Do Comedians Need Lawyers? Aishwarya Mohanraj And Karunesh Talwar On Censorship In Comedy

The stand-up comedians talk about getting back on stage after lockdown and adapting to the digital space
Do Comedians Need Lawyers? Aishwarya Mohanraj And Karunesh Talwar On Censorship In Comedy

As with most industries, last year was a challenging time for India's comedy scene. The pandemic brought stand-up to a standstill, with many comics using the time to build their social media followings. With the stand-up scene up and running again, comedians Aishwarya Mohanraj and Karunesh Talwar talk about getting back on stage after lockdown, adapting to the digital space and why comedians need a lawyer on hand at all times.

Edited Excerpts:

After a very strange year, how does it feel to be back on stage again now that things are up and running? Is it weird to perform to a sea of masks?

Karunesh Talwar: See, whatever version of stand-up that we get to perform right now is just incredible. I don't remember what it felt like to perform in an auditorium with 500 people anymore, but I am  used to this new version of it and I'm just incredibly grateful. I remember the first show I did after the lockdown. It was me and a couple of comics and after getting off the stage we were delirious, like we were drunk. It was insane. I am just happy it exists in whatever shape or form. I will just get on Instagram to sell something to try to bring in the money that touring used to bring in, and I'll keep performing for a socially distanced group of 50 people. But I just want this to exist.

Aishwarya Mohanraj: That's literally how I feel. It's exactly like Karunesh said because since the time I started performing it's been only stand-up for me. Unlike other comics who've done open mics and garnered their own audience, I got Comicstaan within two or three months of starting out. So I haven't seen the grind to be honest. Some people would say it came very easy for me but I know I'm talented (laughs). But when stand-up came to a standstill, I realised just how much I missed it and missed going on stage. Like Karunesh said, the first time I went onstage, I was so happy,. I haven't felt that joy in the longest time. It wasn't the best show I've ever done, but at the same time it felt like it was. 

Like most comics, you've both been focusing a lot more on creating digital content during the pandemic. Do you felt like the last year has fundamentally changed something in the stand-up scene? Will comics focus even more on digital content now?

Karunesh Talwar: I don't know if it's here to stay. In the time I've spent here, I've understood that to predict what happens is a foolish thing to do. A few years ago, I would look at myself very firmly as a purist and say, 'If it's not stand-up, I won't do it.' The fact is that if you aren't the type of person who can respect a platform's requirements and be flexible, then you may not succeed, or you may take longer to succeed. And if you've  built an identity around being a stand-up comic, people come down on you hard if your 30 second video on Instagram isn't as funny as your 11-minute stand-up set. Then it's like: What did you expect from me? It's 30 seconds! What can you do in 30 seconds that deserves to be seen? So, I hope that comedians and some of the younger male audience members grow up from the mentality that every line out of your mouth should be something that you would want to put on a t-shirt or quote at a party. 

Aishwarya, I feel like you're the Adele of the Indian stand-up scene because like her, through your material we have intimate knowledge of your relationship history. Do your exes ever call you and be like: Are you making jokes about me on stage again?

Aishwarya Mohanraj: No (laughs). I mean the video in which I spoke about my first relationship, that guy is my friend, so I'd told him about it and he had seen it live and he found it very funny. He was aware of it, but he did get a lot of people messaging him and asking: Are you the chomu that she is talking about? Now, I try to avoid names and the specifics of who they are because there are people who might know them. So if I'm talking about someone I'm dating, I won't say, 'The comedian I was dating…' I'll change the profession and call him a CA guy.

It's a difficult time for the comedy scene right now and for creative freedom in general. Karunesh you recently said that it feels like there are only four 'safe topics' left that comedians can safely joke about. What do you guys make of this time and, if I'm a comedian today, do I need to have a lawyer?

Karunesh Talwar: Yes, absolutely. I have a couple of lawyers who will watch the whole show before I decide what the final cut is that's going online. I don't want to compromise my freedom in any way. You've got to look at it pragmatically because what choice do you have? I just keep telling myself that if I was in the United States or the UK or Australia right now, at 10 years of having done stand-up, I would probably be making a fraction of what we get to make here. You do have a freedom of speech there but you also have an intense amount of competition. I have to not lose sight of those things because there are advantages to being in India.

Having said that, absolute freedom of speech would be nice but what can you do? I do think censorship actually makes you a better writer though, I won't deny that. It limits creativity yes, but you find cleverer ways of saying the things you want to say. What I've realized actually is I could make so many more people laugh at the same exact thought process with the same exact punchlines if I just word it slightly differently. 

Aishwarya Mohanlal: For me, my stand-up is mostly anecdotal. I don't do a lot of topical and political stuff anyway because I find it easier. Politics is not something I am overly passionate about. Of course, I'm aware of it and I have opinions, but it's not something that I'm willing to risk my career over. I'm fairly comfortable talking about my exes, my mom, my dad etc.

In my current set, I have a few political jokes which are just throwaway lines. I know for a fact that I wouldn't be able to record them and release it online, because that will then become the focus of the video. I don't need that and honestly it's not unreasonable, considering the kinds of things that people go to jail for right now. My dad always tells me, 'Talk about whatever you want, just stay away from politics.'

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