An ode to improv comedy

And I got to interview the legend: Keith Johnstone

Improv comedy classes make for a funny family holiday in London

When my brother’s family and I decide to go to London together for two weeks, things threaten to quickly spiral out of control. Like most families, we have little in common in terms of interest. So we make a rule: each member of the entourage will be allowed to choose one activity. Everyone else has to participate, whether they like it or not.

There’s eight of us: my brother’s family and mine; four teenagers and four adults. My niece, 17, chose to visit St Paul’s Cathedral. We struggle up hundreds of steps to the Whispering Gallery, then walk up some more for fantastic views of London from the rotunda on top of the cathedral.

My husband, a political junkie, wants to visit the Houses of Parliament; which, all of us agree, turns out to be a great experience. The audio tour leads us through the House of Lords and the House of Commons. We learn about kings and commoners; pomp and circumstance; and how laws are drawn up.

My brother, an erstwhile sailor, chooses to visit the National Maritime Museum; the rest of us go along for the ride. It’s interesting to observe sailing routes and ships through his eyes. It teaches us about Britain’s maritime ­history, but also reveals an aspect of my brother’s life that none of us knew.

My younger daughter, 14, wants to visit Stratford-upon-­Avon, since her class was studying Shakespeare. As the town is 160 kilometres away from London, it takes a day and results in us quibbling about how long each chosen activity could be.

My nephew, 15, the only boy amid three girls, wants to cap each activity at two hours, so he can get back to his beloved ­videogames. Instead of choosing an activity, he asks for a veto. He wants to reduce the number of activities; stay home, watch cricket on TV and play with his PlayStation 3. His request is ­denied by the adults. He chooses Hyde Park under duress, but says he doesn’t really care if we go or not.

My elder daughter, fresh from a brutal first year in engineering school in the United States, just wants to sleep. Also under duress, she chooses kayaking on the Thames, but we couldn’t fulfil this obligation – it rains on the day we schedule this activity. So we go to Harrods and Topshop, which is fine with the girls.

My sister-in-law wants to visit Wimbledon, where her ­family had lived for some years. It’s fun to take a trip down memory lane, visit their flat, now rented by South Africans, and wander in and out of the shops.

I choose comedy improvisational classes. Like it or not, I decide, we’re going to return from our holiday with the ability to make people laugh; or at least ourselves laugh. We’re going to be a funny family.

When you think of improvisational comedy, two locations come to mind: Chicago, where the famous Second City theatre troupe and teaching programme is based; and London, where Keith Johnstone, the father of improvisation and author of the seminal book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, began his career. Johnstone is still a legend in London, even though he now lives in Canada. Every improv teacher I encounter talks about him and wear lessons from him as a badge of honour. “Keith invented improvisational comedy as we know it,” says Jules Munns, our first teacher.

London is full of institutions offering drop-in classes – from singing to storytelling; dancing to DJing; improvisational comedy to acting lessons. My situation is complicated by the fact that we’re a group; and not all of us are passionate about improv. Dragging the whole gang to lessons all over London is simply unfeasible. I need a teacher who can come to us. To my surprise, I find several institutions that offer private lessons in improvisational comedy. Not all of them fit into my budget and I end up zoning in on two: The Nursery and City Academy.

Munns is the artistic director of The Nursery (www.thenurserytheatre.com), a nurturing environment where all kinds of funky classes, including the Feldenkrais Method, are taught. Its website is worth visiting. It has interesting podcasts and interviews with professionals, including Patti Stiles, another legend in this field.

I cold-email Munns asking if he will take a private class for us. He agrees because he thinks it’s “cool” to teach a large extended family. Munns typically charges £75-100 (Dh428-571) per hour for private lessons, but being his first “family” clients, gives us a discount.

We arrive at The Nursery on a cold, wet London morning. Situated near London Bridge on a busy street, this establishment hosts improvisation classes every week; and drop-in classes three times a week. Anyone with a passing interest in improv can take a class, pretty much at the last minute, if they’re passing through London.

