American, British and Indian Comedy

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I love comedy. I am not an inherently funny person, but I consume comedy as incessantly as I consume caffeine, and like caffeine, occasionally I let it out. Humour is the trampoline that cushions you from your Tom Petty-esque free fall from happiness to depression; it’s the morphine that numbs those little sighs of despair and exasperation that build up over the day like farts in an elderly gentleman; comedy is the Q-tip to the earwax that is life.

And yet it’s different. I’m an avid follower of all kinds of comedic expression, from stand-up to late night talk shows. Though the language barrier gets in the way, I can tell you the difference between American comedy, British comedy and Indian comedy. The last one is rather mitigated by my limited grasp over the Hindi language. I speak what you could call “autowalla Hindi”, which is enough to get me to school in the morning and congratulate my taxi driver on his new car (seriously, he upgraded from a Santro to an Eeco. How cool is that?) but nowhere near enough to make Alok Nath jokes. And that’s what I’m about to tell you. Let’s start with the Americans.

American comedy much resembles their culture. Think of something quintessentially American – we have giant 3000 bhp muscle cars that can’t turn around corners, Goliathan portion sizes on ketchup laced, artery clogging, burgers and Kalashnikovs that you can buy in Walmart more easily than you can buy cough syrup. Everything about America is big and bold, which is comedic in itself because I think that America’s determination to be ‘large’ is compensating for something. Their comedians are kind of the same – they’re not afraid to say anything as long as it isn’t against God, network television, Stephen Hawking or the Fifth Amendment. American comedy is always trying to one up the other person. And this, like everything in this post, is a broad generalisation. It’s optimistic, straight-forward humour with anecdotes that try to impress. In a subtle way, all American comics are trying to prove that they are better than everyone else in the room.

The Difference Between American and British Humour

British comedy is not so. And because Britain is a tiny country with many smaller countries where accents and lifestyles change every ten or so miles, I’m going to draw some boundaries between comedians now. Irish and English comedians are very similar except in the way they pronounce their swear words. Welsh comedians are caricatures of themselves (looking at you, Rob Brydon), and Scottish comedians are the most blunt, edgy and yet drunk sort of people you’ll see. But they all share one common characteristic, and that’s their acknowledgement that everything they and their country are doing is always inferior. British humour relies on the basis that the comedian is inferior to the audience watching, and that the entire country is inferior to the rest of the world. That isn’t the case, of course, but it’s the central theme in many jokes. In America, when they say “only in America,” it’s always a good thing, a positive thing at the end of the sentence. Like “only in America would you find such a beautiful canyon”. In Britain, it’s the opposite. “Only in Britain would you find such glum, grey, rainy weather every day.” It seems to be a generally shared sentiment that’s both acknowledged and rebutted.

And then we have India, the country of hypocrisy and juxtaposition that takes everything a stretch too far. The funny thing about comedy in India is that it doesn’t exist. That’s right, the comedy scene is just beginning to establish itself. In the 60s when you had shows like Monty Python filling Britain’s living rooms with roaring laughter, India still had one type of car and black and white television (and only the rich could afford those). “Comedy” in India was historically a thing for street performers who roam with monkeys doing tricks to earn coins off little kids. It was thing for court jesters to be for a limited time before temperamental kings had them executed when they made a bad joke.

Comedians today have to be smart, and anyone who is smart is pushed to become an Engineer. After four years of studying to learn how to make pipes and drawing circuit diagrams, that’s when Indian teenagers (who are really grown men by now) actually make their decision about what they want to do in life. Anything that’s not a desk job is shunned both by society and family. Writing jokes isn’t a real profession, and even I, a published writer, have a hard time not believing that. Though all that’s slowly changing. Despite being so new, like everything else in India, comedy eventually devolves into politics (and the other way around – heh). Because politics is just a mudslinging competition between two (and now three) sides, Indian comedians always have free and accessible content on their hands. Because so much happens in this country everyday, comedians have much to make jokes about. They’re almost spoiled in a way. I think by now Arvind Kejriwal should get an award, not for his service to the people of Delhi, but for unprecedented services to comedians of India.

Indeed, perhaps these differences that I’ve pointed out are just superficial. There are basic properties that every human has, from Beverly Hills to sub-Saharan Africa, and comedy is one of them. Everyone likes to laugh. Laughing is good. Laughing has been described as a medicine, but medicine doesn’t bring people together. Medicine doesn’t build communities and forge friendships. I think these differences I’ve pointed out aren’t to do with the intrinsic minds of comedians, but the social structures surrounding their origins. So maybe it’s time for India to embrace its rich and glorious heritage and move away from the days of Alok Nath and Ghanta Singh to find a respectful niche in comedy clubs over the world.

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Upamanyu Acharya is a writer who doesn't write. Sometimes he's an artist, musician, photographer, physicist or lazy student. His hobbies include being vague, bending rules, time-travel, and embellishment of words. This is his personal blog where he writes on topics ranging from leadership skills to the consistency of jam.

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