Karthik Kumar: If you don’t like a joke, just walk away
The stand-up comedian Karthik Kumar, talks about his latest set for Amazon Funnies and touches upon topics like social media abuse and casteism accusations about the standup space
We have seen Karthik Kumar joke about almost everything—from politics and cinema to smaller details about himself like how the 'H' in his name disappears when he goes to the North to perform. But if we were to take a deeper look into how his comedy has evolved, it's apparent that his jokes have turned quite… serious. This is particularly evident in his latest work, Amazon Funnies, in which he is one of 14 comedians, having performed for Amazon Prime a 10-minute set titled Trollerance.
Excerpts from the conversation:
What’s your set about?
Trollerance is about trolling and tolerance. It’s also about the precarious situation we, as comedians, and as members of this society, find ourselves in today. We lead digital lives and we are different people online. We are activists, we are angry and we have more opinion than we exercise in the real world. Comedians are often at the receiving end of such aggression. This piece talks about this new digital world.
Was the ten-minute duration limiting? What was it like to perform without an audience?
It was peculiar and the fact that we are not punctuating jokes with audience’s laughter gave me the opportunity to focus on the writing rather than on the performance. It’s as much a think piece as it is meant to be a humorous piece. The jokes are more a catalyst to take you through the piece.
How safe is it for comedians to have strong opinions today?
Absolutely unsafe (laughs). That's what my piece is about. We discus sensitive topics and we face the brunt of the attacks. We all want laughter, but laughter comes when you question the norm. You can't make 2,000 jokes about people tripping over a banana. Comedy is meant to be disruptive. It's high time we, comedians, get used to this culture.
Is this outrage why comedians here hesitate to take on the powers that be, unlike their Western counterparts?
It is happening but not significantly. In live shows, comedians are more opinionated, but when it comes to the digital medium, we think a hundred times because here, the violence that we face is extreme. We get threats to our life sometimes. I think we need to be careful, and over a period of time, become less afraid.
Your comedy, and the stand-up scene in Tamil Nadu to an extent, is sometimes criticised of being casteist.
To think of something as casteist is the most casteist thing in the world. When a person talks about their caste, if a listener perceives that as being superior or inferior, then that's the issue. When I say black is black, I am not saying it's good or bad. To be ignorant about caste is a crime because that's pretending to be dumb. But to think of a caste as being superior is in the mind of the consumer. My industry has comics across caste, religion, language… The fact that certain people think it's not so, is their ignorance. Whoever says that has an agenda. We should divorce ourselves from their agenda and focus on our art.
If I talk pro-government or against it, it does not mean I am either for or against the government. You cannot attach a comic to a certain opinion as they hold that opinion as a clown does. You can’t dub a clown as being a Christian, Hindu or Muslim. A clown is anything he wants to be that moment, and could well deny it the next day. Sure, we are not infallible. The beauty of comedians is our fallibility and vulnerability. Laugh at the jokes if you like them. If you don’t, walk away.
Your actual persona and your stand-up avatar seem to be different...
(smiles) I want to merge them. I am starting to think about making jokes about certain topics I don’t touch. The Amazon piece is in that direction. My last show, Blood Chutney, talks about mental health, social media trolling, shaming, our political situation… These are serious topics that one cannot be funny about easily, and if you can, then the comedy becomes powerful. I am getting older as a person and I am no longer finding silliness funny. I am finding serious stuff to be funny. I find the pandemic hilarious, the government's treatment of it to be hilarious, and the issues of the day to be hilarious.
What topics do you refrain from joking about?
I try not to talk about topics that will hurt certain people, but I would not like to not mention those topics. It's like walking on the edge of a sword. That's where comedy exists. Comedy can cut you and at the same time, make you laugh. I find young artistes talk about their first girlfriend, toxic relationships and so on... They are getting meaningful with their comedy.
You are coming up with your directorial debut in Tamil.
I'm halfway through, and hope to see it in theatres. Else, you will find it on a meaningful OTT platform. It's a sweet, adorable comedy about five old people who look at life differently and wonder why they can’t become superheroes. I have a stand-up special due for Amazon in 2020 but I think it will come out only in 2021 (laughs). As of now, I am spending a quarter of my day writing standup, another quarter doing post-production work on my film, the third quarter writing my second film and the final one wondering what the hell am I doing with my life.