Asia

What makes us Indians laugh

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Media captionVir Das shares a few jokes with the BBC

It's very fashionable to say that Indians don't like to laugh at themselves, or that Indians are prudish, but I just don't buy that or believe that.

I think that any Indian comedian who claims that is just lying or is just damn lazy.

With Indians you just have to slap them around and shove your hand down their throat and yank the laughter out of their gut in the first two minutes of a show, and if you can manage to do that they're yours from there and they'll give you more than any audience in the world.

I've done 15 minutes on Mukesh Ambani, in front of Mukesh Ambani. He sat there, smiled and laughed at it all, because you know, he's Mukesh Ambani and he lives in a skyscraper and he can take a joke, and that's kind of where India is today - we're doing well.

Our economy is growing and you kind of tend to develop a sense of humour with success.

I did a show called a History of India, which touched on a range of topics including the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Gandhi and Nehru.

One could argue that we basically said, "here's everything Indian people hold sacred and won't want to laugh at" and we did a show on that. But we ripped it all apart and, touch wood, it's the biggest selling comedy show in India.

Why does it work? It's not because these are sacred cows that people won't laugh at. It's because you're talking about these sacred cows and there's a connect, there's a relevance and a context that people recognise.

Stand up is not about what you're saying, but how you're saying it. If you see British kids or American kids when they're talking to Indian parents, they suddenly become more respectful.

Indian parents command that tone of respect, so I think that with a little more humility and patience and intelligence, but not altering your content at all, you'll get away with saying anything in this country. If you want to be brash, it probably won't go so well.

Your humour has to be a lot deeper-rooted in truth than anywhere else in the world. About 80% of the audience has to agree with you at any given point, you have to have presumed common knowledge and audience approval.

Careful in Calcutta

I talk about sex in my shows a lot.

I'm filthy and I'm vulgar but the audience stays with me because there's some sort of a connect there.

Image caption India is doing well... it can take a joke

I talk about sex education, I talk about the female orgasm and the male orgasm and hard-ons and your grandparents having sex. You earn your sex jokes with the audience by giving them enough of other stuff as well.

There are regional differences. Delhiites will laugh at anything. I could launch into sex after 12 minutes in Delhi, I have to wait until minute 30 in Mumbai, 45 in Bangalore. In Calcutta it's six hours before I can do an orgasm joke, so it's all about rooms and age groups.

I do a show for Rotary every year for 65 year olds and above, and it's my filthiest, most obscene show of the year. That's because these grandparents are there without their grandkids and they're dying to talk about sex.

It was a little awkward when my parents first came to watch my shows though. I've had a conversation with my mum, where she's said, 'beta, don't say penis' and I'm like, 'what am I supposed to say!?'

When my mum began watching my shows, she'd sink into her seat and look at the audience. When I was getting 500 people coming to the shows, she'd look around and say these people are not angry at him, so maybe we can relax finally.

Now we're at a good point where a few thousand people come to my shows and I scream blue murder and my parents are fine.

When I started in around 2004, stand up in India was mostly watched by people who were above 35. Now people who are 16-35 are coming to see me, and that's what gave me my start, me getting the young kids in.

Russell Peters did a humungous thing for Asian comedy. His YouTube revolution brought Indian comics to living rooms.

Now, a new young wave of humour has made its way into cinema with films such as Delhi Belly, and the opening of a Comedy Store in Mumbai and new young comedians writing stuff.

When your country rapidly changes, that's when satire really grows, and if you look at this place everything is changing on a weekly basis. It's a gold mine for comedy. We're not starving for material.

I'm unrealistically patriotic and I believe that we're heading for greatness and the world's eyes are on us.

Vir Das is one of India's best known stand-up comedians. His recent production, A History of India VIRitten, is one of India's most commercially successful comedy tours. He also starred in the Bollywood film Delhi Belly.

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