We’re in a medium-size room with chairs. Another class is ­taking place in the next room, ­although most sessions happen at 7pm.

Like most comedians, Munns is preternaturally observant. Within minutes of arrival, he notices my gangly nephew likes to lean against the wall as a way of distracting attention from his height; that the girls don’t make eye contact; that I easily feel cold. We stand in a circle to ostensibly introduce ourselves, except with a twist. We have to point to a person and say our name instead of their name. Simple as it sounds, it’s difficult for the mind to process. After warming us up, Munns introduces us to one of the core ­concepts of improv: the “yes, and…” Along the way, he passes along life lessons and wisdom. Improv is somewhat like Buddhism, he says. You accept things as they come to you and build upon it; rather than rejecting what someone says.

This works in life as well as in corporate settings. When a colleague offers a suggestion, the natural inclination – one that we’re all trained to do through years of schooling where we’re taught to think critically – is to view each suggestion with scepticism. This critical eye can impinge on creativity – unless you’re a Picasso or Mozart. Improv, we discover, is all about silencing the voices in our head that tell us to view each environment with wariness. Instead, we’re forced to jump joyfully into each situation and celebrate it.

We’re paired into random couples. The instruction is simple: we each have to say something. No matter how nonsensical it sounds, the other person has to begin their sentence with: “Yes, and…” And build on it. After a few iterations, we loosen up enough to make up narratives that are silly and fantastic. One goes like this:

“Let us go to the mall today.”

“Yes, and let us buy the entire building.”

“Yes, and let us transport the building to Zimbabwe.”

“Yes, and let us buy some rhinos along the way.”

Munns tells us to “commit” to the statement; to say it with conviction. We try to stay in character, but all of us are laughing along the way. Munns wraps up each exercise by saying “scene” – theatre shorthand for “let’s close the scene”.

We try variations of this exercise. One is that we should speak only questions. Each person’s statement has to be a question; and each response has to be a question as well. Another variation is “yes, but…”, in which each response has to start with that phrase. We learn that questioning each other or doubting each other with a “yes, but…” makes the conversation fall apart within a few minutes. There’s no humour in that model. We end the lesson with improvisational sketches that each pair took part in while the rest watched. After each sketch, Munns offers us encouraging and instructional feedback.

This pattern continues with Kate Smurthwaite, our next teacher. A slim, smiling woman, Smurthwaite is an instructor at City Academy (www.city-academy.com), which offers a veritable feast of classes besides improv, including singing, dancing, writing and filmmaking, at a variety of locations. It offers short courses, as well as private lessons for groups. Charges vary depending on the instructor and location. Drop-ins are allowed with prior consent.

Smurthwaite is a bit of a celebrity in London, both for her comedy acts and political activism. She was on the panel at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and gives talks on improvisation at senior citizen centres, prisons and ­colleges.

In rapid succession, Smurthwaite runs us through a series of games. We stand in a circle and tell a story. Each person is allowed one word. This is both liberating and constraining, because each of us want the story to progress in a certain way, except the person next to us takes it in a whole new direction. Improvisation, I begin to understand, is all about giving up control. You can’t control the narrative; you have to build it together by staying loose and paying attention.

The more advanced lessons involve theatrical sketches. My favourite is called Interview. Two of us sit on a couch, while the rest act as interviewers. We’re “experts” on crazy, silly things, such as panda football or inkblot paintings. The two experts have to answer questions using the same format of a word per person. Smurthwaite begins proceedings.

“We want to welcome the two professors, who are experts in sunflower genocide, on the show,” she says. “Why do you think sunflowers are used for genocide, as opposed to other flowers?”

Off we go, the two of us sitting on the couch. “Sunflowers… are… flowers… with… yellow… petals… that… are… poisonous.”

