How to be funny? That, as Shakespeare succinctly put it, is the question. The event that precipitated this somewhat profound thought process was my turning 40. Like others facing the chasm of a mid-life crisis, I too wondered: How now to make life interesting?
The question takes on an especially poignant edge when the aforementioned life is one as banal as mine. I am your average bookish South Indian who grew up hearing the ominous phrase, “How come no Centum in Maths?” and it has defined my life since. And then I turned 40. No more could I hope to climb Mount Everest or trudge to the South Pole (not that I ever had a chance, as my brother would say). No more could I hope to invent something given that some of the best scientific inventions are made before 30—there is a reason why the Fields Medal is given to mathematicians aged 40 and younger. No more could I hope to compose a piece of deathless prose; prose was already dead according to my publishers. Hence the decision to be funny. After all, everyone likes a sense of humour. Everyone likes a funny guy...or gal.
Like all New Year resolutions, my decision to learn how to be funny had more to do with hope than competence. If you meet me, you will realize this. I don’t look funny. My bones stick out, but not in funny places—the Adam’s Apple, for instance. What I would have given for a bobbing Adam’s apple? I could have turned it into a whole stand-up schtick. But no, my Adam’s apple does not bob. It stays in place and hides on occasion. My curly hair has potential. I could stick my finger in a socket and make it look like Kramer (in Seinfeld). But other than that, I am not genetically gifted in the funny sense. I look—and I hate to admit this—nondescript. If you see me in a shop, you will pass right by me; at best, you probably will ask me for the price of deodorant (and no, there is no message here. I am not trying to say that I am the kind of person who provokes thoughts of deodorant).
The other thing I have going against me is sex. I am of the female predisposition, an intrinsic disadvantage when it comes to the funny gene. Women are taught from a young age to preserve harmony, to soothe ruffled feathers. Telling your neighbour that his brand new Toyota Innova looks like the mouse, specifically the Elephant God Ganesh’s vehicle, mooshik, is hardly the prescription for preserving harmony. No woman would call their neighbour’s Innova a rat. A man might. Men have testosterone which allows them to behave a little differently from women. They don’t think about hurting other people’s feelings to the same level as women. I, on the other hand, brood about this. I wake up in the middle of the night regurgitating conversations to see if I have unwittingly offended someone. This is a problem as far as my ambition of becoming a stand-up comic goes. After all, when it comes right down to it, there are three methods of being funny: you can insult others, you can insult yourself, or you can insult the world.
Insulting others is the easiest way of being funny, but you have to be prepared for the consequences. You have to be prepared that the insultee will not like you; at best, he will think you are a weirdo. Both of these are major hurdles for women in general, and me in particular. I like to be liked. I have been called worse, but I generally prefer not to be called a weirdo. It hits too close to home. I am, like most women, at heart a conformist. We have been told to blend in—with husband’s family, with schoolmates, with cousins. Standing out requires a certain insouciance that doesn’t come easily.
Women comics are rare. In Bangalore, Rubi Chakravarthi holds sway with her don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Rosie O’Donnell makes fun of the fact that she is gay and fat. Ellen Degeneres turns her gayness into material. Russell Peters is not a woman, but he is all about poking fun at minorities. Of late, I have taken to watching late-night comedy shows to see how these comics work their material. When I am stuck in Bangalore traffic on an autorickshaw (my favourite vehicle), I try to come up with material. I am obsessed with being funny. Perhaps as a result, I am not. The worst part is when I deliver what is ostensibly a joke and nobody laughs. They ought to patent pain like that. The flat-joke pain-quotient. “Sorry sir, your ruptured kidney stone doesn’t measure up to the flat-joke pain-quotient. You can just go home instead of standing here and demanding morphine.”
That, by the way, was a joke. Or at least, an attempt at one.
Shoba dreams of being a stand-up comic. In this lifetime. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org