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Is India ready for humour without punchlines?

By Sreehari Nair
Last updated on: November 18, 2015 15:34 IST
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'On Air with AIB seems to be becoming an increasingly exhausting show to sit through with each passing episode. While there are funny lines strewn all around, watching an On Air episode is like playing 'one-armed bandit' and getting 'three oranges' every time you put a coin in the slot machine; there's no breather and after a while no sense of wonder.'

'A big reason for the petering out is that On Air with AIB only tackles subjects and issues whose 'right' and 'wrong' eccentrics are totally resolved in your head. You know corruption is bad, you know sexism sucks and you know Indians spout deliriums randomly.'

'Just appending punchlines to these pre-resolved subjects is like offering you a manual about assemblage of spare parts -- you appreciate the talent that the act takes, but it doesn't grip you,' asks Sreehari Nair.

Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh/

In the winter of 2004, I decided to stop oiling my hair.

Don't remember exactly why but looking back now, I think I wanted to disassociate myself from everything 'uncool' that an average Malayali did. There are, undoubtedly, many cool things about being a Malayali but using coconut oil for both deep-frying and as a lubricant for one's mane hardly qualifies as 'hip.' There was, of course, another consideration involved: My unoiled top made me look less nerdy and more bohemian (or so, I thought).

Unfortunately for me though, it was also around this time that my performance as an engineering student started to wane. To my father -- a master connector-of-dots -- the relation between my dry hair and my falling grades seemed far too direct to discount.

'The oil on your head made you smarter, don't you see?'

Also at play was a convoluted theory about Parachute Oil energising the neurons inside my brain through a process of seepage and occult that I did not completely understand (partly because complicated mechanisms were not my thing).

Still on my father, I also remember him being very upset about me not keeping a 'permanent moustache' -- which for him was a sign of masculinity typical to the Malayali man. As luck would have it, I once shaved myself clean on the 19th of November and my father's response was: Of all the days in the calendar, you had to pick the International Men's Day to get rid of your moustache.

As I'm writing this, I go over the aforementioned stories and their various elements, and I still think they are painfully funny. But for everyone who might find the stories worth a laugh, I am sure there'd be someone who says 'Ho Hum, Okay. So?' While these responses are fully valid, there's a reason why they are.

I think what these stories don't have is a conventional 'release point' -- the thing that in joke-terms you call a 'punchline.' Now a punchline -- stripped away of all the technicalities -- is essentially that part of a humorous scenario, where the writer reiterates how he is funnier than his audience through a set of sharply delivered zingers.

While they are indeed a 'special talent,' my problem with these zingers is that once they become the norm for say a TV Show, they then have to be rung in with such regularity that the humour becomes less conversational, less observational, less about the characters and more a competition -- writer versus writer.

The paradox here is that the audiences that love punchline humour love for it for the exact reasons mentioned above and they'd rather let the writer do the thinking for them as they relax on their stadium seating. It's the typical wit-on-demand that most love to stone on; the kind that sets free booming laughter but inspires little or no audience participation.

At the risk of sounding smug, I think my stories above, have a specific observational energy that just states things in a matter-of-factly fashion and then invite a reader to come in and expand the narratives in their own heads. These instances of humour I am referring to, is what you might call 'No-Punchline (NPL) Humour' or humour delivered without rimshots.

The finest exponent of the NPL brand of humour presently is Louie -- written by and starring Louis CK -- a television show that in my opinion has to be up there with the very best of all-time.

The scenes in Louie are just little vignettes (mostly disconnected) -- of our pathetic, self-seeking, sometimes caring, sometimes wondering, mostly stupid existences; of the posturing we all do to get past our deficiencies; of our little moments of supposed triumphs that end with our moments of realisations that those triumphs probably didn't matter -- all played out without a hint of self-consciousness. In short, it's about life without any of the lessons we try to glean from it.

One particular sketch on Louie has a young, dainty girl approaching Louis CK, and telling him that she really digs 'older men.' Her theory: Guys of my age, all think they're too smart and they have this annoying sort of energy, and they are pink and smooth like a baby. 'But older guys,' she says, 'are just relaxed. You've given up, which makes you grounded. Your skin is all loose and dry and your smell is all weird.' It gets darker, as she takes a sniff of CK and says, 'You smell like dying.'

There are even more inspired moments -- David Lynch teaching CK the importance of timing in comedy by setting his stopwatch and asking him to read off a card; a network producer approaching CK to know if he was 'interested' in taking up David Letterman's position post Dave's retirement; CK's group playing poker and entering into a discussion with a gay friend about the origin of the word 'faggot'; a visit to an art gallery where one of the exhibits is human bodies, piled up on top of each other.

A description of these premises, I now realise, don't quite explain their actual charm. But all these moments have one thing in common and indisputable: They don't come with a punchline. In short, there's nothing you can take back from these scenes as a sort of repartee, or a quotable quote that you can recite to your friends over a round of drinks.

