Neeti Palta on performing with the ‘female perspective’, finding the funny in mundane, and bridging the North-South divide with laughter.
Neeti Palta has been performing as a stand up comedienne for four years now. She has done shows for varied audiences and corporates across Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Chennai, Coimbatore, Kochi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Goa, Kolkatta, Bangalore, Pune, and in Australia. Her first full fledged screenplay ‘O Teri’ released this weekend all over India.
Neeti learnt comedy the hard way. As she laughingly tells us- if you have an annoying older brother, you can’t very well beat him physically. Your best bet is to hit him with words – and then run for your life. So, while Neeti wrote cutting limericks that she could recite to him from outside the bathroom door, she honed her unique comedic voice- which is one part observation, mixed with two part of understanding, and a slight dash of the ‘female perspective’.
Neeti, when did you know you wanted to become a stand up comic?
After a stint in advertising and then as writer for children’s show- Galli Galli Sim Sim, I was looking for an outlet for all this energy when I happened to attend an improv show hosted by Whose Line Is It Anyway’s Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood. As other audience members cowered, I screamed and shouted and made sure I was included as a volunteer for one of their skits. We were handed a mic and asked to make background sounds to a scene. Within a minute, my inner funny girl reared her head and I was improvising with strange yelping, snarling and scuffling sounds, leaving the audience in splits and the performers rushing to modify the scenario for me. Within three days from that evening, I was at my first open mic night!
Laughter from the audience is its own kind of drug. Even today- before every show, I can’t help remembering that song – “aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai, aaj phir marne ka irada hai”. In the stand up world you are only as good as your last show- and with every new audience you have as many chances of soaring as absolutely bombing- which is what keeps me on my own toes. It is hard enough being a female comedian- but a female comedian who doesn’t hold back the punches is even more of a rarity.
I notice that you do a lot of corporate shows. Do you ever feel like they are stymieing your creativity or your voice?
Look, the word ‘corporate’ by it’s very nature conjures up images of straitlaced boring ‘suits’. I have always found it best to lay the ground rules before I do a show. In some cases it is as easy as getting to know a couple of the people from their department, building some jokes around them, and running with the rest of my material. A lot of my jokes poke fun at Indian men and since most corporates have more men than women, I have needed to modify the material a bit. But there have been instances when I am asked to build a comedy set with “no names, no politics, no religious references, nothing controversial whatsoever”. And in that case, I tell them that in that case I might as well step in and step off the stage without saying a word. Stand up comedy is hot right now, but if your company’s culture can’t stand the heat, you are better off listening to a classical music concert.
Is there anything at all that should be taboo for a comedian?
No, nothing is off-limits. I remember I used to be staunchly against rape jokes initially. But then I realized that it wasn’t the jokes that bothered me, but some male comedians’ flippant attitudes towards the subject. I think one can joke about anything and everything – but with a context.
In a recent show I did a piece on female foeticide- but does that mean I am condoning the practise? No, I am using the mic in my hands to shine a light on an issue that I have opinions about. And yes, the joke was met by dead silence, but the moment I said – “one tiny joke about a social issue and everyone is quiet”, the ice was broken and the audience laughing again.
Do you think the audience find it more difficult to take in the hard truth from a female comedienne?
It has really been 50-50 for me. But largely I have been pleasantly surprised. Even in strong patriarchal bastions like Delhi- I have found an appreciative audience. And yes, there has been an occasional male ego that has been pricked, and an occasional audience member who has heckled me. But- contrary to my father’s worries- no one has threatened to bash my head in yet. And it is my job to shoot down the hecklers. If I can’t be funnier than them and shut them up, then I have no business being a stand up comic.
Where do you enjoy performing most?
I have always loved performing in Mumbai and Bangalore most- the audience in those cities is electric. I still remember a show in Bangalore where it was pouring outside, and I wasn’t even sure I will get a crowd. But they came- tired and exhausted after a day of work and participated and laughed with me. I really feed off that kind of energy and appreciation.
But I have had just as much fun performing in Chennai and Coimbatore . It is a myth that comedy doesn’t translate from place to place. Human beings are the same everywhere, and you can make them laugh if you just know how they think.
Neeti, do you watch a lot of comedy? Who are some of the comedians whose work you enjoy?
Actually I rarely watch comedy. It worries me that I may end up imbibing some of the jokes and end up using them in my material. But one contemporary comedian that I really really enjoy is Tanmay Bhat. His persona , his irreverence, everything makes him absolutely unique.
So what makes you laugh in real life?
Human beings- they are hysterical. The way society is obsessed with when a woman will reproduce (“koi good news hai?”), the way old mataji’s read the Ramayana looking for the interesting parts just like we read our Mills and Boons- all of that is really funny to me, and great fodder for my stand up routine.
Since it is election season at MBRB HQ (and in the rest of the country) is there are any current public figures that she is just dying to skewer in her stand up.
I don’t do a lot of political comedy. I have noticed that reality is funnier than any of my punchlines can be. My style is more slice-of-life observational in nature, so I am more likely to remark that no wonder the parliamentary sessions don’t last for too long, most men don’t, than to skewer any one specific person.
Is there any downside to being a comedian?
Just that everyone and their uncle wants to tell you a funny story, whether you’re at the gym or shopping for groceries, insisting that you use that for your next set. “Use this!”, they say with great confidence, for the most thakela joke on the planet.
Neeti is currently recovering from a 5 day hospitalisation (and mining that experience for new jokes- “comedians wait for bad things to happen to them so that they can talk about it”). We wish her a quick recovery and many more jokes that push the boundary and leave you both thinking and gasping with laughter.
And we can’t help agreeing with her- “In some ways comedy is almost like a social service of sorts, if someone leaves my show a little bit happier, and maybe honks at one person less on his way back home, my work is done. Humour can be infectious!”