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August 26, 2017

Comedian Neeti Palta On The Importance Of Self-Deprecating Humour

Text by Sharmi Ghosh Dastidar. Photograph by Rishabh Malik

Her self-assured swag works in her favour as she takes to the stage with wit, sarcasm, attitude and opinions

“I’ve never worked this hard to hide my grin. Seriously, is it that bad?” quips the woman trying to stifle a chuckle from behind the cover of Woody Allen’s Mere Anarchy, every time the lensman asks for a poised demeanour. “I’m a stand-up comedian you know. ‘Teeth’ come naturally to me!” That’s Neeti Palta for you — witty, amusing and full of wisecracks.

Breaking into the stand-up comedy scene almost by chance, Palta recalls penning limericks to irk her elder brother while growing up. “We were typical fauji kids, uprooted every year and planted in a new zone, expected to simply adjust. I happened to be the extrovert. So, when it came to performing before an audience who would obviously judge you because of your gender, there was no restraint. I threw down the gauntlet with no-holds-barred jokes. The routines were generously peppered with digs at men. Someone had to do it, right?” says Palta, adding, “But Delhi has pleasantly surprised me. It was more of bouquets than brickbats.”

Originally a writer, Palta discovered her funny bone in 2000 when she volunteered for a part in Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood’s (of Whose Line is it Anyway? fame) act held in the capital. “Brad suggested I try stand-up comedy. He found my improvised sounds pretty impressive. I thought, why not?” recalls Palta, who has been a creative director at JWT, and written scripts for the show Galli Galli Sim Sim and a film, O Teri. She is currently working on the first draft of her next film script. But what’s picking her brain now is the issue of feminism that she wants to address through comedy.

Trolled on social media and heckled on stage innumerable times for being forthright with her views, Palta is pretty bemused by the gagging of free speech these days. “Heckling is part of the game. It mitigates when you project the nerve to face a varied set of people. They warm up to your brand of comedy and even start enjoying it. After all, it’s all in a lighter vein. But getting tagged by male-hate websites on social media is unacceptable because come on…I like men. All of them are not abominable! I have some awesome male friends both from the industry and outside, who wouldn’t denigrate women for the sake of it. Why generalise? Say this and you become a ‘bimbo’, an ‘airhead’. That’s ludicrous. I am not against feminism. But I want to tell all those who wear it on their sleeves that ‘you wanted to become free and equal to men and now you’ve achieved that end by becoming a sexist yourself’. Isn’t it well within our rights to speak on the issues we want…periods, bras and boobs…let the comedian choose,” Palta affirms.

Perhaps it’s this self-assured swag that has worked in Palta’s favour. “In advertising, we made our pitch armed with the knowledge that our ideas will be trashed. So, we braced for the worst. When I first took to the stage, I went out with a thick skin, unafraid of the criticism. Comedian, John Mulaney had once told me that the nervousness never leaves. That’s true for all of us because you never know how the audience will react to a routine that went off immaculately at a previous show. Some get the jokes and respond favourably, some are too slow and there’s this awkward silence. But does that mean you don’t go out with all guns blazing?” she explains, adding, “With experience, your jokes evolve. While there’s this set of bulletproof material that I unleash regularly, fresh ammunition is stacked up after encounters with new people. Like right now, my routines feature jokes about my upbringing, the Indian middle class, politics, social issues, all woven in a weird way without pontification. There was this 35-member Indian joint family who were checking in before me at the airport in Melbourne. Oh yes! Feel my pain, people,” Palta’s sarcasm is on point.

No matter how brave a front she kept, Palta acknowledges she did have to prove her worth in a profession that’s generally considered a male bastion. “The moment you walk up on stage they size you up because you are a girl. Silent judgement is passed on your looks and clothes. I’ve always concentrated on grabbing attention based on what comes out of my mouth. Cleavage and high hemlines were kept out of the radar. But I occasionally start with, ‘Are you done checking me out? Do I start now?’” she laughs, adding, “Sometimes the presenter introduces you with ‘Please welcome Neeti Palta, our female comic for the evening’ or ‘The woman with balls of steel’. Like, really? That’s where I lose the plot and launch the tirade, all in good humour though.”

But, the biggest stumbling block that impeded her climb was when her father gruffly forbade her tryst with comedy. Palta was forced to clandestinely continue performing till one day she invited her parents for a show at the India Habitat Centre. A wave of applause from the audience changed the plot altogether. “The story ended happily that day,” Palta sounds elated.

Voted as the best stand-up comic at the Oz Fest in Melbourne in 2014 and India’s first stand-up comedian to perform at the prestigious Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2013, Palta’s showcase at the latter again this year saw her as part of the Comedy Zone Asia motley with Sumit Anand (India), Douglas Lim (Malaysia), Rizal van Geyzel (Malaysia) and Jinx Yeo (Singapore). “Earlier I refrained from watching stand-up comedy for fear of being influenced. Once you are tagged a joke stealer, you incessantly come under the scanner. But now I’ve started watching shows. Some of my favourites are Varun Grover, Eddie Izzard, Shappi Khorsandi, Sharul Channa and Sarah Silverman,” explains Palta, who refrains from doing private shows after a botched-up experience left her mortified a few years back. “That was the only time when I felt the drawback of my gender.”

Constantly feeding on fodder from her sojourns, Palta is quick to confirm that a comedian should have the ability to use self-deprecating humour. “Women take themselves too seriously. We should hurl jokes and laugh at ourselves. Like in Melbourne I accompanied my friends to a strip club. It was hilarious. While the guys gawked uncontrollably, I kept scribbling on my phone whatever I witnessed to create material for my next shows. I took advantage of the situation. It’s one life… laugh it out loud!” says the comic.

A diehard foodie, Palta also works out like a maniac and unwinds with her English bulldog, Punch, and beagle, Socks, when she is not scripting laughathons. “I enjoy superhero flicks. They are shallow and fun. Every morning, I meet all my coffee buddies to chat on life and the times. It’s like a daily dope, without which my cranial cells fail to function,” she says. A tad averse to corporate shows because of the restrictions they come with, Palta’s ambition is to be able to take stand-up comedy to higher levels. “I want to become so famous one day that my name sells out auditorium seats completely!”

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