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This comic can't stand up to it

His jokes couldn't hold a candle to those of Jay Leno. Ashwin Mathews' act caters to the lowest common denominator relishing in the f-word.

— Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Ashwin Mathews going full steam. — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

THINK OF a stand-up comic as a canary. In simpler times, miners would take down canaries in cages, because the presence of even minute traces of poisonous gas would reach the birds first, giving the miners time to scramble back to safety. A stand-up comic tells a society very quickly and effectively about the presence of unseen changes. Thus a Woody Allen joke about alienation and rejection wrenches a laugh out of his audience as he reminds them about their increasing loneliness. The TV equivalent, Jay Leno, typically reminds viewers about the lunatic element in imperial real-politic: a suggestion that American tax money could be better spent in America receives wholehearted approval from the Commander-in-Chief and plans are immediately drawn up to bomb Ohio!

What would a stand-up comic in India reflect? To answer this question, we went to hear Ashwin Mathews at Sparks, the pub. In his 40-minute act, roughly one-third of the words were one word, the F word repeated over and over again — as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, even, in one inspired flight of fertile imagination, a gerund. The audience rocked with laughter. Not for this rebellious younger generation the genteel repression or delicate avoidance of scatology that governs all middle-class Indian families — fouler the language, louder the laughter. Actually, humour was an afterthought; clearly the audience revelled in the language and vocabulary that was forbidden at home. The choice of subject was elegant in its simplicity: to paraphrase Henry Ford, it could be any subject provided it was sex. And as the comic warmed to his subject, his body language grew more graphic, the pelvic thrusts more vigorous, and the laughter rose to greater heights.

Regional accent parodies went down well. The film comic Mehmood's brand of broad slapstick is alive and well. Some of the jokes were old chestnuts in the '60s in boys' schools. They went down well. Others have been floating around the Internet and are generally filtered out by those who are touchy about how they use bandwidth. All was acceptable.

Spotted in one corner was Bangalore's very own coffee maven, now a strategy consultant, Harish Bijoor. He has seen stand-up comics in the world's leading capitals, in acts that can only be termed classy and sophisticated. "The shows there do not rely solely on sexual innuendo, like this act. This seems to be custom-made for the young audience here and is high on shock value. The absence of any voice modulation, facial expression, or refinement in the body language makes this show very different from what I have seen overseas. This one really caters to the lowest common denominator and lacks the professional quality of similar acts I have sat through abroad," he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, 20-year old Trisha loved the act. This kind of humour is popular among male adolescents until they reach their late teens and discover wit. So, what part of the evening got the audience turned on? And which part of the audience? Young Trishna summed it up in a few, expressive phrases. She enjoyed the openness of the language, hearing normally forbidden words with lewd jokes and graphic descriptions. The young women were laughing the hardest; their beaus had heard it all years before.

The gratified manager of the pub explained the showbiz part of it. The fickle loyalties of his very young clientele had to be nursed with the novel, the unusual. Each pub had its own short moment of glory before being abandoned for the current fad or attraction. Every pub tried, therefore, to give their audience that little extra something, which would keep packing the chairs. The standard elements were all there; techno music, dispensed by a satisfactorily coiffed, gelled and pierced DJ, lots to eat and drink, a hankie-sized dance floor, and the air thick with smoke - tobacco, one hastens to add. Besides the comic act, there was a quiz (not on the same evening); was it on liquor and food? No, it seemed; it was on general knowledge. Indeed.

Ashwin Mathews did part of a performing arts course at Sydney, but finished a radio and TV course. While he was working in a Sydney restaurant, his employers zeroed in on his talents to pull in customers by doing a comedy routine.

Later, working in Cyprus, he honed his skills further. After returning to his roots in Bangalore, he unleashed his brand of humour Friday nights at Sparks.

But don't get him wrong. Behind this comic façade lurks a serious, thinking filmmaker, whose only passion is to make a film — not English, but a meaningful Malayalam one.

Till then, it has to be routines like the one at Sparks.

SANDHYA IYENGAR

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