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Review: ‘Wonder Menon’ Stays in the Safe Zone, Banking on Dated Material for Laughs

By Akhil Sood 20 June 2019

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After like the seventh or eighth ‘Gujju’ joke in Anu Menon’s new standup special, I found myself racing headfirst into an existential crisis of some sort. This always happens when I don’t laugh at something; comedy demands such an immediate physical response that even a delayed reaction can cause self-doubt. Why am I not finding this funny? Is it because I don’t know much about Gujarati culture outside of Bapu? Is it the material? The delivery? Am I not getting the jokes? Am I stupid? Am I being a snob unnecessarily? What’s the deal here? (Should I nap?)

Wonder Menon trailer

Menon—once known to viewers of a certain age as “Lola Kutty”, a throwback set-piece to which kicks off the special—is a self-assured performer with immaculate control over her voice, and solid, if not spectacular, delivery. Her special Wonder Menon (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video) feels underwhelming though, thanks to material I’d generously describe as dated.

The opening salvo is filled with cracks about different communities: about her husband’s Gujarati family, about her own ‘Mallu’ upbringing, about feeling sorry for a Bihari couple. You know, the usual. This is a pretty standard start to most sets here, a way to ease in and connect with the live audience and revel in shared mockery of people like and unlike us. Except, here the entire hour lingers in that middling space, and never really gets going. A loitering suspicion I have is that, like so many other specials, it may have been shot just a little too early.

Menon has a flair for storytelling, narrating incidents from her life with self-deprecating wit. There are spurts of sharp insight in there: about her cross-cultural marriage and her husband spending time away, or motherhood and the financial and emotional burdens of parenting, dealing with pretentious school teachers and, in one of the more memorable bits, how fancy kids’ birthday parties are these days.

But where the set falters—repeatedly—is in Menon’s reliance  on stereotypes, easy setups and punchlines, and predictable template jokes. Quite apart from the jokes about different communities—which transcend the opening section and run through the entire one-hour-and-a-bit duration of Wonder Menon—we also get throwaway references to Helen Keller (remember her?), Lasith Malinga (remember him?), DDLJ, Abhishek Bachchan, theplas, comical Malayali names, Rahul Gandhi. We get a section about a Sikh man having the same name as his wife, ho-hum. And, if there were ever a doubt, there’s also an extended riff on Salman Khan something-something black buck something-something driving.

I thought we’d retired all these jokes several years ago but here we (still) are. And this isn’t something directed only at Menon; a big chunk of Indian standup comedy thrives in this passable space of generic comedy; if anything, she’s good at it.

I thought we’d retired all these jokes several years ago but here we (still) are. And this isn’t something directed only at Menon; a big chunk of Indian standup comedy thrives in this passable space of generic comedy; if anything, she’s good at it.

On the one hand, this stuff—Rahul Gandhi, Punjabis are flashy tandoori chickens, Gujjus are penny-pinchers, Tendulkar grabbing his crotch—it’s all funny. And because it’s so basic, it allows for a comedian to connect quickly with her audience and get them on board. Because these are jokes people make with their friends all the time, and everyone always laughs. Closing ranks and gleefully judging and ridiculing people not like us is such a basic and absurd part of human existence that it’s never going to go away.

Ironically, the highlight of the hour, for me, is in fact her crowd-work, the one part where the viewer watching at home is excluded. She spends a lot of time speaking to the Bangalore crowd, nailing that wobbly balance between condescending and endearing in her interactions. It’s in these bits where her talent and her innate comic timing—unburdened by a rehearsed script—come through, with rapid-fire comebacks and witty jibes. It’s also possibly why, though the set didn’t work for me, she seemed to have her live audience rooting for her all the way.

The question, at the risk of getting all farty about it, still remains: what about the greater purpose of comedy, of humour, beyond just the immediate thrill? Must it remain interchangeable, disposable content, or can it strive for more? Does it need to? There is a space and audience for every kind of comedy—from the intellectually challenging to the downright slapstick, and everything in between. But with the pool of artists in the field growing every day, and specials being commissioned to them at an almost alarming rate, coasting on old tropes isn’t—or shouldn’t be—an option.

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