What do you do after banning the comedian and burning down the jokes he stood up for? Watch the wisps of smoke and wipe your good tears? Break into raucous laughter repeating the old jokes, those other ones, the approved lines crafted to hide some act played out of stupidity or audacity? Given time, everything, even the events we pretend as forgotten, becomes the material for some form of humour. Sometimes they reiterate what otherwise would have opened the stable of nightmares, or might have unleashed biblical insects amidst the kingdom of your thoughts. Given time, that we have laughed heeding the hackneyed and washed-out punchlines becomes the joke.
Your bro will drive tonight, slurred the drunkard. The comedy lies in the fact that we run over and crush a bunch of homeless people asleep on the sidewalk, or the people protesting against an oppressive law by blocking a part of a long and tortuous road, and in that we can joke about it. We drive, but the souls intoxicated by liquor or power steer the wheels. We joke, but memory laughs at us. Sitting on the toilet seat, I ask the forbidden comedian (Do not get any ideas; these things I do, wandering from a point or hosting an imaginary conversation inside a washroom or a loo), if a joke is an antithesis of sorrow, and if by each sorrow we grow, whether we are fated to stay immortal in our inner childhood when we hear a joke or not.
Vir, the comedian, says, we come from a country with two faces. Yin and Yang. Now darkness is dominant, but ‘Now’ is a significant word in this context. He adds, one seventh of your life falls on a Monday, and you are welcome. I scratch my head and state that I was born on a Monday. He exclaims, no sh**. I have lied, I confess. What brightens a humour more—a truth or a lie, I ask.
In an act of art, a lie is not always an aberration of truth, but a deconstruction of the same. It does not negate it, rather together they highlight a third fact. A comedian avails many tools of literature, and uses wit, contradictions, juxtapositions, ironies, satires, and yet the philosophers and politicians shun the art he masters.
Earlier, when I have mentioned ‘deconstruction’, I have recalled Martin Heidegger more than I have sworn by Jacques Derrida. Derrida retorted to the performing form of comedy, more precisely sitcoms like Seinfeld. Perchance, the philosopher underlined that we should not label any production of art or literature. The subject should flow freely and on its own rivulet into the hole already fitted with a definition and a description.
On the other hand, I have far too many midsummer night’s dreams where comedy is not a relief, but a constant build-up of tension, arbitrariness, and distorted reflections of life’s eternal quests. Does the warning of John Chrysostom, that “laughter often births foul discourse to actions still more foul”, overcast my subconscious mind?
Life saunters through the Delhi-dense smog of double entendres, puns, and anecdotes so local that the meaning and context are lost outside one particular chai kiosk. Perhaps, the people who fail to fathom the joke still laugh when a comedian performs it, because a performer is larger than life. The comedian is the friend of the friends. Did not Derrida hint that the close circuit of friendship runs on the illusion of recognising oneself in the mirrors of his friends?
The comedian has an entourage and a number of friends. Aristotle shakes his ancient head. One who has too many friends has none. Does it hurt? The jokes often do. “People who shout joy from the rooftops are often the saddest of all.” Milan Kundera, The Joke. Can we forget Patch Adams? Robin Williams?
Mark Twain said, “Humour is tragedy plus time.” A research team published a study in Psychological Science that led me to believe that distance mellows the wound, and turning back some things do look laughable. Distance from an event also makes tragedy humorous. Time, distance, persona, the quantum of the ha-ha.
“The necessary stimulus for laughter is not a joke, but another person,” writes laughter expert and APS Fellow Robert R. Provine, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, in an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science. This brings me back to the comedian. I listen to him. He elocutes in the dark and yet well-lit auditorium, “I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang rape them at night, I come from an India where we take pride in being vegetarian, and yet run over the farmers who grow our vegetables.” Where is the humour in these? Laughter wields a naked katana and waits to watch our conscience bleed.
In Philebus, Plato objected that laughter is often malicious. The philosopher was anxious that a violent laughter may provoke a violent reaction. Is not this a carefully preserved circle of life inside a glass dome—violence begets jokes begets violence? Both my cheeks are slapped, God, and both ring redness to the brim, and now a smile is a mad reaction stuck between two globes of flesh.
May it be true that Henri Bergson wrote in an essay from his book Laughter (1900), “Laughter requires an indifference, a detached pen, and it is more difficult to laugh when one is fully aware of the seriousness of a situation”, but can a comedian remain indifferent to a situation in his country? Can art be born without the influence of the society in a true sense, although, now I wonder, Bergson’s observation was proved by the psychological studies mentioned herein.
Sometimes, other than when I am in my toilet, I walk my imagination, stroll, and talk to the comedian when I stumble into an event that calls for some reaction. The best form of sarcasm is addressed to the self. My botched jokes uttered in sotto voce are like crying during a laughter, or laughing before breaking into tears. They hollow out a heart. Come on, country, hollow out your consciousness!
Perhaps, in a stand-up comedy, a practice older than Chaucer and Valmiki, the comedian is the split other half of the personality of an audience, and together they fall on the shards of reality polished to a smile, laugh, and together they haemorrhage. The performer thinks, in that hall, there must be at least one person receiving the message hidden in the punchline. There always is.
That one listener understands that every joke culminates all notions of a culture, and all its echoes. Can the joke congeal its jellied knees in front of a tough crowd? The punchline frames the mirror a joke is. Shatter the joke, destroy it, and it still survives because it multiplies into thousand pieces staring at you. It disappears when the land or the culture changes; then again, change the frame of the looking glass, and it becomes a different one, same in its nature.
Imagine comedy is banned. People laugh reading the tweets of politicians and actors, or listening to messages of solidarity. They do not know a single joke. Their collective consciousness writes, performs, and claps. Different sides. Different modes of aggression. One set of materials. The philosophers do not trust the laughter. They do not hold any faith on the poets. Their moods swing. Their words rebel to any status co. Happy, they laugh. Sad, they do. Angry? Ha! Often in zen calmness, too.
“Comedy comes from confusion,” says Vir Das. The comedian holds the stale air we breathe in and out, and when he unfurls his fist, the bubbles of chortling effervesce free from the cage.
(This appeared in the print edition as "You must be joking, right!")
(Views expressed are personal)
Kushal Poddar former editor of the Words Surfacing magazine, and an author