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Karthik Kumar is a pioneer in Tamil standup comedy. Among the earliest to lampoon and satirize stereotypes, identities and sacred cows standing alone on a stage, Karthik Kumar strongly defends Chris Rock’s artistic freedom. In an interview to inmathi.com, he says Tamil comedy has come of age, and comedians and audiences are ready for takedowns of their religions, caste and other walls.

To actually violate an artist’s performance space is like killing someone because you didn’t like him

Question: As a standup comedian, what is your take on the Will Smith-Chris Rock controversy?
Karthik: Mixed feelings. First is, as an artist I see a violation, an artist slapping another. It is disturbing that this violation and act of violence has been sanctioned, even normalized. It’s hypocritical too. Will Smith’s career was built on comedy making fun of people’s appearances. Irreverence is what people enjoy. Will Smith was a rapper. Rap is irreverent. One can understand dislike but demonstrating dislike with violence is unacceptable.

Chris Rock’s sales spurt next day makes us realize there is a social media. There is a politics behind every event. People who are perceived as wrong by some are cancelled by them. Others get behind them.

The person who demonstrated violence did it on behalf of another person. That person [Jada Pinkett Smith] rolled their eyes and showed their distaste.

It was Chris Rock’s performance space. You can choose to walk away from that space. His approach is well known. You have to consume his art. Consume it as his act. You have the right to walk away. To actually violate an artist’s performance space is like killing someone because you didn’t like him. As an artist, I am not willing to negotiate on a line that Will Smith crossed.

Q: So was Chris Rock right? Aren’t there limits to comedy?
Karthik: We don’t have the discussion with TV news media, politicians, influencers. Why this discussion about comedians. Why is this? That we are stupid enough?

The clown walks into the court of the emperor and demeans the emperor. The nature of the clown is to demean the emperor. That’s the clown. He is just a clown. He is going to make fun of the emperor.

Ricky Jervais skewered Golden Globe and the event only got lifted as a result. A joke can shake you up. What is triggering inside you is more important than the joke. Is it making you react and become violent?

The world can make fun of my weight. The day I become ok with my weight, nobody can shake me. You can’t punch someone whose job is to make fun of people. The punch can never be excused.

Q: Are Chris Rocks there in Tamil comedy?
Karthik: I am proud to say Tamil comedy has many. Youngsters are used to the concept of dankness, satire. Dankness is high level of sarcasm, extreme sarcasm where you don’t even know they are sarcastic. Our youngsters are ready and enjoying the comedy.

Nakkal, nayyandi {Tamil words for satire and sarcasm] are essential to Tamils as people and language. Today we are only invoking it. We are bringing things back. It had not been there in mass media but certainly the roasts were there in literature and drama. It has been part of our culture.

Q: In your show, Second Decoction in 2015 you had props on stage skewering Jayalalithaa. She was alive at that time and such a thing was unthinkable then. So you were pushing the boundaries. Are comedians today more ready to take on holy cows openly?
Karthik: Many holy cows are still there. The famous person is a raja, so the attitude is let’s not make fun of the monarch.

You can’t make fun of male icons without taking a significant backlash, or even cult brands. The culture still exists. But there has always been an underground culture. It’s only a matter of time before underground culture becomes mainstream.

You see meme makers operating anonymously like invisible terrorists. We don’t now who they are but you know who the standup comic is. That’s the only difference.

Youngsters are used to the concept of dankness, satire. Dankness is high level of sarcasm, extreme sarcasm where you don’t even know they are sarcastic

But we can say that the aura of being untouchable is gone. People are figuring how to present themselves honestly in this age of social media. People are getting less untouchable because of social media.

Q: Tell us about your upcoming show, Mansplaining.
It’s about the priveleges I enjoy as a man. Today, the norm is that the world has to acknowledge our gender before we acknowledge it. But the definition of man shouldn’t come from society but from himself: what a man should be and what a woman should be. Let’s define our own masculinity. Let’s have our own definitions.

I’m telling the woman in the audience, the game is screwed against you. I am privelged. I am not giving it up yet but will talk about it.

I need to give up power. By doing that I am being proactive.

We are doing testers, performing it for willing audiences. It’s like private screenings for a movie. The film is working. I just need to figure out the edit pattern: what does the audience need more of and what less. We are premiering in June in Chennai.


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