A similar game is called Translator. Two people sit on the couch and speak a nonsensical language. Others interview them. The pair are experts on an esoteric subject such as Frankincense architecture or desert art. The expert answers in passionate mumbo-jumbo. The translator gives a spin to the answer. Each of us play a part in building humour: we try to ask crazy questions; the expert uses the limited mumbo-jumbo resources open to them by using their body in a more expressive way – to control the message and get their point across; the translator effectively sabotages the expert’s message by making it their own, translating it into whatever they want. By the end of the afternoon, we’re confident, curious, loose and full of laughter. Smurthwaite and I share a drink after, and she’s generous with her advice about how to attempt stand-up. “Try to pair opposites together,” she says.

When I return to Bangalore, I’m so inspired by the pleasures of improv that I call Keith Johnstone. He has retired to Canada. I find his email on his website (www.keithjohnstone.com) and write to him. A few emails later, I enjoy a Skype call with the legend. I’m tongue-tied at first; then describe my nascent interest in improv and ask him how I can jump-start it. Is there any advice he can give readers about how to become better at improv?

“Start with the fear,” says Johnstone. “You have to find situations where you are not afraid to go on stage – to warm yourself up. If you are trying to be funny, you will be afraid. You should go on stage not to be funny but to form relationships with the other performers. And, I suppose, the audience. If you walk on stage trying to be your best, you will fail. I think you should walk on stage trying to be average; then you will learn quicker.”

In other words, don’t be a perfectionist; don’t aim for the stars; don’t try to be funny. Instead, be yourself, be average and address your fears.

weekend@thenational.ae

Puns. ‘Nuff said.

Thanks to a FB group called The Punnery, I can now make really bad puns even in my sleep. Here’s how I became a convert.

With a ‘pundit’ husband, you might as well join the fun
Shoba Narayan
May 20, 2013

Read more: http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/with-a-pundit-husband-you-might-as-well-join-the-fun#ixzz2TnL0ebG1
Follow us: @TheNationalUAE on Twitter | thenational.ae on Facebook
My husband, Ram, is an inveterate punster.
Yes, I have heard it all before: He is a “pundit” and not a “punter.” It has taken me 20 years to learn to say that without blanching.
The problem with puns, as I keep telling Ram, is that they exclude. The person who delivers the pun feels clever, but the listeners may feel like fools if they don’t catch on.
Puns rely on wit and a sharp mind to be successful. The way to respond to a pun is by punning it back, which is difficult for normal people to do. Most people don’t think of twisting words, using irony and tricks of sound. They quickly run out of steam.
When you listen to a joke, you guffaw. If the joke is good, the laugh is involuntary. It doesn’t take much work.
But when you listen to a pun, you have one of four reactions: you understand it and retort quickly; you get the pun and scratch your head for an appropriate comeback; the pun completely passes you by; or you get the pun and feel annoyed that the person is delivering a pun when you are in the middle of a grocery line, feeling cranky.
Humour is embracing; puns are not. Jokes often seek the lowest common denominator. Puns are elitist. They are the product of intellect and not the gut.
There is a reason puns are most popular among the people who invented the language being used. With puns, you have to own the language in a way that slapstick or standup do not demand.
With a pun you cannot use gesture, parody, or the sound of Julia Child’s voice (high falsetto, for those who don’t know) to get people to laugh. Jokes rely on delivery more than content. Think of the deadpan voice or the use of a certain gesture or the perfect pause before the punch line. Puns don’t use any of those vehicles for their verbal punch.
With puns, it is all about words. With puns, the person who delivers the line chortles with amusement and the chances that you can be equally quick with a punning response are usually slim.
In case you haven’t guessed, I dislike puns. Make that the past tense. I disliked puns until very recently.
For our 20th wedding anniversary I decided to give my husband a present that would be a true symbol of how much I valued the state of our union: I decided to participate in two activities that he loves but that I don’t much care for: cricket and puns. And since I am not particularly bowled over by watching a cricket match, I decided that I would begin with the puns.
A Facebook group called The Punnery helped me along. With close to 10,000 members, all of whom seem rabidly into punning, this group is a great place to start- if you must,
“When in Rome, you must roam,” said the beginning of one thread. “The food is so good, I am glad-i-ate-tor,” said a response. “All the ancient history will Caes-ar (seize your) mind.” And so it went. I have to admit that once I got into it, words loosened up and danced around for me.
I discovered that the trick about delivering puns is to be imaginative, have a good sense of current affairs and history, and develop a good vocabulary.
There is one more thing that helps if you want to enjoy puns. Try them out over dinner, particularly with your children.
Over one Italian meal, I sat with four children: my two daughters, my niece and nephew. We had a “punathon” where someone just started with one line and the others carried on. It was like word-building on steroids. I was surprised at how quickly the children picked up the idea of the game. They were all between 12 and 16 years of age; I would argue that anyone has to be in that age group, or older, to appreciate puns. Before that, I find, kids enjoy jokes, particularly if they have to do with body parts and sounds.
Puns require verbal sophistication and that happens with maturity. Don’t count on it, though.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Hilarious piece on hypochondria

