In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, I found it hard to enjoy standup comedy much. What was once a much preferred way of procrastination and entertainment, now made me uncomfortable and weighed on my conscience.
In India, as well as in the west, some of the biggest names in standup comedy have been accused of sexual harassment. A lot of them were self-proclaimed feminists and woke liberals.
The arrival of #MeToo in India in October 2018 resulted in the fall of several big names in the Indian scene, from Utsav Chakraborty (who recently went on an all-out social media offensive to disprove the charges) to Gursimran Khamba.
Rohan Joshi seems to be among the last men standing whom audiences can watch without feeling the need to instinctively “cancel”. His recent comedy special on Amazon Prime Video, titled Wake N’ Bake, is a refreshing change from the usual blatant misogyny that has come to define the set routines of most male standup comedians in India.
Unlike his cohorts, Joshi doesn’t proclaim himself to be a “sakht launda” pining about women who have banished him to the friendzone. He spends his hour-long special to talk about a host of issues, from marriage and parenthood to the legalisation of marijuana in India. Wake N’ Bake is proof of the fact that one doesn’t need to be misogynistic or insensitive to be funny.
Joshi talks at length about why he doesn’t want to marry or have children, and tells his audience ways to deal with annoying relatives who bring up the marriage question every chance they get (spoiler alert, there are none.)
In his special, Joshi brings up issues that a lot of young people in India are currently facing, and that most of the older generation ignores as the frivolity of youth. As a 36-year-old, he may be sure that marriage isn’t really for him and yet fails to convince that one random uncle at a wedding who still believes that marriage is the antidote to loneliness.
One of the ongoing debates today that no two individuals seem to agree on is whether political correctness acts as a hindrance to comedy. Is it okay to make rape jokes and to laugh at them? Should there be boundaries between what can and cannot be joked about? Does doing that diminish the purpose of comedy?
Joshi’s special shows that it’s possible to have your audience in splits without being insensitive in the process. His observations are sharp, and his punchlines intelligent. He starts off his set by declaring to his audience that he is 36 and takes great pride in it. His obsession with home furnishings and medical insurance may not be things that his young fans can relate to yet, but Joshi is content being the “cool uncle,”‘ as he puts it; who really is cool only in responsible quantities.
Humour has always been a powerful tool to talk about issues that are otherwise shoved under the carpet. But humour has also been used as a weapon to drown out voices of the marginalised through the cacophony of shared laughter. What happens when we laugh at the trauma of someone who is already at the margins?
Wake N’ Bake packs in a surprisingly good amount of social commentary. Joshi’s observations about India’s education system, and his plans for new national statues would make any self-respecting uncle call him an “anti-national”, but, honestly, Joshi puts in greater effort at policymaking than most of our politicians generally do.
It’s reassuring to see a comedian who still cares very much about the society he belongs to. While Aziz Ansari couldn’t stop lamenting about growing political correctness among people in his “comeback” special on Netflix, Joshi is embracing such changes. After all, political correctness is simply about according basic respect and dignity to a person or a community. If someone feels that political correctness is what’s holding them back from doing comedy, then they’re probably not that funny to begin with.
In Wake N’ Bake, Joshi admits something we’d like all our woke celebrities to say more often – that he’s embraced the words “I don’t know”. In the age of “opinion economy” as he calls it, every burning issue demands a hot-take from a celebrity who has no clue about it. Joshi wants out of this economy, and he’s right in doing so – an uninformed opinion does more harm than good in times of crisis.
One of the most insightful parts of Joshi’s one-hour comedy special is when he talks about his own privilege. It’s a rare sight to see a man acknowledge the privileged position he holds in society instead of lamenting about how tough life can be for “nice guys” like him. His self-awareness about his own position as an “upper class, upper caste, urban, Hindu, educated man” compels him to think about those who lie on the other end of the identity spectrum with less fortunate adjectives attached to their names.
What appears to be a comedy show suddenly forces its audience to face some very uncomfortable questions.
And like Hannah Gadsby in Nanette, Joshi refuses to diffuse that tension with yet another punchline.
Sanjukta Bose is currently pursuing a Masters degree in English, and, yet, is terrible at writing bios.