You can watch any scene in Louie, and the humour in the scene seems like it's mined out of the writer's own flesh, fluids, fears and fantasies. You are more likely to find yourself in the joke than let the joke find you. The situations in Louie are all sharply observed, are sometimes even sad, but surely without a single laugh-out-loud moment. You'll find your facial muscles stretching in reaction -- occasionally in absolute delight and occasionally in sheer shock -- and that's the only way to know the brilliance of the writing.

The character Louie in the show is loosely based on CK himself, and often the scenarios involve events from his life juxtaposed with CK's stand-up routines. While this approach might immediately draw comparisons with Seinfeld, the fact of the matter is that Louie goes far, farther than Seinfeld

It maybe as effortlessly loose as Seinfeld, but it's also viler, more disturbing, and infinitely more grossed-out than Seinfeld. Ever heard of toilet humour that borders on metaphysical? That's how far the show goes.

Louie is essentially Seinfeld, but off the soapbox and on the streets -- in terms of its language, its structure and its complexity.

NPL Humour

What shows like Louie prove is that there is another kind of humour that you never saw in Friends or How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory -- shows that dine out on zany situations punctuated by one-liners.

In a 'No-Punchline' (NPL) approach, a writer observes something that is wrong or wistful about our everyday existence and yet something we sidestep so conveniently, before stretching it into a joke.

Roughly what we call situational humour but even situational humour needs 'good lines' to draw you in. In NPL, you can have a regular conversation that's set in the very mundane that suddenly grows awkward and from that awkwardness something funny and even profound emerges.

From life, an NPL moment

Recently, in the middle of a cheerful conversation I was having with a friend -- who told me how she is a big Joan Rivers fan and uses her as a role model to fight personal crises -- I said, 'Oh yeah, and may her soul rest in peace.'

Since my friend was unclearly unaware of it, I took up the responsibility of informing her that Joan Rivers had passed away in September last year. The cheerful conversation and the funny referencing suddenly turned sombre as my friend's face turned all red and her grandmotherly eyes welled up.

She said she didn't know if the tears were for Joan Rivers who was no more, or her own cluelessness about Rivers' death, or the isolation she was feeling. The laughs in our conversation suddenly stopped coming as she spent the rest of the evening wailing, and I, consoling her that it was ok.

Seinfeld, more or less, invented the NPL brand of humour in the early 90s, but now shows like Louie have elevated to a level of brutal, unflinching art. I don't think the writers of shows like Louie or Seinfeld or Frasier or Curb your Enthusiasm ever sit at their desks trying to come up with the 'perfect line'; they just have to turn on their faucet of consciousness and funny stuff pours out.

These writers are more in tune with their own neuroses, are more attentive of even their involuntary responses and they also hear 'better.' An NPL humour show is about life and for an NPL writer, life is a show. Just about any damn thing, can be an inspiration.

Great artists -- a Dostoevsky, a Freud, a Bergman, a Kieslowski, or a Picasso -- have in their works sketched for us characters faced with moral and ethical challenges, but set in a larger context. An NPL writer focuses on these same challenges, but set in a relatively smaller context -- like getting stuck in a subway, or waiting for a seat at a Chinese restaurant, or dealing with a heckler.

Themes like adultery, betraying someone's trust or committing murder, in an NPL writer's world, gets replaced by seemingly minor subjects like inappropriate behaviour, common decency and etiquettes.

The characters in an NPL show have a very moment-to-moment existence and the funny bits about them are not derived from some cutesy quirks. Like, for instance, an NPL character is never stupid -- Kramer in Seinfeld wasn't a dumbhead like Joey from Friends or a weirdo from some other show; he just had a level of cognisance that's different from the rest of us. Also true is that an NPL character is never winsome; more often than not he is a misanthrope like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Because its appeal is so specific, the audience for NPL humour too -- in its infancy stage at least -- is a small, cultist group like The Big Lebowski fan gang. And like the Lebowski gang, this audience tends to be captive, they reveal a coalescing quality about them and take pride in the fact that they 'get' what most people 'don't.' The writer knows this, because he has long been an audience member of this very sort.

NPL Humour and India

It's 11:50 am here on a Wednesday and my Facebook Timeline has updates about numerous contacts either liking or sharing the latest video by 'The Viral Fever' guys titled 'How to Train Your Dad for Online Shopping.' The video is a part of TVF's ongoing 'Tech Conversations with Dad' series. It's a hilarious video, undoubtedly, as are the latest videos by All-India Bakchod (AIB) and the last one by East India Comedy, a group that goes by the Sweeper 'India's Busiest Comedy Company.'

Now what the profusion of these web comedy patrols have done is extract India from the truly unfunny 90s humour of the Jug Suraiya-Javed Jaffery-Suresh Nair types; the kind of humour that lacked the edginess of the present comedy coterie, that was so spelt out there was no missing the funny parts, and the kind that was strictly based on wordplay.