Written as only Woody Allen can.

Hypochondria:

An Inside Look

By Woody Allen,  New York Times

Sunday Review,  January 12, 2013

 

 

WHEN The New York Times called, inquiring if I might pen a few words “from the horse’s mouth” about hypochondria, I confess I was taken aback. What light could I possibly shed on this type of crackpot behavior since, contrary to popular belief, I am not a hypochondriac but a totally different genus of crackpot?

 

What I am is an alarmist, which is in the same ballpark as the hypochondriac or, should I say, the same emergency room. Still there is a fundamental difference. I don’t experience imaginary maladies — my maladies are real.

 

What distinguishes my hysteria is that at the appearance of the mildest symptom, let’s say chapped lips, I instantly leap to the conclusion that the chapped lips indicate a brain tumor. Or maybe lung cancer. In one instance I thought it was Mad Cow.

 

The point is, I am always certain I’ve come down with something life threatening. It matters little that few people are ever found dead of chapped lips. Every minor ache or pain sends me to a doctor’s office in need of reassurance that my latest allergy will not require a heart transplant, or that I have misdiagnosed my hives and it’s not possible for a human being to contract elm blight.

 

Unfortunately, my wife bears the brunt of these pathological dramas. Like the time I awoke at 3 a.m. with a spot on my neck that to me clearly had the earmarks of a melanoma. That it turned out to be a hickey was confirmed only later at the hospital after much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Sitting at an ungodly hour in the emergency room where my wife tried to talk me down, I was making my way through the five stages of grief and was up to either “denial” or “bargaining” when a young resident fixed me with a rather supercilious eye and said sarcastically, “Your hickey is benign.”

 

But why should I live in such constant terror? I take great care of myself. I have a personal trainer who has me up to 50 push-ups a month, and combined with my knee bends and situps, I can now press the 100-pound barbell over my head with only minimal tearing of my stomach wall. I never smoke and I watch what I eat, carefully avoiding any foods that give pleasure. (Basically, I adhere to the Mediterranean diet of olive oil, nuts, figs and goat cheese, and except for the occasional impulse to become a rug salesman, it works.) In addition to yearly physicals I get all available vaccines and inoculations, making me immune to everything from Whipple’s disease to the Andromeda strain.

 

As far as vitamins go, if I take a few with each meal, over time I can usually get in quite a lot before the latest study confirms they’re worthless. Regarding medications, I’m flexible but prudent because while it’s true antibiotics kill bad bacteria, I’m always afraid they’ll kill my good bacteria, not to mention my pheromones, and then I won’t give off any sexual vibes in a crowded elevator.

 

It’s also true that when I leave the house to go for a stroll in Central Park or to Starbucks for a latte I might just pick up a quick cardiogram or CT scan prophylactically. My wife calls this nonsense and says that in the end it’s all genetic. My parents both lived to ripe old ages but absolutely refused to pass their genes to me as they believed an inheritance often spoils the child.

 

Even when the results of my yearly checkup show perfect health, how can I relax knowing that the minute I leave the doctor’s office something may start growing in me and, by the time a full year rolls around, my chest X-ray will look like a Jackson Pollock? Incidentally, this relentless preoccupation with health has made me quite the amateur medical expert. Not that I don’t make an occasional mistake — but what doctor doesn’t? For example, I once convinced a woman who experienced a mild ringing in her ears that she had the flesh-eating bacteria, and another time I pronounced a man dead who had simply dozed off in a chair.

