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Handling Criticism Under Fire: A Troll Wars Story

By Akhil Sood 23 June 2020

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Every couple of weeks, like clockwork, a comedian says something really dumb on the internet. You’ll just be casually scrolling through your feed and suddenly there it is, a take so monumentally bad that it makes demonetization seem like a good idea. This is not even a criticism as such—comedians have to deal in the currency of thought, and occasionally a bad one slips out. And then the internet gets very angry. It’s an occupational hazard and, in an ideal world, the offending comedians take a step back and course-correct. Or at least just ignore the criticism, as anyone with an iota of public fame has to learn to do. We live in a world that’s far from perfect though, so, like a scripted farce, the comedian usually comes out fighting and doubles down on the terribly bad idea instead. And the outrage cycle continues. 

On his last Netflix special, 2017’s Humanity, Ricky Gervais spent about two-thirds of his time taking shots at the nameless, faceless people who leave angry comments on his social media accounts. While Gervais’s own views on several things are questionable at best, this idea of using the stage to respond to the so-called haters has practically become a genre of its own in standup over the past few years—the comedian pulls out their phone, and reads the choicest of insults directed at them, and offers real-time commentary to it. It’s particularly enjoyable when Indian comedians do it, given the range of colour that’s on glorious display in the YouTube comments sections here. Sahil Shah, last year, put out a clip from a show about how he’s been trolled online—detailing the moral degradation on display on Twitter, he speaks of a request he posted for urgent donation of blood, to which someone responded, “bhikari saala”. A tweet poking fun at the establishment, he recalls, was followed by an outburst of rage at him, with Shah projecting some of the comments on a screen next to him and offering wisecrack-y retorts.

Of course, any remotely political take invites instant coordinated ‘trolling’, which is basically a cutesy euphemism for sustained harassment. Just a cursory look at Kunal Kamra’s tweets or his videos on YouTube reveals a level of vileness that’s almost hard to imagine. But it’s not restricted only to politics—internet trolls have the kind of bubbling hate in them which just one target can never sate. Comedians, simply by virtue of being visible semi-public figures who’re active and vocal on social media because their work demands it, become easy targets. Aditi Mittal, on a pretty regular basis, has to fend off not just the political trolls but also the viciously misogynist ones (though the two categories often overlap). Female comedians are constantly berated with sexist taunts—“women aren’t funny” being a particularly imaginative one, followed by a nutty explanation of why—and it’s easy to understand that sometimes it all gets a bit much. One person being called names by hundreds of anonymous people doesn’t sound like much fun.

Which, in a way, adds to this persistent thread of comedians defiantly mistaking legitimate critique for empty hate and “negativity”, or conflating the two. Sure, the default tone of conversation online is combative and expletive-ridden, but there’s a difference between criticism peppered with an f-word or two versus abusive harassment. Art criticism is no longer in the hands of a privileged few—this literally happened like 20 years ago; remember blogs?—and it often feels like a lot of comedians haven’t quite made their peace with this not-new-anymore, non-traditional format of engagement with art.

In April, Atul Khatri used a casteist slur (for the second time) on Twitter. When he was called out for it, he responded with petulance at first. Eventually, he did delete the comment in question with an acknowledgement, if not an apology. Soon after his Netflix special released, Kenny Sebastian threw a bit of a tantrum, again on Twitter, because some people didn’t like the show. One of the things he responded to was literally a person saying that Kenny Sebastian “is not that funny” (!), and this went on for a bit. Later, Sebastian ‘revealed’ how it was all some cunning master-plan to get his show trending online (yeah right). This kind of stuff has been happening often enough over the past many years for it to not be an anomaly.

When you’re always in the line of fire, it’s naturally hard to tell apart hate and ad-hominem attacks from critique, even more so with the bombastic, confrontational tenor of modern criticism. Given the nature and the sheer volume of insults that the comedian community has to withstand on a day-to-day basis, it’s bound to take a toll on their mental health (there’s a lot of admiration and affection too, for what it’s worth, but the two things don’t cancel each other out). Commentary on comedy, especially, tends to be of a more personalised nature compared to other forms of art since you’re often dissecting a stage persona. They all have to have their own coping mechanisms in place.

There’s no easy solution here. Criticism of art will always exist. Comedians can choose to ignore it or engage with it or lash out or flaunt their earnings or whatever they want—there’s no right answer—but it’s not going anywhere. And, unfortunately, online trolling isn’t going away anytime soon either (unless we shut down the internet, in which case people will come to your house and call you a moron). The immediacy of online engagement means that conversations are most often had in haste, without enough time for contemplation. That just leaves a fragile status quo, of mistrust, back-and-forth rage, and hostility—how fun.

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