Abish Mathew at Kairos 2015

Abish Mathew got lucky tonight. He was paid a lot of money for a show that was mediocre at best. But now, courtesy the course of events, he will be remembered by many as a martyr of stand up comedy at National Law University Delhi. And he really doesn’t deserve that title. But neither did he deserve the censorship imposed upon him by the attack of, what I would like to call, misguided feminism.

For those of you who were lucky enough to miss it (unless of course you’re a glutton for gossip, because this will take the throne for a while now), allow me to bring you up to speed. Abish Mathew was all set to perform a one and a half hour stand up act on the third day of the second edition of our University’s cultural fest, Karios. He began with an unimpressive and unoriginal set of easy crowd pleasing regional jokes. In one such joke, after building up the premise that five minutes is a long time for Indians (because we ask for five more minutes to finish an exam paper or to sleep – coz nobody else does that?), he joked that five minutes is a long time for Mallu fathers because it grants them enough time to force their daughters to become nurses, ship them off to Dubai, go home, drink toddy, beat their wives and still have three minutes left (I’ll get back to the examination of this joke). At this point, two girls of the third year batch stood up from the central aisle and publicly stormed off showing Abish the middle finger. Abish ignored this and proceeded with his set. A series of average jokes undeserving of that amount of money followed – ranging from how Kim Jong-un allegedly fed his uncle to dogs making it the first time a dog ate a North Korean, to the arbitrariness of deciding delegates at MUNs, and to the strange sounds of Indian languages. In his defence and something he stated categorically as well, he was uncertain of the audience and was testing waters with his material. Reluctant to enter the realm of politics, he breezed over a Mayawati (I’ll get back to this one as well) and Modi (at popular request by yours truly) which I thought was his funnier stuff. He did not steer clear of sexist jokes either, making multiple done-to-death jokes of women drivers (Seriously, who makes this joke on a stand up gig?), women using Facebook at work (Was that even a joke? Who doesn’t use Facebook at work? And anyone who doesn’t use Alt+Tab just doesn’t know the shortcut), and Punjabi women becoming fat after marriage (the Swift v Swift Dzire analogy does not save you from the criticism of being unoriginal, Abish). About forty minutes into the show, the two girls who had stormed off returned to the centre of the aisle with two other girls holding placards reading “Get Out Sexist Pig”. On protest by the audience, three of the four girls moved to the side of the auditorium from where they continued to heckle him and asking him to ‘get the fuck out’. Abish, who evidently had material left considering he had not begun to play the guitar which was standing on stage (I wonder whether that would have been funny), sought permission to crack one final joke as he had ‘clearly overstayed his welcome’ and left the stage without completing his set.

Let me get my less controversial objection to this incident out of the way first – I refer, of course, to the form of protest. Protest is to be encouraged and sexism should be called out – no doubt. But I don’t think curbing his expression was the right way of going about it, and I think it would be naive to suggest that they had not curbed it through their manner of protest. If the intention were to get the message across to Abish, one of the protesters spoke to Abish, explained why she had a problem with the jokes and he responded calmly that he understood why she considered it sexist and agreed to remove it from his set. But I don’t want to get hung up on form of protest, because what is far more relevant is the substance of it.

Why do I call it misguided feminism? Because an unfortunate result of the misogynistic and sexist society we live in has been that women are projected to be the victims even when it is sometimes not the case. Was the woman the butt of the domestic violence joke that Abish made? He made fun of Mallu men who drink toddy and beat their wives. I would think that it is that Mallu man who is the butt of this joke. That the behaviour of such a man should not be accepted in civilized society. Through satire, he challenges such reprehensible actions. The joke does not celebrate such men, but ridicules them. It is also argued that making these jokes trivializes the issue of domestic violence and treats it as a non-issue. But I also think that comedy could be a great form of social commentary and a manner to bring issues to public light. Did you know that such a tendency exists in Mallu society? I didn’t and I have Mallu parents. Is it not better that the issue was brought to light in such a forum than that it remains unspoken of? I’m not here to say that Abish didn’t make sexist jokes. He did, although my immediate objection to the sexist jokes about women drivers or women multitasking at work was not that they were sexist, but that they were just such terrible jokes. Also, that Mayawati joke was funny. Why was it sexist? It was shallow, sure. But it made fun of her for the number of statues she makes. The fact that she’s ugly was just a set up.

