A funny thing happened AT the gig…
I don’t claim to be a controversial comedian. I don’t talk much on politics or religion on stage. I stick to the “talk about what you know” method of stand-up comedy. Which is why most of my material centres around travel and orgies. I jest, I hate travel. ZING!
Last night at my first show in Mumbai – without realising it – I quite possibly could have ended up in a LOT of trouble!
Something happened right before I went on stage that kind of changed my energy, I was angered to a degree, not too much but enough to affect my mood somewhat and that can alter how you approach a gig. I’d been watching a guy in the audience on his phone through the previous acts, he wasn’t calling, just texting and the bright light from the smart phone lit up his face. How people think they’re being discrete when they’re sat in the dark and a glow is projecting upwards astonishes me. Although, I am super sensitive to these things and well, I’m an observational comedian, so I guess I am just really REALLY awesome at observing stuff. Nobody else seemed to care or acknowledge it, but I knew that the moment I walked on stage, if he kept doing it, I would not let it go unmentioned.
Earlier on backstage I was going through my normal ritual of scribbling down a set-list, it’s a force of habit, even though I know I probably won’t do that set, I will get distracted by a shiny object and go off on a tangent, but I still fool myself into thinking I’m preparing. One of the Indian comics noticed me writing and said “oh you must be nervous being your first time in India, I’ll leave you be” and I said “no, it’s just something I do before every gig.” Which it is. And I wasn’t nervous. I’d gigged in Goa and Delhi already so didn’t think much about how the Mumbai audience would be. I figure if you’re funny, they’ll like you. So far so good. What I had totally overlooked was what is culturally acceptable as far as etiquette beyond the stage. I knew I wasn’t going to venture into religious or political territory and so I felt safe not offending the large mixed population of Hindi, Muslim, Christian and whoever else may be in the audience, but I didn’t consider that when it comes to personal boundaries, men and women can be conservative or quite modest. AND they can take offence at what other countries might consider light hearted fun. Oops! #Awkward
I got through 5 mins on stage and it was going well, then inevitably the face of the guy who’d been texting lit up again, and I segued one of my routines towards his direction and laid into him. It was all done in good jest but with the heightened sense of anger in my blood, I was a little more aggressive and instead of making fun of him and letting it go, I pushed it and went into territory I normally wouldn’t. And it was funny. And the audience were going with it. And it felt great! My improvising was in full strength and perhaps the Indian audiences aren’t used to this or haven’t seen a lot of this, either way they were loving it. As was I. Talking to him about using his phone, led me to do a bit about phones where I come into the audience and without giving away my comedy gold, the routine sees me flirting with an audience member in a fictional scenario.
NORMALLY this goes well.
It’s almost always taken as it is intended, tongue-in-cheek, non-invasive and it breaks down that wall between a stage and audience. In recent times, I have had chats with other performers and they’ve told me that maybe the joke can’t be done anymore in the current climate. Each time I’ve done the routine I assess the room and the targeted audience member(s) and before approaching them I have a good idea who will or won’t be up for it. It all depends on how the venue is laid out, if there’s an empty seat, I’ll sometimes I’ll go sit next to someone, if they’re not being obstructed by a table and look friendly enough I’ll sometimes I sit on their lap, or wedge myself between seats if its theatre seating, other times I’ll sit on their partner’s lap. It’s a funny bit and pardon the pun, they lap it up.
I didn’t factor in the cultural boundaries last night and even while I was doing this routine it didn’t occur to me how far I could go. Until I was abruptly stopped mid joke.
I sat down next to a couple, luckily for me there was an empty seat next to the girl and I began the bit, the husband leaned in and grabbed the microphone and said “that’s close enough” or something like that and stopped me in my tracks. He didn’t look angry but I knew right then that I was in unchartered waters. And I immediately responded with “I’ve never had that happen before” which brought laughs, I stepped away and fell to the ground and broke any possible tension by declaring to everyone that I was out of my depth. I was in a foreign country when laws and rules and traditions hold much more ground than my dick jokes. I was saved but still didn’t think how bad it could have been until after the show.
I moved on and continued improvising with the crowd, it didn’t affect me, I wasn’t thrown by it, it was a fun moment for me.
At the end of the show I greeted the audience as they left, and the man I’d made fun of on the phone gave me a handshake and hug, he was all smiles, and the couple I’d had this interaction with were the same. There were no ill feelings. I thought nothing of it.
In the green room later, chatting to the local comics, it was brought to my intention that what I did is considered breaking the law.
I COULD HAVE BEEN ARRESTED.
In hindsight, I thought this was hilarious and I’m now a badass comedian and how come I didn’t get punched on stage and become famous like Jim Jeffries? My moment for instant stardom was just out of reach. I don’t like getting punched so I’m glad it didn’t happen.
I’ve forgotten how it was described to me, but it was about people being conservative and how women’s modesty being breached can offend and land you in jail. Especially if I had touched her, sat on her lap or even said the words penis or condom.
What blew my mind was that if her husband didn’t stop me mid routine, the very next lines I would have said included the word condom and penis. I know, I’m a classy comedian.
And if I had not found an empty seat next to her, I might have attempted to sit on her lap. And if I’d done this, all hell would have broken loose. This was explained to me also that there is a mob mentality in India and if the husband got aggressive and attacked me, it’s fair to assume that a whole group of other men would have jumped in and started beating me up too. Wow.
I’d been warned that if I was ever in a taxi in India and the driver got in an accident, that I should get out and walk away as quickly as possible, because there tends to be crowds gathering and mobs start arguing and fighting and people get violent without knowing who they’re fighting or why. I didn’t think for a moment this could be the same while on stage at a comedy club.
Apparently and ironically perhaps, I was saved by the colour of my skin. If I were an Indian comic and attempted this kind of joke they would not have held back. The comedian and his wife who explained all this to me said they noticed the guy who grabbed the microphone off me, and they thought he looked angry, which I didn’t recognise. I still can’t figure out the expressions on the faces of locals here. Perhaps I need to work on that! He also said that he was willing to step in and help me out if the guy started attacking me, but he would have waited and if the entire audience attacked me then I was on my own! Brilliant. This made me laugh. Comedy truly is a lonely job.
No matter how many years I’ve been doing comedy and how many cities and countries I’ve worked in, I’m always learning. No show is ever the same and you never know what can happen. What is said to one person might offend another, and what is socially acceptable in one society might land you in prison or beaten up on stage in another. The more you know.
Two more shows to go in Mumbai and for once, it’s not just the diarrhea that’s causing me to shit my pants!