Comedy Improv

This one goes in my Comedy folder

 As 2012 kicks in, it is time to think of resolutions to make and keep. Philosopher Robert Nozick called it “The Examined Life”. After examining mine, I came up with three goals: to be more disciplined; to remember not to forget; and to become funny. The last one is somewhat pathetic because I have resolved to become funny for the last five years. Clearly, I haven’t made much progress. You readers may know me as a writer, but what I really am is a comic trapped in a householder’s body. The day I start earning money from stand-up is the day I will quit all my other gigs and go into the business full-time. It will take me years, maybe a lifetime. I may be the first octogenarian, wrinkled, walker-carrying, almost incontinent comic—and that’s me trying to be funny; and now you know why it will take a lifetime. But hey, what do I have to lose?

For years, this comic desire remained latent. Now, it has become a full-blown obsession. I watch stand-up acts on YouTube continually, try to create jokes in my head and look for material everywhere I go. I tried forming an improvisational comedy group in Bangalore. For the first meeting held over a relaxed lunch at Ebony, I invited a few people I thought were funny. None of us had any idea how to do “comedy improv” but we all agreed that “hot snacks and hard liquor” were a must for all subsequent meetings. I disbanded the group right after, not because of the pressure of providing serious sustenance to this comic crew, but because the people I had invited were highly accomplished. One was the country’s leading architect, whose swearing could make a sailor blush. Others were CEOs and entrepreneurs who had created and sold companies. These were high achievers whose time was extremely valuable. Here I was, trying to get them to do comedy. What was I thinking? I had violated the first cardinal rule of creating a comedy troupe: Gather around jobless losers like thyself. I mean that as a compliment. Read on.

Role models: The brilliant cast of Seinfeld. Photo by AFP

Role models: The brilliant cast of Seinfeld. Photo by AFP

Doing comedy takes time. Watch any Judd Apatow movie and you’ll know what I mean. Most comics are guys in boxer shorts, who lie on the couch, eat popcorn and come up with one-liners. In order to do comedy, you have to either be a loser or aspire to be a loser. George Costanza ofSeinfeld is my model. I am a loser trapped in a householder’s body. Worse, I am a wannabe loser. The pressure of creating comedy with successful people was too much. I couldn’t handle it.

That’s the other thing. Comedy requires you to make imaginative, strange associations that are original and spot on. It requires quick thinking. For example, how would you finish this sentence: Doing improv with successful people is like… What? The trick to being funny is to come up with such analogies quickly. Doing improv with successful people is like playing ping-pong with Rafael Nadal? Nah. Not funny enough. I come up with such analogies throughout the day. Except that it is hours after I actually need to use them. Mumbai during the monsoon is like…what? A pregnant woman with PMS? Sorry, that’s really bad; factually incorrect and in poor taste. But that’s the best I could come up with on the spot and I am a feminist. But come up with a clever, funny analogy. I dare you. Munnabhai could have; but then he had scriptwriters for help.

Being a comic involves boldness. For a woman, that’s doubly hard because we are socially conditioned to maintain the peace. We like to be liked, which is probably why Christopher Hitchens wrote his essay, Why Women Aren’t Funny. I hated that piece. But abrasiveness doesn’t come naturally to women. I’ll grant Hitchens that, God rest his soul.

Birthday parties are the worst. They are full of elegant mummies in flowery summer dresses, carrying Fendi, wearing Prada, sipping champagne, and smiling serenely—the perfect audience, in other words, to ruffle a few feathers. To combat this urge, I make up scenarios. What will happen, I wonder, if I stroll up to that acquaintance with blown-out hair, channel my inner Aziz Ansari, and say, “Do you think a 700-thread count sheet will absorb body odour or repel it?” But, of course, I don’t say these things. I wimp out. I need a new social circle, I tell myself; populated by socially awkward losers (and again, I mean that as a compliment) where I can mouth all the lines that enter my head without fear of repercussion. There are people who do that. We call them weird.

Tina Fey is among the few successful comediennes. Photo by Andreas Rentz/ Getty Images.

Tina Fey is among the few successful comediennes. Photo by Andreas Rentz/ Getty Images.

Amateur comedians use swear words and scatological jokes as anchor. I find them extremely funny, but I have a juvenile sense of humour. Wit takes practice because it is subtle. Last week, I watched a superb theatre production of A Man for all Seasons. I went because a friend was acting in it, but what struck me was the script in which Sir Thomas More delivers line after witty line—sotto voce and sans expression, with great comic timing. If wit is hard, self-disparaging wit is almost impossible. I know one couple who have this—my cousins Urvashi and Narayan Mani, who live in Delhi and work in IT (he does. She paints). Their wit is so good, it’s disgusting. I stare at them with barely disguised envy and wince every time they deliver line after comic line. Man, it hurts.

I have found help in the most unexpected quarter: memory books. NotMoonwalking with Einstein, which I found opportunistic, but the old classic, The Memory Book by Jerry Lucas and Harry Lorayne. They talk about using word associations to improve memory. To remember a list, you have to make up imaginative images—your grandmother running naked through a field of corn is a good one—that will remain etched in memory. Trying out this rule has a happy bonus. Forcing your imagination to form random associations helps with forming strange analogies and similes. They aren’t all good, but they are a start. Here’s a go: Attending fashion week is like… faking an orgasm? All air kisses and fake sighs? Attending a Delhi farmhouse party is like sleepwalking with Einstein? I know, I know. I have miles to go before I can sleepwalk or do stand-up.

If you really want something, the universe conspires for you to get it; and no, I haven’t been reading Paulo Coelho. Last week, I got an email from a stranger called Nisha. She had trained in comedy all over Europe and wanted to join a comedy improve troupe. Promptly, I asked her to be my guru. Now, I just need to figure out the hot snacks and hard liquor; not to mention wannabe jobless losers like myself.

Thank you (spoken in a Johnny Carson-like voice to the sound of imagined applause). Thank you very much.

Shoba Narayan has discovered that when she speaks Hindi, people burst out laughing. She cannot figure out whether to be insulted, or awed that someone actually finds her funny. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com