Lastly, it’s a shame that this group who otherwise raise relevant issues on campus were the actors in this incident because it feeds fodder to those who used to discredit them without basis. The protesters presumably fear the impact that these sexist jokes would have on the people who discredit feminism as being unnecessary and overhyped, but they should equally fear the result of their actions and how it steers them further away from any discussion on the importance of being a feminist. I call myself a feminist and I don’t know why everyone does not. But I would understand why people would want to disassociate themselves with feminism if this were what feminism meant – and thus, I call it misguided.

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18 thoughts on “Abish Mathew at Kairos 2015

  1. Arshu, the butt of the jokes may have been Mallu men for you. But there can be no denying of the fact that it did trivialise domestic violence and the lived experience of those women. As people sitting here writing on Glasnost, perhaps we cannot anticipate whether it is merely social commentary or whether it goes beyond that. Jokes are definitely highlighting social problems, but what may be questioned is whether they perpetuate them.
    To me the problem was definitely not the quality of the jokes, but the content and substance and how a crowd of 200 people laughed at jokes making fun of gender stereotypes.
    If issues need to be discussed, there are definitely more ways to bring them up as opposed to everyone laughing at them.
    Has it crossed anyone’s mind as to how this campus is such an unsafe place for a person to discuss their personal experiences given the fact that everyone jokes about such experiences?

    And as far as why only certain people acted and why they shouldn’t have, anyone who identified those jokes as sexist should go further than that and help identify why we laughed at them. Saying that they’re sexist and bad is fine, but beyond that; can we please identify that they should not be made?
    It reflects on us as an institution that we were willing to laugh at sexist jokes had they been properly framed.

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    • Actually, I don’t agree with your premise that the joke necessarily trivializes domestic violence. An issue that is prevalent enough to be joked upon as a stereotype at the same level as Mallu nurses and the Gulf but still escapes the public eye needs to be identified as a concern plaguing the society.The joke highlights a social issue – yes, a public discussion may be a more appropriate platform to discuss the issue in detail, but the audience that a stand up comedian can reach means that though it doesn’t allow an analysis of the issue, it identifies it at a scale that a public discussion which would only preach to the choir cannot hope to achieve. The joke, as I said in the piece, does not celebrate the Mallu man so I don’t see how it perpetuates the jokes either.
      And I don’t know what you mean by the campus being unsafe for discussing personal experiences because I don’t know on what basis you say that people can’t discuss it – personal experiences are by definition personal, so I wonder how you make the assertion that the lack of discussion on personal experiences is because people make jokes rather than people simply not wanting to discuss them on a public forum. And I don’t think that Abish Mathew joke makes the campus an unsafe place, and I don’t know what sort of jokes you refer to when you say everyone jokes about these experiences.
      And yes, sexist jokes should be identified and shouldn’t be made. Though to be honest, I’m still unsure of where I stand on the sanctity of comedy v censorship of jokes, but I do think that Abish’s jokes needed to be called out on being terrible jokes first and sexist second.

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  2. Did someone forget that this was a stand-up gig? I mean, really? You’re really going to morally dissect his jokes cause you have no clue how stand up comedy works? Humour induced by ripping on and off of anything… be it your own parents, your wife, your community, religion.
    Freedom of expression is apt and cannot be disposed of for a comedian. It is pitiable that this happened at NLU – D of all places. You need to understand that this isn’t a symposium for national issues to be discussed. IT’s A STAND UP COMEDY GIG for Pete’s sake. He can say anything to get you to laugh, try getting ‘intellectual/ pseudo intellectuals’ to even chuckle at archaic Santa Banta Jokes? Dumbasses.

