I checked off a major thing off my bucket list last week – watching Johnny Lever do stand up live. As a comedian, its one of those things I never really thought would happen simply because he switched from being a live comedian to a Bollywood actor long ago. Still, for those of us who remember listening to his cassettes from back in the day (and now available to download for 5 rupees) it was like ones imagination coming to life. So how was the show you ask?
First, it is ridiculous the amount of energy he still has on stage for a 55 year old. For all comics in the audience like me, it was like going back to school and feeling mildly ashamed that we need a Red Bull drip before performing on stage. He did all his signature bits including playing an alcoholic, the Michael Jackson dance and a contemporary version of politicians playing a cricket match. The last of these performances pieces is so iconic even Raju Srivastava paid homage to this in a piece about women playing cricket at the Great Indian Laughter Challenge. It was like he had stepped out of a stand up comedy time machine straight into 2014. This ofcourse also brought with it its own set of idiosyncracies. For example it used to be perfectly acceptable in pop culture two decades ago to refer to people from the North East as chinki without anyone batting an eyelid. To do that on stage today brings with it a feeling of disapproval or worse still, a sense of reinforcement of stereotypes amongst an audience. A few such questionable bits aside, it was fascinating to see him work a crowd the way he used to back in the day.
The major difference between the old guard and newer English comics is that they never have to explain the piece they're about to do to an audience. Comedians like Johnny Lever and many from the Hindi crop, perhaps used to a
lower level of awareness amongst Indian audiences about the form of stand up, ask the audience to clap if they like the bit before even saying a word. Lever's opening act, Gaurav Sharma would even take a bow after delivering a punchline to the audience. This is something one would never see at an English stand up show except if done out of a sense of irony.
The only thing I wished there was more of was Johnny's personal stories from his time within the industry. He did talk about a few of his experiences travelling out of India with yesteryears celebrities but I can't even begin to imagine the kind of stories he must have. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a two-hour stand up special just made up of those. If you're young and a fan of comedy, or have never seen stand up before, go check out Johnny live. His comeback is the best thing to have happened to Indian comedy in years.