Moin Akhtar: Laughter through genius
"Don't worry, it's all an act," he told me. Instantly he became, for me, the coolest human being alive.
Making people laugh is serious business. Moin Akhtar taught me that when I was six-years-old.
He was performing live at a family wedding I was being forced to attend (at that age you are forced to do pretty much everything). I remember being quite thrilled that the man who makes me laugh on TV was there in real life, performing on stage.
Positioning myself right in front, I got to watch him transform from character to character with just a well aimed hunch of the shoulder or lilt of the accent, all with rapid fire ability. His big closer for the night was acting like the singer of a hit pop song who gets more and more exhausted by his own success as the audience keeps forcing him into an encore. By the end, the song’s lyrics are whimpered and the singer is full of bitterness and pain.
My family was hysterical with laughter, barely being able to gasp out the demands that the 'singer' perform “Once more! Once more!”
I, however, was horrified. Utterly believing the character being portrayed, I felt sorry for him and began to add my own, more sympathetic, cry to the crowd’s. “No more!” I yelled, “No more!”
I just wanted the poor singer to get a moment’s respite.
In retrospect, I also clearly wanted to be noticed for my compassion and appreciated for it (a mix of sincerity and egotism that all but guaranteed me my own future in comedy). For a brief moment though, quick as a whisper, Moin Akhtar broke character, crouched down and told me,
“Don’t worry beta, it’s all an act.”
Then, before anyone else caught that moment between us, he was back up, whimpering and mewling as his character responded to the crowds hungry needs.
My mind was blown. Comedy, he showed me, required performance. It demanded an annihilation of ego. It also, most importantly, asked for commitment. It didn’t matter if you were on stage at a television show where the audience was there to laugh, or at a wedding where they had grudgingly torn themselves away from the food line. All that mattered was that you got them to laugh with you, at you and for you. Moin Akhtar, instantly became, for me, the coolest human being alive.
And now he is no more.
Except, how can anyone who has given us hundreds of hours of archival footage of himself, ever be gone. I am not going to extol the virtues of his numerous television appearances. If you haven’t seen his mastery of the comedic craft before then you will over the next few days on every TV channel, Facebook status update and YouTube link. You don’t need me to tell you he was hilarious, inspiring and gifted. Just know this: every comedian performing today that you love and laugh at, every impersonator who makes you guffaw with their manipulation of a stereotype, all of them come after Moin Akhtar. They are his students and his fans and followers. His innate understanding of comedic timing is the reason so many try to make you laugh. They all saw the effortless way in which he made us all forget our life’s problems as we exhaled loud laughter and wanted to learn to do the same.
Charlie Chaplin once said, “Anyone can make them cry. It takes a genius to make them laugh.” Moin Akhtar was a prodigy who understood his talent and used it to the fullest of its ability. So don’t disrespect his memory by crying over his passing. Instead, use this opportunity to revisit his genius and laugh instead.