A lot of the humour then was seeped in puns and except for Cyrus Broacha, nobody in those days, even attempted to break the pattern. As evident by the tastes of the leading Web comedians today, they don't really dig the class of 90s Indian humour.

I also think the Indian audience's sensitivity to humour that's derived from puns and wordplay is slowly fading out, and except for those Amul Ads -- whose topical or sentimental value we can't discount -- wordplay humour is not as hot as it used to be.

That being the good part, the cynic in me still believes that we are playing it broad when it comes to humour. Let me tell you why.

If you're a kid of the 90s, you'll realise that the best Indian humour that's on currently is a mix of two populist styles: The punchline-themed humour of the 90s and 00s American TV shows and the 'insight-driven' Indian advertisements of the post-Piyush Pandey era, an era that started this trend of tapping into generic consumer behavioural patterns to build brand stories.

Like both these styles, Indian humourists today only believe in taking a topic that has both 'high news value' and 'great emotional voltage' and further putting a comic spin on it. While the humour itself may be edgy, it's not truly cutting edge. Because what these groups or their shows offer you by way of 'funny' is either a satirising of the very inane (which is what AIB specialises in doing) or a spoofing of the very mediocre (that seems to be TVF's primary shtick). While we are definitely putting out sketches that are funnier, our 'funny' is still about going hard on the soft targets.

Consequently, while we are treated to comedic gems time and again, the Indian humour scene of today is actually like the funny-wing of our Newshours and talk shows that present the perfect conflation of information-dissemination, issue-based debates and entertainment. It's all topical, but not one bit personal.

Take, for example, On Air with AIB -- that if you ask me, seems to be becoming an increasingly exhausting show to sit through with each passing episode. While there are funny lines strewn all around, watching an On Air episode is like playing 'one-armed bandit' and getting 'three oranges' every time you put a coin in the slot machine; there's no breather and after a while no sense of wonder.

A big reason for the petering out is that On Air with AIB only tackles subjects and issues whose 'right' and 'wrong' eccentrics are totally resolved in your head. You know corruption is bad, you know sexism sucks and you know Indians spout deliriums randomly. Just appending punchlines to these pre-resolved subjects is like offering you a manual about assemblage of spare parts -- you appreciate the talent that the act takes, but it doesn't grip you.

The beauty of No-Punchline Humour is that it is always written from a place inside the writer, a place of truth. Contrary to all these giant issues -- sexism, poverty, corruption, and incompetency -- we prefer to discuss and ridicule in our chic way, the NPL Humour is about our little worlds. And when we submerge ourselves in our little worlds, we'll realise that not everything is a Good versus Evil fight, or an Us versus Them duel.

The NPL humour tells you how in our everyday lives, when we factor in the aspect of convenience, we all are by turns 'The Corrupt Politician we criticise,' 'The Chauvinist Male we frown upon,' 'The Rule Breaker we deride through our Facebook posts,' 'The Communal Virus' we easily lampoon and 'The Bad Artist we spoof'.

Punchline-laden humour -- that our funniest people seem to have mastered -- makes you applaud the 'special talent' of the writer. NPL Humour, on the other hand, makes you seek crevices in your own life, where you can find such humour.

Here's an exercise. Just try merely observing some of your little world issues. What you'll realise is that these issues are actually a treasure-trove of humour that's more layered, and subtler, but not the kind that people would readily share through their Facebook Posts. Issues like how much arm-room should be allowed per person in a jam-packed local train; or should the office water-cooler have three dispensers instead of the usual 'hot' and 'cold' ones; or is 'Indian Chinese' actually tastier than 'Chinese Chinese'; or do rickshaw drivers in Mumbai act too evasive when tapped on their shoulders. There's another grade of humour hidden in such topics that we readily deem pointless.

What we conveniently refer to as 'Adult Humour' in India is edgy humour that addresses issues without falling into the trap of cultured language or thoughts. But what our funny people don't seem to realise is this: Except for the semantics, their humour is still very much of the 'Politically Correct' nature -- about the kind of stuff around which moralistic campaigns are mounted. I think that's not quite Adult Humour.

There is a story about director Robert Altman who would often insist that his films be R-rated. This was not because Altman's movies had R-rated material but it was because he believed that children would not get the nuances in his film, and would be bored by them.

No-Punchline Humour is the real Adult Humour, because it is the humour of heightened awareness -- awareness of one's surroundings, one's insecurities, one's mortality, one's body, one's fantasies, and of one's position in the worldly scheme of things.

It's not the humour of easy answers you seek as an 18 year old. It's the humour of tough questions you start confronting at 27. However, like it is the case with most tough questions, many of us either don't like it, and many others just don't get it.

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Sreehari Nair