Johnny Lever is smiling because comedy is now serious business

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In recent times, one of the renowned Marathi comedian-actor-mimicry artists Madhav Moghe passed away and Bollywood veteran Johnny Lever paid tribute to him. Looking back at this whole transformation of how the presence of comedians used to be quite elementary back in the day in cinema to now, as youngsters are making it a full-time profession and counted as ‘artists’ by society, Johnny tries to analyse the change.

In a conversation, Johnny said, “I remember back in the day, when I was a youngster, doing a full-time job and in the free time looking for platforms to perform as a comedian, all the so-called elite clubs in Colaba wouldn’t entertain a comedian. This used to be so ‘unsophisticated’ for them. I wondered why? Was is it our jokes that weren’t relatable for them or were differences in sense of humour that created the barrier? I went to the Radio Club, Colaba and tried to observe people over there. Their coffee-table conversation, their sense of humour and realised it is a combination of both. Every joke has an audience, we have to serve it to the right place.”

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He went on adding, “But it is also true that for the longest time, the business of comedy was never taken seriously. That is why perhaps we, the stand-up comedians, the mimicry artists were neither taken seriously nor given the respect and money we deserved. You see, we would travel with big celebrated artists and would get a small stage time, just for comic relief. Now, when I see all the youngsters, including my daughter Jamie (Lever) doing a whole show I realised the progressive change has come!”

While Johnny believes that his popularity in Bollywood films also helped him to flourish and gathered more crowds he recalls how earlier especially in cinema, there was a dearth of good comic writers.

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“The whole process of structured writing was not existing for the longest time and for comedy scenes, it has to be 30 per cent writing and 70 per cent improvisation. I remember how in ‘Baazigar’ I was told to include my moments in the scene while acting. Those moments were quite improvised…” recalled the actor who is known for his performances in films like ‘Raja Hindustani’, ‘Dulhe Raja’, ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’, ‘Total Dhamaal’, ‘Coolie No.1’ among many others.

However, he believes that there is a clear distinction between comedy that is happening in the regional scene like in Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and in Hindi. He also pointed out how some content is quite westernised whereas some are pure entertainment.

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“Since the new culture of ‘stand-up comedy’ is coming from western culture, the style and the humour is also urban at times. But it is good to see how some Indian comedians are creating content that is very local, fun and adding various elements including mimicry! Making the voice of another famous person, adding a dash of humour to that and the amount of practice it requires for right voice modulation – trust me it is a task. Mimicry is an art, those who are doing it are artists,” said Johnny.

He also shared how late Madhav Moghe, who appeared in Hindi films like ‘Damini’, ‘Ghatak’ and some of the popular Marathi films, used to do mimicry of Sanjeev Kumar from ‘Sholay’ – and it inspired Johnny. Moghe was also associated with Melody Makers Orchestra and travelled the world with various artists. Johnny paid tribute to the late actor as president of MAAM (Mimicry Artist Association Mumbai).

“I was a youngster who would go to watch his live performances whenever I got a chance and he was an inspiration to me. He would make many sounds including planes, trains, animals as well as of famous actors. It was a moment for me when I told myself, ‘Mujhe inke jaisa banna hai’. Back then, I had to prove to my father before quitting my job that I can run our kitchen by doing small roles in films and comedies. Today, my daughter Jamie who is also a budding comedian doesn’t have to prove that to me!” Johnny signed off.

–By Arundhuti Banerjee

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