No funny bone, I’m vegetarian

R Srinivasan | Updated on July 30, 2020 Published on July 30, 2020

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Humour is not everyone’s cup of tea or slice of cake — a failed comic writer sums up

* Until I was asked to write this piece, I never really thought about why I wanted to be a humour writer

* Humour’s greatest appeal is its ability to make you forget yourself, your stresses and strains, for the moment

* One of the funniest non-English writers I have ever read is the Tamil writer Bhagyam Ramaswamy


It must have been nearly 50 years ago now, but the memory is still crystal clear — the faint whistle of the thin black cane as it swished through the air, the fearsome sound with which it thwacked into my desk, and the perilous closeness of my oh-so-sensitive fingertips to that dispenser of pain. And the hoarse drawl of Mrs Takroo, my English teacher, rasping, “We do not spell coconut with a K. And there is no R in it. Are you trying to be funny?”

Actually, although I was too terrified then to tell her so, I was. Trying to be funny, that is. And that the victim of Mrs Takroo’s swishing cane was my first attempt at humour, modelled faithfully on my then hero, Richmal Crompton’s pre-war English village schoolboy William. Spellings included. After all, it took very little to send an 11-year-old into hysterics in those innocent times, and human spelt ‘yuman’ or, for that matter, coconut spelt ‘kokernut’ was certainly one of them.

It was much, much, much later that I realised that I had made the rookie mistake of all wannabe humorous writers — thinking that one’s audience will find what one finds funny, equally funny, if not funnier. In the exact, same way.

That run-in with Mrs Takroo marked the start of what has been a lifelong, largely painful and mostly unsuccessful series of attempts to write “funny stuff”. Until I was asked to write this piece, I never really thought about why I wanted to be a humour writer. Looking back, I guess it was just because reading the great comic masters brought so much joy to me that I, consciously or unconsciously, wanted to share it.

Now that may not sound like a good reason for wanting to be a comic writer — after all, most normal (read non ‘intellectual’) people, given a choice between Wodehouse and Dostoevsky, would (unless it was a sunless winter day, one had just been jilted and one’s pet had died) choose the former. But normal people also do not start breeding newts just because they loved Gussie Fink-Nottle’s prize distribution scene.

Humour’s greatest appeal is its ability to make you forget yourself, your stresses and strains, for the moment. When you are laughing out loud (I mean really letting rip with those guffaws, not typing LOL and hitting the emoji button on WhatsApp) — your brain is physically incapable of doing anything else. Multitasking? Forget it (come to think of it, this is probably the reason so few CEOs or HR chiefs are funny).

But precisely that quality also makes it a devilishly difficult craft to practise. You can’t just try and be consciously funny. This is why, despite Bollywood’s abundance of talented writers, we have had few genuinely funny comic movies and why the mandatory “comedy scenes” in most formula films seem so strained and artificial.

Being a good writer does not mean that you are also a good humorous writer. On the other hand, you can be a terrifically funny writer and be dead serious in real life. Like my former colleague in The Times of India, Jug Suraiya, who could produce extremely funny “middles” and “third edits” for the Old Lady of Bori Bunder virtually on demand, but was a dead serious editor who went on to edit the opinion pages of that venerable organ.

It is also true that you cannot be a funny writer without being a good one. By that I mean somebody who is really, really skilled at the craft of writing, with complete mastery over language, vocabulary, tone, pacing and timing. Not to speak of plotting. Great comic novels are also supreme examples of masterful plotting. I mean, try explaining the plot of a Wodehouse novel to the uninitiated — the number of twists and turns before unsuitable boy/girl gets eligible girl/boy is simply mind boggling.

And, of course, an acute ear for ‘voices’. One of the funniest non-English writers I have ever read, Tamil writer Bhagyam Ramaswamy, used just this trick in his Appusami novels, featuring a none-too-bright old man married to a highly educated, English-speaking woman. Ramaswamy’s books were hysterically funny because of his ability to seamlessly weave Seethapatti’s highfalutin English with Appusami’s Madras street slang.

The current crop of stand-up comedians and social media sensations has this ability in spades — to accurately capture the voice and tone of a commonplace character instantly recognisable by many, with the true comic’s gift of exaggerating just that one trait or quirk or accent that converts them from a simple sketch to a funny cartoon. If you are someone like Danish Sait or Saloni Gaur, with the ability to do actual voices and accents as well, you have hit multimedia comic gold.

The rest of us ordinary mortals, though, will have to be content with hitting that ‘forward’ button.

R Srinivasan

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Published on July 30, 2020
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