Sejal Bhat, one of the contestants on Comicstaan, a new Amazon Prime Original competitive stand-up comedy show, begins one of her performances by embodying a human penis. She described how a few penises have an “angry look”, and how fancily they have the ability to move on their own while using sound and her body to move like a penis on stage. She describes the anger of the penis as a “purple shade of black” and shrinks her body to form an “angry” penis. This had her audience rolling with laughter, and is just one of the many surprising moments we loved from the women’s performances on Comicstaan.
Now penises may be famously known to provide giggles, but have you ever heard anyone make actual funny jokes about sexual harassment, periods, or even #MeToo? Who jokes around about these things, right? Wrong. We’ve seen lots of serious discussions around these topics lately, but the Sejal Bhat, Aishwarya Mohanraj, and Prashasti Singh have done the impossible. These three women are stand-up comedians amongst 10 comedians in Comicstaan who are given a chance to learn from the best in the field of comedy and try to compete with each other. The comics on Comicstaan learn different genres of comedy, like topical comedy, observational comedy, and anecdotal comedy, from six of the most established stand-up comics in India, including Tanmay Bhatt, Biswa Kalyan Rath, and Kaneez Surka.
Right from their auditions, Prashasti, Sejal, and Aishwarya have chosen topics that are difficult to speak about, let alone to laugh about. Aishwarya and Sejal, in particular, have performed what can only be described as dark comedy in the four episodes that have been released on Amazon Prime thus far.
Over the last few months, #MeToo has turned into a wave that’s subsumed Facebook and Twitter. There were many people who trivialised this movement and made many, many unfunny jokes, memes, and Facebook pages about it, while either forgetting or ignoring what this movement represented. It is not okay to crack a sexual harassment joke when you don’t get what it is to be sexually harassed, and the point of your joke can’t be to trivialise a movement or an experience this important and serious.
Of course, where there’s #MeToo, there’s also #NotAllMen. Aishwarya Mohanraj from Mumbai, in her bit, talks about this very ego-friendly hashtag in one of her sets, discussing how “orgasmic” it is for women to know that #NotAllMen are sexual predators because women are by birth “idiots” to ignore this fact. The way she used the analogy of “drowning in a swimming pool and being afraid of all water bodies” is what took the cake. What simple logic it was to tell people that harassment, rape, or molestation by one man instils a disbelief or a fear in a woman’s mind about men in general.
Women don’t assume that all men are up to something, but when an instance of molestation happens to them, some women can’t help but fear the presence of men when they are all alone in some random street or even in public transport. Nobody likes to feel this way, but perhaps it’s the toll recurring sexual harassment has on the mind. This feeling just allows anger to build up, because apparently as “victims” we’re pitied and as “survivors” we’re restricted from moving freely.
Hannah Gadsby, in her moving stand-up special Nanette on Netflix, similarly talks about how she was beaten up by a homophobic man at the age of 17 and raped in her twenties, and how she fears men after that. Which is a difficult thing to somehow say but sadly, #NotAllMen understand it.
But this has never stopped men from cracking “rape jokes” or jokes around sexual harassment. Women, who have always been on the receiving end of these jokes, are usually asked to “take a chill pill” or are supplied with the infuriating #NotAllMen movement when they object to people cracking tasteless jokes around rape. These women in Comicstaan have turned the tables on these conventional jokesters and made everyone in society (or at least their audience) be at the receiving end of their unique and thought-provoking sexual harassment jokes. It is never easy to talk about things like getting flashed in public by a man just because he couldn’t control his hormones but it is more difficult to have experienced this in the first place.
In her audition round, Sejal from Bengaluru talks about how her first instance of witnessing a penis (not-voluntarily) was on a bus, where a man flashed her. The discomfort of the audience was embodied in their pin drop silence, to which she responded saying, “Mujhe nostalgia ho raha hai aur tum sad ho rahe ho?” (I feel nostalgic and you people are getting sad?) She didn’t leave it there but went on to her bit on what an angry penis looks like, and threw in an idea on how great it would be if we could generate electricity with these angry penises. She talks about an innovation where men’s penises are linked to some wire while they are masturbating, and electricity is generated, lighting up the bulb. An old aunty looks at it for the first time in her life and goes “bijli!” (giving us minor Swades flashbacks.)
In a few lines and with her off-beat, edgy performance, she turned flashing and toxic masculinity, both of which can be remarkably traumatising to experience, into a joke, and told us that this is what had happened to her, and we have to hear about it, whether it makes us uncomfortable or not. Hardly have we ever seen a woman just talk publicly about an instance where she was harassed, particularly outside of a legal framework, let alone make it funny and describe it to the many people watching her. This woman just changed this dark side of her life into a joke, which was enjoyable but also deeply, uncomfortably, thought-provoking.
These women have said on their sets that “women do undergo sexual harassment at some stage of their lives” which is true but, till date, most of the conversation around it, particularly in India, has been very serious, and also conducted in a way that firmly posits women as victims. And we know how victims are treated in our society. With their commanding performances, these women changed the tone and presented their stories in a way people couldn’t help but think deeply about, especially when they took such unexpected routes to comedy.
Many women in Hollywood are coming out to tell people about their stories of harassment by the most privileged men in society and people still don’t want to hear about it. They are still told that they are generalising and not all men are bad. True, not all men are bad, but can you tell us who are not? A list of names with their Aadhar cards might help.
It’s difficult to have suffered through trauma, harassment, or rape, or to be made to feel ashamed on staining you skirt in school when you got your first period, as mentioned by Aishwarya Mohanraj, but life goes on. People live with it every day and some people talk about it. The women on Comicstaan took to dark humour to tell a story and made people scratch their heads with a laugh while claiming this so-called “men’s territory.”
Hannah Gadsby says in Nanette that a question tenses the audience and an answer with a twist plus punchline makes the audience relax and enjoy the joke, but these stories are not to provide you with comfort because these are the realities of many women’s lives. So before you go ahead and save the next man from his crime, you think about Aishwarya, Sejal, and Prashasti.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.