Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The business of jokes

Comedy group Cheese Monkey Mafia scouts for talent while making the city laugh.

I have two skills that are talking points at parties… making drinks and telling jokes,” claims Raghav Mandava, founder of Cheese Monkey Mafia (CMM), a Delhi-based events company set up in 2010. While his bar-tending days are behind him, Mandava uses CMM to organise comedy events and Open Mic Nights across the capital.

Working as a bartender in Delhi’s News Cafe, Mandava met internationally-acclaimed comedian Papa CJ who took him under his wing in 2009. Admitting that he still lacked a “funny bone”, Mandava had to perform at nine shows amidst awkward silences before receiving his first laugh from the audience. “It took me a while to find that one joke that clicked with the audience,” he says. Funny or not, Mandava manages to pull in a crowd — his show ran to a packed house this week at the India Habitat Centre.

At present, artists performing in the capital are seasoned ones such as Abish Mathew and Rajneesh Kapoor — however a real Open Mic Night, according to Mandava, is “when you can literally smell the desperation to be funny”. Mandava uses these nights to scout for young talent. “I plan on taking them along for corporate events,” he says. And of course, he’ll take a cut.

It was comedian Louis C K that “turned his life around”. Talking about the rules of humour, or the lack thereof, Mandava believes that one can joke about anything. Quoting his other comedy idol, American actor Chris Rock, Mandava adds, “Talk about what people do, not what they are.” Though he enjoys Canadian funnyman Russell Peters too, Mandava finds Peters’ humour to be repetitive and focused on racial stereotypes.

What about funny women? “I’m going to dig my own grave here… but women generally aren’t funny.” But the numbers don’t lie — one woman among 10 artists at an Open Mic Night seems to suggest the same. “There are funny women but not many take the stage as a profession, be it in India or abroad,” he adds.

Mandava’s own humour spares no one — it may be city-specific (though he avoids clichéd jibes at Punjabis), at times sexist (“jokes on women drivers never get old”) and even anti-establishment. While C K perfected the art of being a rebel speaker, Mandava tries to question the simpler things in life. Preferring an anecdotal conversation to a structured script, Mandava wants his joke to “take the audience by surprise”.

He demonstrates. “At a fancy dinner, you never pick up the first plate because you don’t want to look like a greedy pig,” he says a matter-of-factly. “The one who does pick up the first plate becomes a hero of sorts... and the lesser mortals just follow suit,” he laughs off.

So is Indian humour a consequence of British wit or American slapstick? “No… we have our own niche now,” he says emphatically. Though self-deprecation is the easiest form of humour to pick up when starting out, some have mastered this form such as Indian stand-up artist Sanjay Rajoura, believes Mandava. Cussing, swearing and sexual innuendo (or even literal jokes looked upon as ‘filthy’) seem to be indispensable to comedy. While some enjoy them, Mandava confesses to several “squeamish ones” walking out on him.

Comedy is not just an art but a booming profession too. Having performed at various corporate retreats , the job pays him more than being a VJ, claims Mandava. With only 30 stand-up artists doing the rounds in the country, this may be true. With only two videos of himself up on YouTube and a Facebook page, Mandava has not been marketing himself extensively. Why?

“I don’t want to give away everything just yet. A joke is like a fruit — first you grow it, ripen it and then enjoy it... after a while it begins to rot and you must toss it!”

Though he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page yet, like some of his idols, Mandava’s humour seems to be tickling the capital’s bones successfully.
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