Do we really need yet another joke about how many genders there are? In 2021? Forget that it’s not funny—though, sure, that can be subject to personal taste—it’s also the exact same joke that gets made by every comedian/Twitter who’s confused and tormented by change. Azeem Banatwalla, too, falls into that same trap on Between The Lines, his new YouTube special. He complains about how the line between what’s acceptable and what isn’t keeps changing when it comes to progressive politics, and the loopy, corkscrew nature of identity and “woke” politics. There’s plenty to mock left-leaning politics (or any politics) on the internet with—the excessive jargon and theory, the moral superiority, the self-righteousness and hypocrisy that creeps in often—and yet he resorts only to the basest caricatures and tired one-liners that have been circulating in American standup and the internet for five years.
It’s why Between The Lines is such a letdown, especially since Banatwalla showed just how good he can be when playing to his strengths on his Amazon special Problems (which won the Critics’ Choice Best Online Special category at the DeadAnt Annual Comedy Awards last year). He’s a sharp comic, with a dry, beaten down style of observation—a puzzled cynicism at the ways of the world—often treading into darker spaces. Banatwalla’s material usually avoids the overuse of clichés and templatised joke regurgitation—as his last two specials have shown, to varying degrees—instead going off into clever, well-written digressions delivered with an articulate and concise punch.
Even Between The Lines—available for Rs. 299 only on his YouTube channel for subscribers, of which I am now one—starts off strong. The first half is powerful, as Banatwalla, pulling no punches, adopts a cynical and weary tone to confront realities that comedians these days are discouraged from speaking of: his worldview as a Muslim, and life for minorities in today’s India. The online hate he receives regularly. Cow vigilantes. Traffic and the death penalty. Criticism of religion, his own being chief among them. Lynchings, beheadings, violence caught on tape—it’s all there. And there’s an interesting structural choice, made as much for self-preservation as for aesthetic reasons, as several portions of the special are cut off—“redacted”—whenever Banatwalla drifts into sensitive subjects and naming of names that might land him in trouble. So we, as online viewers, get only a partial and censored experience, though it’s not hard to guess what goes on in the bits that have been edited out.
Then he launches into an extended diatribe about the Left. He even repeats that much-loved centrist mantra that the Left and the Right are the same in their ways. We’ll take this invocation of the tiresome horseshoe theory in good faith though; it’s likely an exaggeration made for effect. This section, which forms the bulk of the show, drifts into stream-of-consciousness whining followed by small course correction followed by more whining followed by more course correction. It has several sparkling moments where he makes deadpan observations about progressive politics and finds excellent punchlines (which are far better watched than typed out here). But ultimately, it’s where the whole thing falls flat.
The logic his jokes invoke is the logic of elite anxiety—the cis-het man’s confusion about shifting gender identities, the white man’s anxieties about African-American Vernacular English, the Boomer antipathy towards millennials.
Banatwalla does clarify, more than once, that he supports the cause and the movement, just not its champions—that the subjects of the jokes are people and their inconsistencies. But then he devotes much of his time to the sort of nitpicky “gotchas” that have already been done. There’s even a joke here about self-identification, a premise so innovative that it’s never ever been tackled in the history of comedy. Sigh. At one point, Banatwalla blesses us with the knowledge that “woke” is actually grammatically incorrect. “How can I take you seriously,” he asks with great passion, “when your entire movement is grammatically incorrect?!” Mic… drop.
The comic positions himself as a voice of reason, supposedly using logic to poke holes in the arguments posed by the Left and the “woke”, making fun of “micro-agressions” and “good vibes” to bring a much-needed reality check for the Extremely Online Left. But too often, he finds himself in a curious loop of using semantics to argue against semantics. The logic his jokes invoke is the logic of elite anxiety—the cis-het man’s confusion about shifting gender identities, the white man’s anxieties about African-American Vernacular English, the Boomer antipathy towards millennials.
To take a quick detour: I am a comedy mercenary. I laugh at anything I find funny. Please don’t tell anyone, but I have yet to purge myself fully of the mid-2000s edgelord humour that was premised on equal opportunity offense. I may not celebrate it, I may even be morally outraged and upset by something, but I do chuckle privately from time to time and then feel bad about it. And comedy, by design, is meant to be an exaggerated farce. It’s a theatre of hyperbole and embellishment, and to take each word literally or in bad faith would be doing the art-form a disservice. So while viewers may have understandable ideological problems with Banatwalla’s set here, my concerns—despite subscribing to the same politics that piss him off so much—are as much creative. The jokes aren’t smart or novel enough for me to suspend disbelief. Why, for instance, do we get a 10-or-so-minute long narration of The Lion King with a “woke” vs “truthteller” inflection? Who knows.
In Between The Lines, Banatwalla is exceptional when he narrows down his focus and narrates personal anecdotes with a larger meaning. A surreal online chat with a fellow football fan, or his bemusement at the criticism he faced for making a joke about watchmen, or being asked to apologise for something someone else did. Or an excellent bit about how, in the aftermath of the Me Too movement in India, a new breed of man came along and decided to co-opt feminism. It’s where he’s at his best. But once he starts to pontificate about grand concepts, the material follows a crumbling script—the bigger he goes, the louder the thud. And given the great pains he takes to insist that he himself supports the nobility of the causes he’s talking about and how it’s important to understand what the subject of a joke is, and who the laughs are being directed at, I wonder: what’s the point then?