 

But what’s this obsession with personal vulnerability? When I panic over symptoms that require no more than an aspirin or a little calamine lotion, what is it I’m really frightened of? My best guess is dying. I have always had an animal fear of death, a fate I rank second only to having to sit through a rock concert. My wife tries to be consoling about mortality and assures me that death is a natural part of life, and that we all die sooner or later. Oddly this news, whispered into my ear at 3 a.m., causes me to leap screaming from the bed, snap on every light in the house and play my recording of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” at top volume till the sun comes up.

 

I sometimes imagine that death might be more tolerable if I passed away in my sleep, although the reality is, no form of dying is acceptable to me with the possible exception of being kicked to death by a pair of scantily clad cocktail waitresses.

 

Perhaps if I were a religious person, which I am not, although I sometimes do have the intimation that we all may be part of something larger — like a Ponzi scheme. A great Spanish philosopher wrote that all humans long for “the eternal persistence of consciousness.” Not an easy state to maintain, especially when you’re dining with people who keep talking about their children.

 

And yet, there are worse things than death. Many of them playing at a theater near you. For instance, I would not like to survive a stroke and for the rest of my life talk out of the side of my mouth like a racetrack tout. I would also not like to go into a coma, to lie in a hospital bed where I’m not dead but can’t even blink my eyes and signal the nurse to switch the channel from Fox News. And incidentally, who’s to say the nurse isn’t one of those angel of death crazies who hates to see people suffer and fills my intravenous glucose bag with Exxon regular.

 

Worse than death, too, is to be on life support listening to my loved ones in a heated debate over whether to terminate me and hear my wife say, “I think we can pull the plug, it’s been 15 minutes and we’ll be late for our dinner reservation.”

 

What worries me most is winding up a vegetable — any vegetable, and that includes corn, which under happier circumstances I rather like. And yet is it really so great to live forever? Sometimes in the news I see features about certain tall people who reside in snow-capped regions where a whole village population lives to 140 or so. Of course all they ever eat is yogurt, and when they finally do die they are not embalmed but pasteurized. And don’t forget these healthy people walk everyplace because try getting a cab in the Himalayas. I mean do I really want to pass my days in some remote place where the main entertainment is seeing which guy in town can lift the ox highest with his bare hands?

 

Summing up, there are two distinct groups, hypochondriacs and alarmists. Both suffer in their own ways, and traits of one group may overlap the other, but whether you’re a hypochondriac or an alarmist, at this point in time, either is probably better than being a Republican.

 

Woody Allen is a filmmaker, actor and writer.

Shazia Mirza

 
Mirza takes on all the taboos about Islam and flips them around as jokes. She tells us what we are thinking, with a punchline

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Posted: Fri, Aug 3 2012. 9:13 PM IST

The reason comedienne Shazia Mirza, 36, is important is not only because she is hilarious, which she is. There are many other funny women. Comic Shappi Khorsandimakes fun of her Iranian heritage in her British accent. Kazumi Kusano talks about her breasts and other Japanese unmentionables in her baby-girl Japanese voice. Margaret Cho and Gina Yashere don’t play the obvious race card and joke, instead, about lesbians or psychics. Sarah Silverman uses her Jewish faith as a segue to sex and porn. And Joan Rivers’ routine of an expletive-spewing mother who screams at her daughter for turning down Playboy magazine will make any wannabe-comic mother wish she were that cool or looked that good after menopause.