    Expose yourselves to culture a bit?
    Be a bit more tolerant maybe?
    Go to more standup gigs without placards maybe?
    Leave your emotional vigour and fevour at home while you attend a gig maybe?
    Laugh a little, maybe?

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  3. How deep is our commitment to equality and feminism if ‘shrill’/unacceptable demonstrations can make us dissociate ourselves from feminism? Does style win over substance every time?

    What strikes me as interesting is conspicuous absence of discussion on Abish Mathew’s reaction. He seems to have really delicate sensibilities — as a professional stand-up comedian, I would think he can handle heckling and booing better. Surely this is not a first? Surely he had another set of jokes he could’ve moved on to when he realised that his jokes were not well received? How is cutting a show an hour short because some of his audience was hostile ‘professional’? Are the organisers planning to ask for their money back? Surely the contractual arrangement does not include an adoring audience?

    I can feel a hundred ‘you are victim-blaming’ responses, but the reason I raise this is to show that we are not as ‘feminist’ as we may like to think we are. Even where the man was wrong (at several levels, including his lack of professionalism), we have succumbed to the temptation of blaming (a few) women and feminism entirely for an event gone wrong.

    Arshu’s point about how this protest may have ended up being counterproductive to the larger cause is a valid concern. Was it a strategic fail? Perhaps. But that in itself goes to show how conditional our acceptance of feminism is — so long as it is prettily said. So long as it is not in-our-face. So long as it does not disturb our Fest.

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    • Ma’am, I think that reducing it to style over substance trivializes the concern that people raise about both the style and substance of the protest. The protest was not unacceptable because it was shrill (?) but because the response to a joke which made fun of the perpetrator was to heckle him into cutting his act short.
      And I think the option to cut his act short is a liberty that stage entertainers have that is not available as easily to other professionals. An indispensable part of the performance is that the audience be entertained and he be allowed to entertain. In a scenario where there were people who were clearly hostile and not entertained and further disrupting him from entertaining the rest of the audience, his decision to cut his act short were justified. Especially in light of the fact that one of the protesters screamed “No, get the fuck out!” even when he sought permission to make another joke, so I don’t think continuing would have been an option. Also, the normal manner in which stand up comedians respond to heckling may have been counter-productive in that inflammatory environment, so it is also likely that the decision to cut his act short was a calculated decision.
      Lastly, I would like to re-state that I’m not blaming feminism because I wouldn’t attribute this to feminism. At least not my conception of it. I personally don’t think the man was wrong at all at the point when they left and so I felt that the actions of the women in the incident warrant blame.

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      • “In a scenario where there were people who were clearly hostile and not entertained and further disrupting him from entertaining the rest of the audience, his decision to cut his act short were justified. Especially in light of the fact that one of the protesters screamed “No, get the fuck out!” even when he sought permission to make another joke, so I don’t think continuing would have been an option.”

        Perhaps a claim can be made that we were aggressive and said what we said because we want to present a symbolic dissent to him claiming public space that belongs to us as well. Us shouting at him to leave was an exercise of our right to dissent and to reclaim our University space, which we wanted to be free from trivialisation of domestic violence and other forms of harassment. There is also immense split-second analysis of each action of the protestors which has only been possible in retrospect. In that point of time, we were reacting to his sexist commentary (which was greatly socially accepted and applauded) and we wanted him to stop with the sexist jokes. When he asked permission for another joke, it is very possible that in that moment of time, we could have presumed that he’d crack a joke about women and cricket.
        This point-by-point analysis of a spontaneous form of dissent takes away from the entire issue of the fact that we as a college mocked domestic violence and then screamed at those who wanted to dissent.

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    • Another set of jokes he could move on to? And where would that land him. Every joke offends one person or the other. If he starts tailoring his set as and when people protest, the man will be left with nothing to perform on stage.

