Review: Contestants in Comicstaan’s Topical Round Have Razorsharp Observations, But Play Safe
With this episode, the show settles down into a one-episode-per-week schedule. The fourth installment sees all the contestants try their hand at ‘topical’ comedy, aka talking about trending topics or current affairs.
Neeti Palta takes on the role of mentor and guide, helping the comedians narrow down their focus on to their chosen subjects, as they try to make their sets both contextual and relevant as well as funny.
A whole range of subjects are tackled—Supriya Joshi discusses homosexuality and gender identity; Sumit Sourav does a satirical take on Vijay Mallya not getting due credit for the massive scale of his fraud; the falsehood of ‘green crackers’ gets a mention via a crisp set by Rohan Gujral; Devanshi Shah talks about the absurd media coverage dedicated to celebrity weddings; Ramya Ramapriya shines a light on the first official national sex offenders registry in India, which came into existence last year.
Overall, it’s a tight episode as many—not all—of the subjects picked are relevant or, at the least, worth discussing in the idle internet-discourse space.
Neeti Palta, in her closing set, goes straight for the jugular. She opens with an acknowledgement of the malaise infecting the standup comedy industry with respect to how women are treated (the show was shot in the aftermath of October 2018’s Me Too surge), using a classic bait-and-switch to point to the problems within the industry. (The discomfort in the silence at that point is palpable.) She goes on to discuss, in sharp detail, the nature of ‘dick pics’, with a brilliant throwaway gag about a “sakht launda”.
Another standout set is by Raunaq Rajani, who spends a worrying amount of time ruminating on penguins in India. The highest-rated set of the evening is by Aakash Gupta, who riffs on Prayagraj and the government’s insistence on changing names of cities. It’s a breathless, gag-filled routine with a high laughter quotient, though it misses a trick by not directing any attention whatsoever to the BJP government’s insistence on erasing India’s Mughal history.
- Raunaq Rajani’s otherwise smart set ends with a joke about ‘Bhai’. Yes, that same Bhai, Salman Khan, who comics have been cracking jokes about since before I was born—car accident, IPV, black buck, that movie haircut, the no-shirt policy. The well is now dry. Salman Khan is by far the most overused punchline in Indian comedy.
- Talking about Indian politics and right-wing nationalism without ever mentioning the BJP, PM Modi, or Amit Shah, and an insistence on using a thousand different ‘funny’ euphemisms to refer to him. I get it; it’s very scary and there’s a risk of a backlash if you go after these esteemed personalities. But you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t make a point without actually addressing anything at all, and still get those “oooohhh” reactions from the crowd. Not all comedy needs to be overtly political, but this half-assing serves no purpose.
Write This Down
“I think topical ka haoova bana rakha hai,” says Neeti Palta in her mentoring session, mirroring our thoughts. She points out how it’s basically a style rooted in observational and personal humour. “The advantage of topical comedy,” she explains, “is the world has written the setup for you guys already. You only have to find your punchlines in it. There are two ways to do this: take one topic and research the hell out of it. Or you start to talk about it from the heart and people can’t refute it; the jokes are funny then.”
Given that the show was filmed late last year, a current affairs-themed episode is tricky. 24-hour news cycles make trending topics obsolete within a handful of days; here we wait some six months after the fact. Nevertheless, most of the subjects tackled do retain a semblance of relevance here—so maybe they briefed the contestants, or they were smart enough themselves to plan ahead. One major development in the time since is, of course, the general elections, but we can let that pass since nothing really changed.
That said, the absolute lack of risk is exposed here. None of the contestants really go for hard-hitting takes on the, well, millions of things wrong with the country today (or six months ago). The focus seems more on getting laughs and highlighting the craft rather than speaking on hot-button subjects that may ignite a debate, at least among the competing comics.
Gupta, in his set on Prayagraj, or Joel D’Souza on the Statue Of Unity, find plenty of clever gags, but how do you address these two subjects while mostly ignoring spectre of the ruling government? More importantly, why is no one pissed off?