Stand up and be countedA teenager in a floral Kimono has been rolling hand-rolled cigarettes in boredom; a man in a knock-off Belgium jersey has been finagling with the overwhelmed, solitary waiter about the beer options. A cloud of smoke hangs heavy over the ceiling, pregnant with expectation.
A Saturday evening at Sukra Bar, Lazimpat.
The comedy show that was billed to begin at 7pm is an hour late. As a palpably excited crowd continues to stream in, the seating arrangement has already been wrenched out of shape. A teenager in a floral Kimono has been rolling hand-rolled cigarettes in boredom; a man in a knock-off Belgium jersey has been finagling with the overwhelmed, solitary waiter about the beer options. A cloud of smoke hangs heavy over the ceiling, pregnant with expectation.
Though there are three stand up comedians on the roster this evening—including Astitwa Adhikari, an aspiring filmmaker; and Rajina Shrestha, a development professional and a microbiology student—you can sense that the audience is looking forward to seeing Aayush Shrestha take to the stage. Just last week, his sketch on Newar and Bahun surnames went viral on the internet, and this is his first show since. What other jokes does he have rolled under his sleeves?
When Aayush does finally take to the stage, he begins his routine by talking about how Thin Arrowroot—the piece of cardboard that masquerades as a biscuit—is the “most passive-aggressive food item in the world.”
The audience, teleported back to their own childhoods, breaks out into a collective laugh. The tension dissipates. The joke sets up the stage for an evening that even the hip—kimono-wearing, Warstiener-drinking—crowd gathered at the bar is new to. Stand-up comedy shows have finally arrived in Kathmandu, primed to shock and to entertain.
A comedic zeitgeist
“If you notice, Nepal’s biggest stars are comedians. Think Maha Jodi, or Dhurmus Suntali or Deepak Raj Giri and Deepashree Niraula,” Aayush Shrestha says, when I ask him why Kathmandu’s stand-up comedy scene has come to a sudden head. “You can always bank on the comedians pulling in the crowd.”
Seated in a coffee shop in Patan we are trying to trace the lineage from which the current crop of YouTube-savvy stand-up comedians derives their inspiration from.
“Nepal has a great market for comedy. It has so many problems, so many contradictions, and so much diversity. You will never run out of material to work with,” Aayush says, “What has now happened perhaps is that the way we talk about it has changed.”
If Nepal always has had a soft corner for comedic entertainers, the recent boom in internet penetration has not only meant that Maha Jodi or Tito Satya episodes are now readily available at your fingertips but also that the George Carlins, Louie CKs and Sarah Silvermans have exploded onto the urban consciousness. This, Aayush points out, has given young comedians like him a new voice—one that has pushed them to move beyond the expressive, physical routines that had become the mainstay of Nepali comedy, into a more verbal and conversational strain of comic routines.
“As a comedian you can go to two places for material,” Ayush explains, “You can talk about the ‘big’ things: War, Religion, Politics; or you can talk about the tiniest of things: Language, Break ups, and Biscuits. Each has its own value but it is these little jokes that people easily connect to. It is also the stuff that is easiest to talk about.”
And it is the ‘tiny jokes’ performed for tiny crowds at open mics, then later circulated on the internet, that first began to grab attention. “I am a computer nerd by trade and performed my first comedy routine at an open mic in September—about the same time that stand-up comedy began to see a resurgence here,” Aayush confesses, “You might call it a Zeitgeist of sorts. The popularity of Indian stand-up acts had already created a receptive audience base. And each successful routine gave us the confidence to push our jokes, our narratives, further. Then one day you wake up to find that your video has gone absolutely viral on social media. Your fifteen minutes of fame has arrived, prematurely.”
Under the Nepali skin
The video in question, a fifteen-minute routine titled “If Everyone in Kathmandu were Newar,” seemed to hit a raw nerve.
Initially performed at an comedy special edition of StoryYellers—a talk platform modelled after Ted Talks—the routine was soon picked up by various social media platforms, receiving applause for its candidly humorous take on inter-ethnic relationships but also derision for ‘being racist’. One particular snippet, a four-minute tirade on Newar and Bahun surnames, drew the most mileage. Within a few days, the video garnered thousands of shares on the web and an equal number of plaudits and criticism.
“Overnight it became this big Newar vs Bahun thing,” Aayush says, “Sitting at home, reading some of the feedback was mind blowing. It showed how fractious we can be. How easy it is to get under the Nepali skin.”
Born into a Newar family in Manakamana Bazaar in Gorkha, Aayush tells me how amusing he finds it when some of his Newar friends from Kathmandu are quick to blame the Valley’s degenerate state of affairs on the influx of migrants. “It is easy to blame an undefined ‘other’ for all your problems. But when you take a closer look at yourself, you realise the amount of hypocrisy coursing through your own system,” he says, “And comedy, I suppose, forces you to recognise it. Comedy has to be risqué; it has to be subversive. But most of all, it has to be funny. If nativism and ‘cultural pride’ wasn’t inherently contradictory and funny, I wouldn’t be cracking jokes about it.”
But beyond just making light of societal divisions that are veiled by the veneer of civility, Kathmandu’s new breed of stand-up comedians are redefining what conversations are ‘acceptable’ in the public sphere. Some of the routines shared most widely on the internet over the past few months have been of an Indian migrant talking about xenophobia and deep-rooted, but often subtle, racism; a man talking about menstruation; a woman making light of prostitution and masturbation.
“As comedians, we don’t have any agenda. My goal is not to make someone enlightened or more aware. My goal is to make them laugh,” Aayush says, “And self-deprecation makes for great comedy. Particularly if you’re able to make the audience laugh about their own attachments and frailties.”
And it is this fresh attempt to take comedy out of the well-worn tropes of political satire, slapstick humour and caricatures that has made this new YouTube generation of comedians instantly relatable, if controversial.
“Some people will get the sarcasm, others won’t. But hopefully the message gets through,” Aayush muses, “What hurts the most is not when people misunderstand my jokes and call me a ‘racist’; but rather when people say, ‘This is not racist, but I don’t find it funny.’”