Serious issues demand to be taken seriously. That’s what I was taught from an early age, despite the best efforts of Lenny Bruce and Abbie Hoffman, and it’s the unquestioned aphorism that drives newscasts, newspapers and documentaries. But The Daily Show and The Colbert Report proved that it’s possible to inform and inspire a swath of the population through witty, barbed dissections of current events. The latter will never replace the former, of course, but it’s an invaluable compliment.
Building on the idea that comedy opens people’s ears—to ugly realities and uncomfortable truths, Bay Area producers David Munro and Xandra Castleton made Stand Up Planet, a one-hour documentary following an Indian-American comic as he searches for comedic talent in some of the poorest areas in the world.
On one level, Stand Up Planet is an enlightened travelogue in which charismatic comic and host Hasan Minhaj ventures to India and South Africa in search of local comedians with the guts to take on social issues and the talent to get laughs. An important secondary goal is bringing a couple of those comedians to Los Angeles to perform at the Laugh Factory. In addition to offering a personal and career boon for the two aspiring talents, the gig could demonstrate that a given culture’s problems and humor can be deeply understood by another. Suffering may be universal, but so is empathy; is comedy?
“Traditional social issue documentaries leave out the ‘life goes on’ part, where people laugh and love, and just focus to an extreme on the problem,” Munro explains. “I think they not only leave out a big part of the story, but make people tune out when it’s presented that way. You can’t keep living if all there is is poverty and hopelessness.”
The producers looked at a lot of comics before settling on the likable, intelligent Minhaj (from MTV’s Failosophy) as Stand Up Planet’s host, guide and ringleader. It happened to be pilot season in L.A., and Minhaj had various options. He chose Stand Up Planet, in part, because he recognized that he was increasingly drawing on his own life for his stand-up act.
“He was in a time of discovery for his own work, and [the program] was an experience that would broaden his scope,” Munro says. “And also connect some dots, to go back to India and go through this Ralph Ellison experience. ‘What if my family hadn’t left? Would I have been a comedian? A computer engineer?’ It closed a circle, in a way, and opened one up.”
Minhaj’s trip to Mumbai uncovers a handful of courageous, outspoken English-language comics who primarily perform in small venues such as restaurants. Their audience largely consists of young, educated elites, but that’s an influential segment of the population. On the street, bulky comic Tanmay Bhat takes Minhat on a neighborhood tour to illustrate the reality behind one of his most trenchant bits: 54 percent of Indians defecate outdoors. Every day, 1,600 children die of sanitation-related illnesses.
In Johannesburg, Minhaj and the filmmakers encounter black stars who launched their careers with daring sketch-comedy shows that made fun of the tendency to blame now-banned apartheid for every ill.
“Everyone was walking on eggshells, no one wanted to touch the third rail of flat-out truth,” Munro says. “The comics were willing to. Some of the stuff they did on the TV show caught a lot of flak from the government.”
Stand Up Planet goes to great pains to avoid condescending to the native comics and populations, which should be commended. At the same time, Munro says he sees the progression and history of American comedy mirrored in India and South Africa.
“Before stand-up, just like in this country, mass-appeal mainstream comedy tends to be broad, almost like vaudeville,” he explains. “So what we saw in these countries was an accelerated evolution of what happened here. The performers start out as filler (on a long bill) and slowly become the main draw.”
One of the surprising thing about Stand Up Planet is when the scouted talent that were invited to L.A. at Minhaj’s invitation are treated to a private visit with Bill Cosby, which rocks their world.
“The way it works for me is as the passing of the torch, that dangerous comedy is not a new invention,” Munro says. “It’s going to the mountain,” Castleton concurs. “All these comics grew up watching The Cosby Show.”
The show also had a huge impact in South Africa, simply by depicting that a black man and his wife could be professionals and live in a nice house. According to Munro, the inmates on Robben Island used to write in sand, recounting what happened the night before on The Cosby Show.
In other words, never discount the power of comedy. Stand Up Planet carries on the fight with a contemporary voice and ample laughs.
Stand Up Planet has its broadcast premiere Wednesday, May 14 on Link TV, Pivot and KCET.
For more information, visit www.standupplanet.org.