One Mic Stand: Shashi Tharoor Pulls a Kunal Kamra, Just in Better English

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One Mic Stand: Shashi Tharoor Pulls a Kunal Kamra, Just in Better English

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

There’s a dialogue in season four of The West Wing. President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet is prepping for a speech during his bid for re-election. He uses a word — I can’t remember what it was — one doesn’t typically expect to hear in conversation. It’s not a word that would have you scratching your head or discreetly reaching for the dictionary in embarrassment — anyone who was educated using English as their first language would likely know what it means. It’s just something most people don’t or won’t use while talking because there are so many easier alternatives that roll off the tongue silkily without running the risk of making the speaker seem like that guy. You know, the one who seems like they are using their words to actually perform verbal calisthenics. Maybe something like exacerbate. Why would you exacerbate a volatile situation when you can simply worsen it? Most of us won’t, which is fine. Coming back to President Bartlet — he veers off-script and throws in his exacerbate-like bomb. Someone from his team quickly corrects him. He insists on using the more sophisticated synonym. The scene ends with him saying something to the effect of, “When you have an education, don’t be afraid to use/show it.” 

That’s not a direct quote, and I’ll admit I’m hazy on the details; it’s been over a decade since I last saw the show. Google has been of surprising little help. But it’s one of those nonchalantly mind-blowing moments in a series that is packed with them. It’s a scene and a sentiment I’ve recalled many times, especially when I’ve been accused of being “that guy”. When you have an education, don’t be afraid to show it, goddammit. 

Indian politics and politicians don’t offer us too many opportunities to be quietly inspired. Save for a doctorate in economics here and an IITian there, the evidence of education in politics has been slim and fleeting. Which is why, perhaps, we’ve collectively come to treat Dr Shashi Tharoor’s tweets as language porn, helping us get off at a time when more political capital is spent on insisting about the life-saving properties of cow urine than the life-destroying impact of unemployment. Sure, a good vocabulary is no indicator of a politician’s ability to govern, but it’s comforting to know that at least some of our elected leaders went to school, and hopefully, college. 

I had high hopes from the Shashi Tharoor episode of One Mic Stand, Amazon Prime Video’s latest stand-up show. Let us acknowledge that it was a casting coup, if there ever was one. How often do you get a sitting MP agreeing to entertain a roomful of his country’s youngsters with jokes — live, no less, minus the protection afforded by tweets that, though funny, have most likely been sharpened, edited, and vetted by multiple people before they see the light of the day? Not too often. But my hopes from Dr Tharoor’s stand-up outing, unfortunately, were all cruelly dashed.

When you have an education, Dr Tharoor, don’t be afraid to show it.

One Mic Stand follows a fairly simple format with an interesting premise. Each celebrity is paired with a comic who serves as their opening act, in addition to the host, Sapan Verma. For obvious reasons, Dr Tharoor’s comedy companion was Kunal Kamra, the only political comedian in the country. The episode opens with Verma and Kamra meeting with Dr Tharoor in Bengaluru, roughly 24 hours before the filming of the episode. Great pains are taken to establish that Dr Tharoor is thoroughly unprepared — 24 hours to go before the performance and he doesn’t yet know his material. I don’t know if this was supposed to soften the audience, and it might have, if the sentiment wasn’t parroted with what seemed like mild hysteria. Sure, this might be Dr Tharoor’s first comedy act, but the man has spent almost 30 years in the UN, many of which were spent in communications. He retired after finishing second in the 2006 selection for UN Secretary-General. He’s been a member of the Lok Sabha since 2009, and held two important portfolios within Dr Manmohan Singh’s Council of Ministers. Not to mention the 17 books he’s written — a pretty good indicator of how good he is at cramming complex historical information in his brain. If there ever was a man who doesn’t need violent head-shaking, second-hand nervousness, and awe that he managed to memorise 15 minutes worth of material for the stage, it’s Dr Shashi Tharoor. If anything, as a fan, I’m almost offended on his behalf — just getting it right should hardly be an achievement for someone like him. 

Which leads me to the principal cause of my disappointment, and the reason why I rambled on about education for the first half of this article. It’s not that Dr Tharoor’s set was bad, it wasn’t. There were several chuckle-worthy allusions to his appointment as “India’s unofficial English teacher,” as Verma puts it; some earnest-but-not-terribly-funny bits about the inscrutable millennial “lingo”; and, of course, some subtle and not-so-subtle digs at all the baffling — and depressing — goings on in the country. All of these were wrapped up neatly with a small history lesson slipped between British colonialism jokes to leave the audience with a tantalising whiff of Dr Tharoor’s intellect — just enough to help us feel like we’ve been a part of something smarter than ourselves, but not so much that it makes us think of him as that guy.

The thing is, I wanted Dr Tharoor to be that guy. We desperately need that guy within our political class. The one who brings gravitas, intellectual rigour, and an enviably vast body of knowledge to the dais even before he opens his mouth. We know that Tharoor is all that and more, and yet all One Mic Stand manages to achieve is showing us his likeable, charming side. Look, he’s the guy you can hang out with, probably even get a beer with, One Mic Stand seems to be telling us. But I — we — don’t need him to be relatable. We needed him to be cutting and crisp, to shame us out of the political coma most of us seem to have slipped into as we wait to hear on our Canadian PR application status. Tell me I’m wrong? 

Few politicians in the country, possibly even in the world, have the kind of command that Dr Tharoor has on the stage and the language he chooses to conduct himself in. He, his team of writers, and his mentor Kamra could have spent those 15 minutes fusing humour with brutal questions of complicity in the ongoing tragicomedy that is the current political situation in the country, but all they do is play to the gallery, grasp at the lowest hanging fruits, pat themselves on the back, and leave. You don’t watch Shashi Tharoor so you can see him pulling a Kunal Kamra, just in better English and minus the profanities; you watch him because he is among the few leaders left who can remind us what it means to have someone demonstrably better than ourselves leading us. I was hoping for a blistering monologue about how we all need to pull our collective political pants up before the establishment strips us down to our underwear from Dr Tharoor. What I got instead was a feeble “let’s blame Nehru” as a parting shot. Like we haven’t heard that joke a million times before from every comic and even non-comic on Twitter. 

When you have an education, Dr Tharoor, don’t be afraid to show it.