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Is a comedian being taken too seriously?

“I wonder if Zelensky’s wife ever suggested that he quit his comedy act because people may not take him seriously. He seems to believe that his countrymen will take him seriously. He is now appealing to mothers of Russian soldiers to ask their sons to retreat thinking that the mothers would take him seriously. Just like my comedic persona, perhaps he believes that life on this earth is meaningless and not to be taken too seriously. His three years of political experience are certainly not helping him.”

BASAB DASGUPTA | New Delhi |

From my childhood I had a lighter humorous side. I loved to tell jokes, pull pranks, and make up absurd stories just for the sake of getting a laugh. I was an avid reader of books by Shibram Chakravarty and Narayan Ganguly. I was amused by the stories of Gopal Bhar and Birbal. Cartoons in magazines made deep impressions on me about how various events and characters in our lives could be viewed in a different, often sarcastic way.

After I came to the US, I got addicted to funny sit-coms and variety shows. I was most inspired by Johnny Carson. I would stay up late every night to listen to his monologues. Carson’s monologue was the definition of stand-up comedy to me. Deep down inside, I wanted to be like him.

One day during a period when my wife was in India on a long vacation, I was cracking jokes with one of the technicians at work. He was slightly eccentric and had a strange sense of humor. He looked at me with a grim face and said with a look of fake annoyance, “Please do not distract me from my work. If you want to tell jokes, go to the bar at the corner of 76th street and Cumberland. They have an open mic for any comedian every Monday night and you would get a free drink if they like your joke.”

I went there the following Monday night. It was a small bar, filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of alcohol. There was a podium in the corner with a microphone. A lady in her fifties was conducting the show. I whispered to her about my desire to tell jokes and she gladly allowed me. I not only got my free drink; I also got some laughter from the people in the bar. This was amazing because I had never done anything like this in my life.

I started going every Monday night and soon, it became addictive. The audience loved me; I looked different, my accent was different, my material was different. They had no expectation of what I might say when I took the microphone and it seemed that they laughed at everything I said. I started to also go to two local comedy clubs on their open mike nights. Typically, each comedian would get five minutes. There was no censorship of any kind. The goal was to provoke laughter.

The high point of my comedy career came when the owner of the “Comedy Connection” hired me to do the opening act during an upcoming week. A comedy show consists of performances by four comedians: the “opening act”, the “middle act”, the “headliner” and the “master of ceremonies” who ran the whole show. I had to perform in six shows – one on Thursday, two on Friday and three on Saturday. The headliner during that week would be Dennis Miller, who was well-known in the comedy circuit at the time, but later became very famous as a TV star, a movie actor, and an author. I was ecstatic.

The audience could understand me in spite of my accent, they laughed at my jokes, and they were paying me money to listen to me! It was unbelievable. The experience of doing an act on stage in front of a live audience was incredible. The spotlight was blinding, and the audience appeared as a blur. The feeling of getting a positive reaction was a “high”. I understood the joy felt by live performers – stage actors, singers, guitarists, magicians and even political orators.

A couple of months later, I got a call from a local cable station to audition for a comedy show. My wife was back from India by then. She did not have my sense of humour. She was shocked to learn that I was thinking of going to the audition. “If anyone from your work ever sees you in one of these comedy shows”, she warned me, “no one will ever take you seriously again. Your career would be doomed.”

Around that time, rumours of an impending layoff were rampant at work. I thought perhaps she was right. I played it safe and did not go for that audition. To this day, I regret that decision. That period in the mid-1980s was the infancy of stand-up comedy in this country. I could have become rich and famous as a comedian and perhaps even as a character actor. Now everyone and his brother wants to be a comedian.

I often joked: “I studied physics because I thought that physics would answer all of my questions, but it did not. Then I became a philosopher seeking the meaning of life but realized that there is no meaning to life. Then I became a comedian; if there is no meaning to life and I cannot get answers to all of my questions, I might as well make fun of this life.”

I saw in the news, in the context of the Russian invasion, that the Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky used to be a TV star and a comedian before he entered politics. It immediately gave me a different perspective into Zelensky’s activities and mindset. It seems that the whole world now admires him as a “brave man”, “a hero”, “a true patriot” and as a leader who has inspired his country to take a firm stand against the Russian Army. He is on TV and newspapers in every single country. I wonder if he is simply getting an adrenaline rush from all the attention.

Perhaps it is no different from the euphoria he felt from the response of his audience in a comedy show. He is continuing with his rhetoric because this feeling is addictive as every performer knows. The whole world is now his stage. If one thinks rationally, it is perhaps foolish to take such a stand. From a purely subjective point of view, the Ukrainian military is no match for the Russian Army that must have planned this invasion months in advance.

Vladimir Putin seems determined to take over a good chunk of Ukraine if not the entire country. It does not make sense to arm common citizens, who never had any experience in a reallife armed conflict, with rifles and grenades to fight the Russians. It is easy to see that the result would be death and severe injury to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and at the end the Russians will do whatever they please.

Reactions from the rest of the world are more and more sanctions, condemnation in the UN and efforts by virtually all organisations to boycott Russians or their products to squeeze Putin into retreat. He must have anticipated and prepared for such an outcome. Despite repeated pleas from Zelensky for more military help, UN nations have made it abundantly clear that they are not going to send soldiers to Ukraine.

I wonder if Zelensky’s wife ever suggested that he quit his comedy act because people may not take him seriously. He seems to believe that his countrymen will take him seriously. He is now appealing to mothers of Russian soldiers to ask their sons to retreat thinking that the mothers would take him seriously. Just like my comedic persona, perhaps he believes that life on this earth is meaningless and not to be taken too seriously. His three years of political experience are certainly not helping him.

Please do not get me wrong. I absolutely condemn the Russian invasion. My heart cries out for innocent Ukrainians who would lose their lives because perhaps they are taking a comedian seriously. My heart cries for people like the Indian medical student Naveen who got killed when he went looking for food. I believe that a diplomatic solution where Ukraine basically recognizes key Russian demands and accepts them is the way to go. Slogans like “we will never surrender” are meaningless under the circumstances.

(The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America.)