Now that standup politician Narendra Modi has done his routine and evidently killed it, it is the turn of standup comedian Aziz Ansari to follow suit. I caught this poster of Ansari at a subway station the other day which announces two shows by him at the very Madison Square Garden (MSG) which the Indian prime minister filled to the capacity plus had a spillover in the Times Square yesterday.
Ansari’s show is scheduled for October 9, barely 11 days after Modi. It is a sold out show at 7 p.m., compelling him to do one more immediately after that at 10.30 p.m. I don’t know what a sold out show translates into in terms of numbers but it would be remarkable if it means nearly the same number of people that the prime minister managed to pull. Ansari is, of course, famous for his mainstream humor rather than the ethnic variety that many other comedians of Indian descent tend to do.
I guarantee that there has never been a case where the MSG had two nearly back to back shows, one by a politician who has a sense of comedy and a comedian who has a sense of politics. Speaking of a politician who has a sense of comedy, the prime minister had repeated one of his mildly humorous anecdotes about his visit to Shanghai years ago where his interpreter gingerly asked him if India was still a land of snake charmers. Modi replied something to the effect that Indians used to play with snakes once but now they do with the mouse, as in a computer mouse. As jokes go, this barely makes the grade but it is not that bad either.
I was at the MSG event and inevitably have a few observations to make. The Indian American Community Foundation, an umbrella organization bringing together 400 other Indian American groups, did a superb job of putting up the event. The execution was flawless and I suppose it would be proper to credit Anand Shah who helmed the show in terms of its execution. Of course, he had hundreds of volunteers who all did a quietly efficient job.
In terms of the content, Modi was in the midst of a crowd that would have lapped him up even if he had read from one of those restaurant menus or bus tour schedules which are thrust in your hands on the city’s streets. It was that partisan and adulatory. He could not have taken a single wrong step nor struck a single wrong note even if had insisted on doing so. People wore T-shirts with his face imprinted on it and some carried his face mask but almost anyone who was in the general audience carried gushing praise for him. That said, he hit home all his familiar themes about the contribution of the Indian American community to India as well as America, his passion to clean up India, provide safe sanitation nationwide, homes to all Indians and cleaning up the Ganga. He spoke of India’s three main strengths unrivaled by any other country—democracy, demographic dividend and demand. When he mentioned that some in the audience sounded as if they had just been presented with awe-inspiring revelation.
Before the prime minister took the stage there were already close to 40 members of the U.S. Senate and Congress there as a sort of an opening act for Modi. Modi’s flaming orange waistcoat and ivory yellow kurta contrasted well against the nearly all black suits backdrop formed by the American politicians. I am pretty sure some of them must be enviously wondering about what the chief guest had done to deserve such a fanboy welcome. “Mo…di Mo…di” was heard frequently throughout the event.
In terms of the so-called preshow or pre-speech performances, I had expected to be left cold by the quality. I was not disappointed. There was no recognizable talent to any performance, most of which were indifferently choreographed dance numbers performed with matching mediocrity. One does not want to generalize but mediocrity is often the defining feature of such shows by the Indian American community. You get the sense that the routines are being performed by children and teenagers who have been forced into them by their zealous parents desperate to introduce them to Indian culture. Indian culture can often meet Hindi movie songs and dances. For me the most irritating part of such events is the way audience members eruct either “woooo” or “woooohooo”. If you went just by the frequency of “woooo” or “wooohooo” you might think that every performance was masterful when the fact was that none was even remotely watchable.