License to roast: Where do you draw the line?

Following up on the uproar over Will Smith’s reaction to Chris Rock’s joke about his wife, we catch up with comedians from across the country to find out how far they were willing to take a joke!
Stand-up comics from across the country
Stand-up comics from across the country

The resounding slap that landed on Chris Rock’s jaw this Oscars has had a cascading effect. From health awareness activists waxing eloquent about alopecia to folks questioning the Academy’s reaction to Will Smith’s lapse of control – the online community is up in arms. We catch up with comedians from across the country to understand the live standup comic routine in terms of boundaries and how far can a joke to taken before it ceases to be a joke. Nearly all of them agree that their material is nearly 80 per cent scripted, while audience interaction is the wild card.

Kolkata-born comedian Anirban Dasgupta is not very amused as he says, “It was stupid of Will Smith to do that.” He further adds, “He must be sitting and laughing at the jokes made on others and then couldn’t take a joke on his wife. It reflects poorly on Smith.” Anirban who had to take down his video on Netaji strongly believes that there shouldn’t be any constraint or line in comedy. “Ideally there shouldn’t be any line when it comes to making a joke on the stage but since we are not in an ideal world we have seen celebs and communities getting offended often. We are still young in terms of stand-up comedy and there’s still time for us Indians to mature to the idea of stand-up comedy,” avers Anirban who has 1.65 lakh subscribers on YouTube and a successful show on Amazon, Take it Easy.

Meanwhile, others react with some customary good humour as demanded by their profession! When asked how far is he willing to take a joke when it is directed at the front seats, Raouf Gangjee, international comedian and founder of Kolkata’s first stand-up comedy group Kalkutta Komedians says, “If the guy looks like Will Smith and is close enough to reach out and slap me, I take a few steps back before picking on him.” Not a fan of slapstick comedy, Gangjee avoids religious jokes however he doesn’t hesitate to make fun of people who follow the ancient Cult of Glycon, who worship glove puppets. Talking about drawing the line he says, “It depends on the audience and what they can tolerate. You never know what people might get upset about. Someone, a while back, got upset because his favourite footballer had been insulted. If my audience starts getting too upset then I generally change the subject because ultimately one wants to have a good show. More importantly, I make sure they have paid in advance.”

Sandesh, who is a Hyderabad-based MNC employee by day and a stand-up comedian by night, is known for observational comedy. He is obviously disapproving and says, “I am hoping that people don't make it a norm where if they don't like a joke come hitting a comedian. As a comedian my first reaction was this. If one doesn't like the comedian one should avoid going to the show but not hit him for his jokes, he is doing his work. Physical violence doesn't solve anything.” However, he is non-committal about the limits that have to be maintained, and says, “The line is very personal and subjective, both the comedian and audience have to be on the same line.” He does aver that does not make jokes on any downtrodden communities, though jokes on political community are definitely included. Though the comedian tells us that a joke can have an adverse reaction like the incident where he had performed jokes on the catholic community. Eight people out of 16 walked out of the show in the middle of the performance!

Rohit Swain's stage performances are a mix of stand-up, impersonations and sketches. He says that the recent incident at the Oscars adds pressure to their performances. He adds, “We always fear these things that audience getting aggressive. But the incident where it happened was full of artistes and it was least expected.” Though he also shares that he is careful with the material he performs, he also believes that comedy is subjective. “I do very observational and situational comedy, where it's not that offensive. But yes I do have sets where the audience has to think a lot, slightly making them uncomfortable at times. But I know that I will not cross the line. But again if  a comedian is crossing the line its fine as comedy is very subjective. There was joke which was doing fine on stage but when I posted it on Twitter, half of my followers were abusing me.”

Sanjay Manaktala from Bengaluru agrees that it was a terrible experience for all parties involved. He says, “I would draw the line at those that can't defend themselves, aka the deceased or young children.  Otherwise comedy has always pushed the boundaries when it comes to religion, politics, identity, dating, marriage, secuality, etc.... We need those types of conversations and topics because in today's world nothing is crazier than reality.” The comedian further says that his audience interaction is not completely out of control. “If the organiser of the show wants me to address or roast the folks in the front row, as is often the cse in corporate events with a lot of alcohol, I will.  However I know I can't take it too far and it has to be done in good spirit.   It all depends on the situation.  In the Oscars it's kind of known you will get roasted, which is why you kind of have to take it on the chin.”

We like Hyderabad-based Rohit’s succinct explanation, “Comedy is supposed to be enjoyed by both the comedian and the audience. There's always a bright side too, most of the audience enjoy comedy shows and that's the reason we do stand-up and tickets are sold.” However, shows are not always so ideal. In which case, Sanjay has a point when he says that, “The rule in performing and public speaking is you save your disagreements for after the stage.” And following a similar train of thought is Sandesh in conclusion, who says that, “Legal notices from offended parties is the best thing to do. Filing a case is better than resorting to violence.”

Inputs from Reshmi Chakravorty, Farah Kahtoon & Sonali Shenoy

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