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  4. I’d just like to point out that he did, in fact, try to switch over to another kind of humour (cricket jokes), but when he said that he would leave after “one more joke”, he was told by the protesters to “get the hell out”. Certain protesters vehemently objected when he asked them if he could tell one last joke. I hardly think that he could continue his show in the face of such vocal hostility.

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  5. Kainaz I typed out a reply to your comment on highlighting the ‘hostility’ faced by your poor Abish Mathew, like really — awww! Fail to understand how do you even reduce the whole argument to his hostility and hypocrisy of the protesters and fail to see where the other side is coming from. Just re-tweeting what someone had to say on the event : “Fact that most people’s focus is exclusively on the protestors is indicative of where power lies.”
    But anyway, I didn’t complete writing that reply but came across more on the matter by Nikita Agarwal – I thought let’s just further the debate in the manner in which it is going on. Ask her permission and maybe put it up on Glasnost, till then here you go, follow the link: https://www.facebook.com/nikita.agarwal.31586526/posts/10152790122510060?notif_t=mention

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  6. Kudos, Chinmay, on reducing my entire opinion to the two sentences that I wrote above. I actually do understand where the protesters are coming from, and I absolutely agree with them in that the performance was unbelievably sexist. Jokes about domestic violence are not okay. A lot of people have told me that Abish Mathew said that he would remove the domestic violence jokes from his lineup, and further that he said that he had never been criticised for his sexism before, so I guess that’s something the protest achieved, which is great. If they were able to make even one person understand that undermining domestic violence is the essential equivalent of a rape joke, then the point of their protest has been achieved.
    Further, I don’t actually think that the protesters should have confined themselves to a more private arena, or that they should have gone to him after the event. I don’t think they were “insulting” a “guest”. The purpose of the placards was to be public: to make not just Mathew but also the others understand that there was a kind of problem with the subject matter of the jokes that Mathew was making. I thought the placards were a great idea; if the same protesters had later approached Mathew to discuss this with him, it would have generated nowhere near the same kind of debate that it currently has. It’s sad that the entire protest is being diverted towards form – but its equally sad that form isn’t being considered at all. I do think the placards were a great idea, and I have nothing but respect for those protesters who carried them in and then continued to protest silently. I do, however, have a problem with the very public heckling, which was unbecoming, and which Somil also addresses in his article (https://glasnostnludelhi.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/an-open-letter-in-defence-of-expression-2/ – go check it out if you haven’t already). There is a difference between protesting and being intolerant, and while some of the protesters were fully within their rights, there were some others who overstepped the boundaries of what might be called civilised debate.
    I understand that there is a lot more to this issue than what I’ve mentioned above. I’ve read, and to some degree believe in, Aarushi’s argument about a stand-up comedy show being different from a PLPDG talk because there is no arena for interaction. I don’t as a matter of fact believe that stand-up must necessarily be sexist in order to be funny. Comedians are supposed to be better than that.
    One last thing: views expressed are personal and do not reflect the opinions of Glasnost in any manner whatsoever.
    Tada :)

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  7. I think walking off the show pointedly (with a middle finger and a Fuck You to boot) and holding up placards (though the message could have been a little more imaginative) are legitimate forms of dissent. And it’s brilliant that a few protesters actually visited him backstage and discussed their criticism of his jokes. I do think, however, that heckling him and effectively curbing his freedom of expression (however easily he might have allowed it to be curbed) isn’t right.

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  11. The dig at Malayalee fathers sending daughter to train in nursing and then to Dubai (to come back and beat their wives)made me laugh and I secretly hoped that it would embarrass the patriarchal society in general who have accepted it as a norm.Having grown up in Kerala and not having witnessed even as a murmur of protest to the patriarchy that exists here,Abhish Mathew’s observation was a relief;at least a man has realised the absurdity of it to bring it out as a joke. Even when the audience laughs at if, a few consciences maybe pricked and a few silent voices maybe emboldened.

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  12. Pingback: Abish Mathew at Kairos 2015 | Arshu's Blog

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