Sunday, Dec 10, 2023

How To Tell An 'Unfunny' Joke: A Comedian's Notes On 'Anti-Humour' And Perfect Punchlines

How To Tell An 'Unfunny' Joke: A Comedian's Notes On 'Anti-Humour' And Perfect Punchlines

In an interview with Outlook, comedian and author Sorabh Pant talks about his book, 'Vote For Pant: But, Don’t' and the perils of telling 'unfunny' jokes.

Stand-up comedian and writer Sorabh Pant
Stand-up comedian and writer Sorabh Pant Getty Images

Stand-up comedian and writer Sorabh Pant is known for "anti- humour", a style of comedy lacking in intrinsic meaning and intentionally unfunny. He has done over 2,000 shows in various cities of the world. His comedy specials—My Baby Thinks I’m Funny (2016) and Make India Great Again (2018)—were released on Amazon Prime Video recently. In an interview with Outlook's Mayank Jain Parichha, the comedian talks about his new book, 'Vote For Pant: But, Don’t' (Rupa Publications) and the perils of telling "unfunny" jokes.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Your new book is quite self-reflective. It deals with a lot of questions that most "millennials" hooked to social media face. Was it a conscious decision to write a book with this approach?

First off, I’m not sure if I qualify as a millennial. Since the term was coined by marketing experts - some consider me - born in 1981 - to be a millennial while others consider me to be a faker by year of birth. Also, I mentioned to a few younger millennials that I might be one of them and they gave me a look of spite that could shut down a country. So, maybe I don’t even want to be a millennial if that's their attitude.

I may answer a lot of questions for millennials - especially with regard to empathy and joy on social media - whether they accept me as one of them or not I can't say.  The sort of underlying message is basically in trying to find a balance and realising that the people we interact with online are human beings, millennial or not. 

How did you pick the title, 'Vote For Pant: But Don't'?

Someone mentioned that it might be inspired by Ila Arun and her album, “Vote For Ghagra”, which seems good company to be in. However, the title is obviously ironic as it implies something that no one should ever do i.e. vote for me. Especially in lieu of actual politics - which I never ever plan to join, so maybe that decision is taken out of your hands. However, if I do happen to show up in a reality show and I seem to enjoy myself and ask for your vote - then, maybe consider it. Until then don't vote for me. But, vote in general.

A lot of new-age comedians make self-deprecating jokes or jokes on banalities and absurdities of life. Is it because the humour in the age of social media is being constantly censured?

I had written a long answer to this question but, then I got scared of it - so, I did some self-censuring. So here is the censured answer that won't trigger anyone - no idea. Incidentally, I love self-deprecating humour because the only “target” is me and I am not offended. Yet. 

Your book has a number of memorable one-liners. My personal favourite is “silliness is also occasionally indefensible” – Can you explain it a bit for your readers. How do you come up with your punchlines? 

Since it’s all about surprise and misleading the audience and/or the reader, it’s usually about different techniques: giving abrupt answers (see above) or in contrast a verbose answer or a nonsensical explanation on millennials or the thousands of different ways you can write a joke. That's why I love jokes - there are so many routes you can take, so many roads you can go down and you choose - sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly. 

I’ve been a comedy writer since I was in college - which is about 20 years back - so, I’ve had enough time to hone the art of writing punchlines. But, to answer your question on how I come up with my punchlines? By writing, getting on stage, failing, writing again, having terrible thoughts in my head (sometimes), writing, getting on stage, succeeding and feeling slightly more optimistic about life, thinking I'm incredible, releasing said joke or content online, wanting to erase everything I have ever released till someone says something reassuring and then repeating the cycle till the cold hand of death takes me. As with everything else, it’s a practised craft. And I am tolerable at it.

It's worth adding that I don't remember 90 per cent of the things I say and jokes I write so it always makes me very happy when someone tells me they enjoyed anything I wrote or said. So, thanks for finding something I wrote funny. 

Each chapter of the book has an intriguing epilogue which you have titled “small thoughts”. Why did you decide to add these separately?

For the main chapters I attempted to do some amount of research - even though it rarely went beyond Google Page 3, I did it nevertheless. I thought it would be fun to just give short paragraphs with quick thoughts on a topic without going too in-depth, as a break from the longer chapters. Just silly pint-sized peanuts between all the courses.  Or I just needed to pad up the book so that I got to the minimum word count so my publishers would not ask for a refund.