A debate in my mind that I’ve been trying to solve over the last couple of months is, does any performance or art form cater to the audience or to the performer? Look, I know the answer is both. But, where does the balance lie? The thought started pestering my mind after a really bad experience during a show. Not sure exactly when! A couple of months back! (8:30 pm, May 26th, 2016, ‘Twas a Thursday. I was wearing a green shirt! #neverforget)
So, the setup was very simple. I was to do a five minute spot before more experienced comedians took over. The theme was the 90’s (the show was called That 90s Show named after the immensely popular and similar sounding sit-com……. Friends). It was to be a trip down the nostalgia lane. You know, 90’s, the decade which began with the economy crumbling and ended with match fixing scandals, and somewhere in between a prime minister exploded, Naxalism was the new rural hipster ideology, Hindi pop-music icons were touted as India’s rockstars in the making. Screw you, Buzzfeed and Scoopwhoop! We know what really happened in the 90’s. The show was intended for urban 20 and 30-somethings to have a good time and go back feeling happy that they didn’t have Facebook and Snapchat to record their stupidity.
So, I had a very simple task ahead of me – warm the crowd up for a few minutes. It can’t go too badly. Can it? It’s only five minutes. How bad can it get?
Very bad, apparently!
You see most moments in life seem to be written by God going through a midlife crisis because his children don’t feel like visiting him during the weekends. The audience that turned up weren’t people that experienced their pre-teens during the 90’s. The parents of that demographic turned up! And the front row in particular had people whose average age was death.
Just the shock of the wrong demographic turning up gave me butterflies in my stomach – except these butterflies were made of zombie material. When I went on stage and did my first bit, I got a moderate response – which is normal. Before i went onto my next bit, I had an inner voice tell me that I should probably shock my audience. Yes, the same inner voice that tells us to follow our dreams. So to an audience where the front row was populated by people who probably saw Bajirao Mastani, in person, I said the following lines:
Funny me trying hard: “So, I want to talk about the 90’s. 1790’s. Because that’s when most of the front row seems to have been born. So, what was happening in the 1790’s? Sati! Sati was a horrible thing no doubt, but, you think people would have tried making it better for themselves. If they had an ice water bath before, then maybe for five seconds Sati would have been warm and cozy. “ *followed by the smuggest smile that made me look like a descendant of a slave owner*
At that moment two helpful gentleman in the front row started shaking their head ominously to indicate that my joke sounded so insensitive and was so bad, that if I set myself on fire the very next moment, they would whip out acoustic guitars and everyone in the room would start singing “Jeena Yahan, Marna Yahan” as they collectively enjoy the bonfire . An old aunty thrust her arthritic arm behind her back to display her displeasure at my displeasing joke and let out a yawn so wide that I swear I saw Matthew McConnaughey trapped inside a singularity #UnderstoodInterstellarLittlebit.
Anyway I, to date, do not know how I got through the next four minutes. And I still think the bit was funny but, poorly phrased.
Lesson learned: Don’t make fun of Sati in front of old people. They don’t like remembering their friends in that order. Okay joking! I’m just joking! It was a bad joke! I learned my lesson.
Now don’t worry, it sounds like I am bitter that old people didn’t laugh at my jokes. But, I got over it pretty soon. It was just a phase when I was running around the road pointing at old people saying “Nein, Nein Nein, Gotta catch ‘em all! Gestapo, Kill ‘em all!”
It led to a bigger debate that I later had with my friends over to whom was comedy was performed for? Where are the lines drawn?
And over the little time I’ve been doing this (recently finished a year, thank you) I’ve realised that comedy is very much a social act; every joke is made within a particular social frame and context. So, what that means to me as a comedian is that if there are people who express their displeasure at statements that I call jokes, the joke is not just a litmus test for the humor type around me but, also an indication that my comedy is totally unfunny to the people around me. My joke is not just funny but, it’s also not funny. A joke is funny and not funny. And that is an interesting position to be in: it’s like all jokes are Schrodinger’s jokes. *put cigar in my mouth, look passionately into the distance*
I guess what I’m trying to say that is, I have
a Humanities degree and don’t know how to use it, ultimately (as much as I hate to admit) the answer to does any performance or art form cater to the audience or to the performer, is both – I can’t spew out anything I want, but at the same time I can’t try to find the LCM (or is it HCF?) of all the audience members in the room. And, as I struggle to find the balance, I shall continue to anger old people…I mean hate them…I mean… continue living in this Schrodinger’s state of existence. And kill old people…Ugh…You know what I mean!