The Cheat Sheet

Who’s afraid of comedians?

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on January 30, 2020 Published on January 30, 2020

Governments and the rich, typically, and, most recently, a few airlines in India.

Touché! You sound like a fan of Kunal Kamra, and most likely, of George Carlin, who said: “I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”

Indeed I am. But what was all the latest commotion really about?

For starters, minutes after the stand-up comedian was banned by IndiGo Airlines for “heckling” popular TV channel host and editor, Arnab Goswami — known for his fierce prime time news shows that his critics say slant towards the Right and are suitably biased against the host’s views — on one of its flights on Tuesday, Air India, SpiceJet and GoAir also banned Kamra from travelling on their aircraft for at least six months.

But is that a regular practice?

Not that we know of. Experts say civil aviation rules are not really vocal about such a practice and, more interestingly, what Kamra did on the IndiGo flight was an absurd act of political protest which many comedians across the world have done at several junctures in history.

That’s interesting!

If you take the history of stand-up comedy, which thrived in the US in the first half of the 1900s and then spread across the world in the later half, off-stage political protests have been a norm rather than an exception. From Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers to Richard Pryor or Dick Gregory, stand-up comedians have been politically incorrect on-stage and off-stage and their irreverent pranks have time and again courted controversy. For one, Gregory was a civil rights activist, social critic and was known for several of his offline protests, which became quite controversial for the era.

So, are you implying Kamra’s act was a prank, or was that a protest?

In the video that went viral, the comedian clearly says it was an act of protest and he clearly parodies certain slices of Goswami’s popular prime time TV show. And he says he was ready to bear the brunt. In a statement issued later, Kamra says he didn’t disobey any of the flight’s rules and none of the travellers expressed discomfort.

Oh!

On that cue, the action from the airline and its counterparts seem a tad excessive and done under pressure, especially given that Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri posted on social media that Kamra’s “offensive behaviour” was designed to provoke and create disturbance inside an aircraft and the Ministry had advised other airlines to impose similar restrictions on Kamra. In fact, such seemingly knee-jerk actions come out of sheer ignorance of the way stand-up comedy functions across the globe.

How?

Most Black comedians in America’s history have championed the rights of their ‘brothers and sisters’ and always made it a point to take up the issues in all their performances. They joined street protests, held mock chats and interviews ridiculing the powerful (read White men) and the likes of Pryor crossed all the possible lines of sanity and decorum to drive home their political agenda. Though India has a tradition of satire and solo comic performances such as Chakyar Koothu, stand-up comedy as we know it today is just a few decades old and it was after the arrival of and boom in social media and streaming platforms that the art has gotten the popularity it deserves.

Ah, that explains why most comedians are young ones.

Well, kind of. Even though the likes of Cyrus Broacha have been performing for a while now, India’s comedy space until a few years ago remained apolitical and middle-class oriented. Even today, most comedians are not aggressively political like their Western counterparts. In the US, for instance, President Donald Trump faces stringent criticism from stand-up comedians who oppose his policies on-screen and off-screen. Recently, comedians Jordan Klepper and Amy Schumer were arrested for protesting at political events. In India, the likes of Kamra or scriptwriter and stand-up comedian Varun Grover belong to a select minority which is actively political and takes on the government and vested interests through shows. In a democracy, banishing a comedian for a politically-charged prank seems petulant, ludicrous and counter-productive.

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Published on January 30, 2020
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