What it Means to be an Unfunny Person in the Age of Stand-ups and Comedy Specials


What it Means to be an Unfunny Person in the Age of Stand-ups and Comedy Specials

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Iwas a Class VII student when I narrated my first “joke” in front of an audience accidentally. I was in a tight spot – I hadn’t done my homework; the teacher had a cane ready and I was scared. But instead of blurting out a well-rehearsed sob story about my non-existent sick puppy, I nervously commented “Ma’am, I wasn’t writing history because I was making history for the number of hours one can sleep.”

It’s a terrible joke, yes, but the 12-year-old me thought otherwise. I was waiting for the cane to land on my hand, but my quip was enough to make my teacher smile. On cue, the class erupted in a giggle and the tension eased.

I was reminded of this incident when I recently came across a Trevor Noah video where he speaks about how his grandfather softened up a police officer during an anti-apartheid protest in South Africa. Noah spoke about the power of humour and I know for sure a good sense of humour can take you places, it can lighten up a nerve-wracking situation, and definitely make you popular. Your humour works like a superpower, and in an age where everyone has the gift of the gab, people who aren’t particularly funny – people like me – become the outliers. We struggle with the constant pressure to make a witty remark here, crack a clever joke there.  

It’s all great, but there is a whole bunch of us out there born without this blessed sense of humour. And for us unfunny people, it’s difficult to keep up.

I am not a particularly funny person, except for that one time I made that history joke ages ago. In fact, I was a shy kid who kept to herself and her Harry Potter books. The entire class laughing with me and not at me was an anomaly. So after I cracked my first-ever hit one-liner, I had an epiphany and started doing more of this… “funny business”. I put some serious effort into scribbling jokes on chits – some taken off the internet, some my own creations. Haathi-cheenti, Santa-Banta jokes were my my staples; my grown-up friends introduced me to “non-veg” jokes, which I’d memorise and narrate to my school friends. I’d even write down anything funny I heard or saw and peddle it as my own.

I had suddenly transformed into the “fun” girl. But the truth is, I had not become a funny girl, I just made sure people saw me as one. It filled the gap left by my average looks and mediocre social skills. Very early on, I realised how attractive and powerful a good sense of humour can be.

You know all those theories that claim how funny people are smarter and prone to be more successful? Yep. They are all true. Harvard researchers have spent years researching and proving that. Some psychologists recently even correlated having a good sense of humour to sound mental health, dismissing the common belief that funny people are depressed souls.

It’s all great, but there is a whole bunch of us out there born without this blessed sense of humour. And for us unfunny people, it’s difficult to keep up. In school, the jokes which worked in Class VII lost their punch a few years later, as the truly funny boys and girls became more popular with their original wit. By the time, I went to college I was no longer the class comic.

I realise it’s a particularly bad time to be born without wit. Especially since stand-up is the new guitar that everyone wants to leave their careers for. Today, we expect everyone from our entertainers to our politicians to be funny. We are spoilt for choice when it comes to comedy specials, and even our netas try to keep the humour quotient up, often unintentionally: Narendra Modi with his acronyms and spellings (who can forget STREANH?), in fact his sarcasm reportedly increased his popularity on Twitter; Theresa May with her dance moves. In fact, one of the things that worked against Hillary Clinton in the US presidential polls was her boring ad campaigns.  

Humour is so hyped that these days it’s the one non-negotiable trait we look out for in our partners. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve swiped on Tinder bios featuring that quality and found my friends sayings, “My girl/boy should have a great sense of humour?” People with little to no sense of humour, who are as adept at landing a punchline as Salman Khan is at acting, are immediately branded “uninteresting”.

A Japanese guy I met recently on Tinder started sending me links to funny dog videos and tagging me in memes after just a brief chat. He later confided that there’s this immense pressure on men in Japan to be funny in order to impress girls. So this was him trying hard to humour me. As a person who has grappled with humour, I know the struggle is real.

Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh in his 2013 address at the San Francisco Film Festival said, “I was just in the bathroom upstairs and there was a soundtrack accompanying me at the urinal, I don’t understand. I don’t know when was it decided that we all need a soundtrack everywhere we go?” Today, humour has become like that soundtrack.

And it’s this great expectation to keep everyone laughing and entertained is what compelled Comedian Hannah Gadsby to quit comedy. In her Netflix special Nannette, she hits us with some hard-to-swallow realities without spicing them up with jokes. Comedy, she says, has prevented her from evolving and is too simplistic a medium. The self-deprecating jokes she makes come at a painful cost to her.

And that’s the point I’m trying to make here. It’s great to be entertained and be around people who can make us laugh, but that’s not what everyone can and should do all the time. Not everything can be reduced to a joke. Sometimes it is equally important to be unfunny to take life seriously, to pick a Ross over a Chandler, a Siddharth over an Akash, because the latter can be sincere and empathetic. And that’s why the world owes one to the not-so-popular, unfunny lot.

Like Dr Sandi Mann, the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good, said, “The more entertained we are, the more entertainment we need to feel satisfied. The more we fill our world with fast-moving, high-intensity, ever-changing stimulation, the more we get used to that and the less tolerant we become of lower levels.”

Maybe that’s who we have become with regard to demanding humour from everyone. Thank you for the entertainment, but I think we’ll be in the regular corner, waiting for our time when the laughs run out.