 

Comic timing: Shazia Mirza, comedienne, shops for a maang tikka. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Comic timing: Shazia Mirza, comedienne, shops for a maang tikka. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

 

Mirza is different. She takes on all the taboos about Islam and flips them around as jokes. She tells us what we are thinking, with a punchline. She pokes fun at stereotypes that link Muslims with terrorism and she does this with razor-sharp comic timing (no pun intended). She became famous in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings when she said: “My name is Shazia Mirza. At least, that’s what it says on my pilot’s licence.” Today, she goes all over the world doing routines about how no Muslim man will marry her “because I speak”, and about how her mum walks five paces behind her father “because he looks better from behind”, and about how Muslim women now walk ahead of their husbands “because of the landmines”, and about how a Muslim vagina is different from a normal one. You’ll have to watch her live for that. She doesn’t like putting up her shows on YouTube, because “look what happened to Russell Peters. All his material is on YouTube and now he can never repeat his jokes on live shows.” 

Mirza and I are buying bangles at Commercial Street, Bangalore. She is in town for her India tour, organized by Bangalore-based Ajit Saldanha as part of his ongoing effort to bring quality comedy to India. Mirza has played to packed houses in Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai, but curiously, not in Delhi or Mumbai. She opened her Bangalore gig at The Park hotel, where 185 screaming fans enjoyed her ethnic identity jokes that questioned everything from atheism to arranged marriage.

Of Pakistani heritage, Mirza was born and raised in England. She has a high forehead and the clear skin that comes either from good genes or frequent glycolic acid peels. Her eyes are wide and inquiring and look delighted when she smiles. A prolific columnist, writer and comic, she began her life as a science teacher. Comedy was an accident, she says. She was in a humour-writing class and the teacher saw her material and suggested she do stand-up. She now makes it to top 10 lists and is viewed as a veteran.

The first place she wants to go to in Bangalore is the post office. We wait in line and talk about her method. Writing comedy is serious work, she says. Most comics aren’t funny in real life. They are observant and have a gift for connecting disparate dots and quirky occurrences into a cogent routine that ends with a punch line. “Good comedy is about telling the truth about your life,” Mirza says. “Are you angry about something? Sad about something? That’s your material. Comedy is about feelings.” And sex.

 

Shazia shops for bangles at Commercial Street, Bangalore. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Shazia shops for bangles at Commercial Street, Bangalore. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

 

“Five rupees,” says the post office cashier. 

Mirza takes the stamp and sticks it on the envelope. It is addressed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi. Why, I ask, is she writing to the prime minister of India? “It’s an appeal from one of the charities I support,” she replies.

Wastu (waste), madam,” says the spectacled cashier, glancing at the envelope.

We post the letter anyway.

At Commercial Street, a beggar hobbles on a cane with a cycle bell on top. Mirza hams around in a maang tikka, which makes her look like a Mughal princess. Later, at Woody’s, over some mango lassi, she talks about being a woman comic. “I don’t hold back,” she says. “For example, Varun (the man who opens her act) will talk about how men will sleep with anyone. That’s a man thing. I give the view from the inside. And the women in my audience love it. They like to see someone who reflects their lives.”

Stand-up is gaining ground in India, admittedly with very few women comics. Neeti Palta is funny—her writing more so than her delivery. Aditi Mittal can be funny. Outlets such as The Comedy Store and The Bombay Elektrik Projekt allow amateur comics to practise their material. In Bangalore, clubs and restaurants such as Urban Solace and Kyra host comedy nights.

India and Pakistan, says Mirza, are the last frontiers of stand-up comedy. She talks about her shows in Lahore and gives examples of her routines: about how her mother set her up with a 51-year-old Muslim man with six children who agreed to “consider her because she was a comedienne and therefore ‘bottom of the barrel’”. She has a whole routine about this arranged meeting with the elderly racist Muslim gent. Her delivery is casual but her comic timing is instinctive and precise. Her Muslim identity is the butt of many of her jokes.

Doesn’t she get death threats? “No, because I don’t make fun of religion, only people,” she says seriously. Her eyes wander. She takes photos. That afternoon, she is being taken to the races. What advice does she have for budding comics, I ask. “Write about your life,” she says. “Obviously make it funny because otherwise everyone will be crying because everyone’s lives are quite sad.”

Shazia Mirza, ladies and gentlemen.

Shoba Narayan admires Shazia Mirza. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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