do in India are not for the general public. I am invited to corporate events, birthday parties, anniversaries, weddings and sometimes even baby showers. At events such as these, it is my duty to ensure that the sensibilities of my audience are respected, as I am the one who has come into their environment and not vice versa. As a result, I apply a certain degree of self-censorship. For example, at a Blackberry event I will try not to answer my iPhone on stage and go on about what a fabulous phone it is. At a wedding function, I will intentionally gloss over the fact that I know the bride through a common friend — who she was having sex with for the past two years. At a baby shower, I will not tell the mother-to-be that her husband is dying to become a father, not so much so he can see his child but because he wants the pregnancy to end. According to him, it’s the only time when there are no periods but 24×7 PMS.

However, in the last four years of performing in India, I’ve noticed that our audiences have grown up. Now there are times, when I get off the stage, people have come up to me and asked why I didn’t make fun of them or their community. People are more mature and intelligent and less sensitive than the media makes them out to be. So relax. Give them some credit and chill a bit. In fact, have a drink, turn off the lights and come to a comedy show. But if you haven’t been to one of mine before, don’t sit in the front row… you might not be able to handle the freedom of my expression!

Papa CJ is a stand-up comedian.
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