I vividly remember an exchange I had with a cousin when The Matrix came out in 1999. I always used to take his trip because of his predilection for Bollywood movies with over-the-top action sequences that had cars doing somersaults and heroes who stopped bullets or punched through walls. After watching The Matrix, he came over and told me that Hollywood movies are just as absurd as the average Rajnikant/Salman production.
I tried explaining to him that the premise is science fiction and that the "matrix" in the film is actually a simulation created by the computers so that they can keep humans in suspension while they use them as batteries, but my cousin was only stuck on one thing: how Keanu Reeves dodged bullets in slow-motion and punched through walls.
I’m bringing up this anecdote because for the past two days I’ve been debating the mechanics and limits of comedy with various avatars of my cousin on the internet. Ever since Tannishtha Chatterjee’s Facebook post – in which she rebuked the Comedy Nights Bachao team for making fun of her skin tone during a roast – went viral, Indian social media has been divided into two camps: those in support of her and those in support of the CNB team.
|Comedy Nights Bachao is a regressive show that has a history of being classist, sexist and racist. (Photo: Colors)|
Chatterjee maintains that the roast was not funny because "in a country where we still sell Fair & Lovely/Handsome and show adverts, where people don't get jobs because of their complexion, where every matrimonial advert demands a fair bride or groom and the colour bias is so strong; in a society which has a deep-seated problem with dark skin, which also has deep roots in our caste system; in a country where dark skin is marginalised, making fun of it, is not roast."
People who stand by Comedy Nights Bachao, on the other hand, argue that the actress knew about the kind of comedy the show practices but went on nonetheless so as to promote her film. Another argument they make is that a roast has no boundaries hence, by agreeing to be roasted, Chatterjee should not be offended.
According to them, sense of humour is about how well you can take a joke rather than make one. Some are calling her a "touchy millennial liberal" and some want to know why the same people who supported AIB's right to say similar things in their infamous roast about Ashish Shakya's skin colour and Tanmay Bhat's weight are now condemning this (one commenter was quick to point out that "if you are anti-AIB then you are right wing, if you anti-Comedy Nights Bachao you are a liberal.")
While I agree with some points of both camps, it bears reminding that the roast format is only a recent import from America. While roasting first started in 1949 at New York’s Friar’s Club, it only came into the public sphere after Comedy Central began the Comedy Central Roasts series in 2002.
Since America has had 67 years to reflect on this tradition of roasting, it has been witness to several low moments such as the time actor Ted Danson appeared in blackface and used the word "nigger" several times at the 1993 roast of Whoopi Goldberg.
As a result, modern roasts in America have their own taboo subjects and no-go areas.
For example, during the roast of actor James Franco, the comedian Aziz Ansari faced several jokes made at the expense of his Indian heritage which he addressed by saying, "I think it's so cool that some of you guys were able to travel back in time to 1995 for those Indian jokes you did... those stereotypes are so outdated, my god. There's more Indian dudes doing sitcoms than there are running 7/11s. We are straight-up snatching roles from white actors." Ansari came out on top because he made the other participants look pathetic for resorting to the obvious.
India is a country where, until the AIB Knockout show in 2015, few had an inkling of the roast format. While some of the jokes on it, such as the ones about Ashish Shakya’s skin tone, were definitely unsavoury, it was nonetheless a paid event and was broadcast on YouTube with a disclaimer.
Comedy Nights Bachao, however, is a regressive show that has a history of being classist, sexist and racist but is televised nationally under the guise of being "family-friendly".
It regularly features cross-dressing men as the butt of all jokes. Every line of dialogue is punctuated with nautanki sounds and hammy studio laughter. Besides, Comedy Nights Bachao does not even get the format right.
A roast is supposedly to let all participants have a go at each other. CNB is a one-way street where guests are supposed to take jokes at their expense in exchange for plugging their latest film. There is no rebuttal.
During an appearance on the show by the cast of Houseful 3, the actress Lisa Haydon was called a "black African" and told she looks like a kangaroo from Australia.
In Tannishtha Chatterjee’s case, she was asked if she had a lot of jamun during childhood to get her dusky skin tone. If this kind of crass and gaudy humour is what the average Indian family watches together in their living rooms, then, it is little wonder that many Indians don’t understand how racism works.
If I were to roast Chatterjee, I would talk about how she is typecast as having terrible relationships in all her movies. I would talk about how her childhood must be confusing as her father is a business executive and her mother a political science professor. Anything but her skin.
In satire, you always punch up, not down. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny and can be seen as being mean. Offensive comedy is often a dominant body ridiculing a marginalised one. But the moment we begin to challenge someone’s equality, we stop recognising our shared humanity. That is a dangerous territory tantamount to bullying and belongs back in the 20th century.
The people who think that everything is permitted in a roast are missing the point. Even if everything is permitted, the art of comedy is to navigate around the elephant in the room without shooting it in the head.
In the past, great comedians like Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and George Carlin talked about race without being racist. Current comedians like Louis CK, Doug Stanhope, Jim Jeffries and Bill Burr have also got the art of sarcasm and shock comedy down to a T.
There is a thin line between politically incorrect jokes and blatant racism and great comedians walk this line all the time without crossing it. They resist the urge to go for the low-hanging fruit because comedy in the West has evolved past jokes that stereotype.
The people who are asking Tannishtha Chatterjee to not be so touchy if she agreed to be roasted are the same people who tell freedom of speech activists stuff like, "if you have the right to protest against the Indian government then I have the right to say that all Muslims should go to Pakistan". Their moral and cultural sensitivity compass is a bit out of whack.
Explaining the difference between tasteful comedy and Comedy Nights Bachao to such people is like explaining the difference between Gunda and The Matrix to my cousin.