There’s a special kind of funny women can be when they are alone together. You cannot explain it, it is just something that creeps in: You can see it in the kinds of jokes they tell, the way they use their bodies and references to universal inside jokes and pains.
Stand-up comedy in India has a reputation for being male-dominated. It could be because the industry is held to higher standards than others, possibly because India’s leading comics often hold forth on liberal ideologies, including feminism in their sketches, and you know people love pointing out the hypocrisies of others.
The community has also been called out for accepting Amazon Prime’s decision to sign on 14 male comedians, and not a single woman, and people also point to a hysterical Film Companionvideo, where Anupama Chopra asked India’s leading comics if their industry was sexist and they all refused to let the only woman present, Aditi Mittal, speak until she was spoken to.
This is why TLC’s new show, Queens of Comedy, comes almost as a relief. The show is a televised hunt for India’s next big female stand-up comic, and pits eight amateur stand-up comedians against each other. It is meant to give women comics a platform and an opportunity to unearth the real talent women comics have to offer. It also gives you the perfect opportunity to observe what truly feminine comedy could look like.
The show lets you watch Indian women comics in a setting outside of a local open mic where it does not feel like they are a mandatory female fill-in. This allows them to start doing full sets on topics like hunger strikes, peaceful protest, Yoko Ono and the Vietnam War.
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with (and actually a lot that’s excellent about) female comedians dipping into the huge well of material that living as a woman in a misogynist world provides (like Aditi Mittal and Sumukhi Suresh do), it is also interesting to see women do sets on topics that seem to have nothing specific to do with women but are still wickedly feminine in their style, tone and delivery.
Like when 22-year-old Urooj Ashfaq (whom you may remember as Supriya from All India Bakchod’s video If Apps Were People) began her set on non-violent protest with a perfectly timed, slightly nasal “don’t hit me!” complete with a uniquely female jerk of the shoulders and inflection — the moment was so good that it spawned the first genuine, spontaneous, audible laugh from the judges.
Professional female comics have been experimenting with perhaps uniquely feminine forms of comedy for some time now in India. Aditi Mittal frequently slips into a character, Mrs Lutchuke, a foul-mouthed elderly Maharashtrian woman who gives people advice on sex, and it is amongst her most popular segments. She once said in an interview that the device of a ridiculous persona and the veneer of age allowed her to say things people would not otherwise let her say.
Sumukhi Suresh took the idea of women’s comedy a step further in her one-of-a-kind, all-women invite-only show (complete with all women bouncers and a stall selling Lovetreat sex toys) at the Hummingtree in Bangalore in 2016. Suresh told us that she had decided to do something like this after a particular show left her with the feeling that women would react differently to certain kinds of jokes if there were not any men around.
The show, called Disgust Me, was “an hour of jokes about boogers, itchy groins, sex and other yucky things to which only women were allowed.” Suresh told us that the show didn’t feel like a one-hour show, “I completely underestimated the crowd interaction, which I thought would be for 15 minutes. I forgot the fact that you’re dealing with a bunch of women — and they love to talk. Not in an interfering way, I loved how interactive it was; it was like being at a kitty party… no, not a kitty party, but like one of those nice iced-lemon-tea lunches where you chit-chat…”
She could really be on to something. Traditional stand-up, where audience interaction is called heckling, was made by and for men. Perhaps we have reason to believe that there are other forms and ways of comedy that work for women beyond traditional stand-up, uniquely female forms of comedy that just somehow work for us.
The amateur contestants on Queens of Comedy are pushing the envelope too. One contestant, a 21-year-old ball of energy from Kolkata, identified only as Jhansi Dramaqueen, managed to talk about demonetisation, cows, sexual harassment, sexuality and suicide in a set that had her playing the piano and singing while wearing a moustache. Sure, the act was missing a lot, but it also had a lot to offer, and fell neatly into the trend of female comics really experimenting radically with form. This was something the judges appreciated, instead of penalising for not falling within the bounds of traditional stand-up.
I just have to take a minute to drop everything and mention the show’s judges here. When I first heard about this show and its three judges, Kaneez Surka, Richa Chadda and Rohan Joshi, I was irritated to see that Joshi was one of the three because I thought it would be nice to have as many women as possible on a woman-centric show. I take it all back, I see why they needed him.
I’ll give Surka points for effort, but the less said about Chadda’s truly painful, wildly useless feedback (“Where do you live? I’m also from Ghaziabad. I’m looking forward to seeing more of you.”) the better. Joshi is the only judge who at least tries to offer the contestants meaningful advice, tips and feedback on their sets and the craft of stand up comedy. The judges’ feedback is consistently the biggest disappointment on the show so far, and Joshi is the panel’s only saving grace.
Still, Queens of Comedy is an entertaining watch, because the contestants are funny and it is interesting to see how women perform in a space that has traditionally dominated by men. It is fun seeing comics that look like you and move their hands around the way you do, and exciting to pick up inside jokes that you know men around you just will not get. And when you look around, you see that Indian women comics are already making it clear that they’re able and willing to experiment. While it is exciting enough to see more women entering stand-up, perhaps the real prize will be what women are able to do with comedy.
Co-published with Firstpost.