It used to be that the space occupied by a comedian was a safe one. One could step up on stage and comment on even the most controversial of topics and not worry too much about the backlash it could bring. Censorship and boundary lines, after all, do go against the very nature of comedy. Recent events, however, show us that people are not as open to jokes on controversial matters, as may have been the case in the past. The dynamic nature of society has increased awareness levels and a hyper sensitivity amongst individuals on several issues. This in turn has led to more voices speaking out on the sometimes crude nature of comedy.
If you had asked me as early as five years ago, if I felt that comedy should adhere to a boundary line of sorts, I would have possibly said no. These five years, however, have also been years of increased learning and understanding, and everything that I have witnessed and digested forces me to concede that comedians do have a certain responsibility and are not exempt from boundaries, just like every other art form.
In today’s world where social media is the most effective weapon and where words travel to millions of screens and are not confined to a small space, it becomes increasingly important that the comedian realises that he is now catering to a much wider and diverse audience, and while people can respect that humour has a light hearted tone to it, it can also very quickly spark a controversy and sentiments can get hurt.
The backlash that Trevor Noah received is our most recent example on the debate of whether a comedian crossed the line or not. In his joke about a possible war ensuing between India and Pakistan, Trevor Noah labels it as “entertaining” owing to the infamous dance numbers that are featured in most Bollywood movies. The comment on the nature of Bollywood in particular is not something that irked me, but rather it was the timing of the joke. It had barely been two weeks since the Pulwama terrorist attack and tensions were at a high between the two countries. As if reading the comments spurring for war by our countrymen was not infuriating enough, a foreign celebrity making light of the situation was just not something I particularly cared for at that time, not when the country was still reeling from a terrorist attack, and especially not when discussions and calls for war were in full force.
The current trend in our times is to be “woke” and that entails being an alert member of society when it comes to societal injustices. Comedians have been minting money out of it, and if you are going to label yourself as “woke”, it’s hard to not expect controversy over comments that can be interpreted as racist or sexist or any of the other “isms”. This is not the first time Trevor Noah has been on the receiving end of harsh criticism for his jokes, and neither is he the first or last comedian. In this particular case, perhaps if the joke had been delivered at a better time, it would have met with laughs instead of the Twitter shaming it invoked. It’s not entirely in bad taste and it does have humour to it, but it could have not come at a more volatile time.
A joke’s a joke, but we’re already very scant on human compassion and ethical sense. Is a comedian exempted from that when he’s in the spotlight? Is what he says as a performer not a reflection of him and his thoughts? How can we discern that? What if comedians too get too high on the power of their jokes that they feel invincible, and can excuse everything as an attempt for a laugh? Should they be held accountable for their words? Words do after all have the power to hurt, and more so, to influence and incite.
Comedy was not born to influence, but that is the shape it has taken, and if you have the capacity to influence, you are burdened with a social responsibility. Who knows when the next rape joke is uttered and a viewer or audience member receives the justification for his/her actions? Or a rape survivor is silenced further; further believing that it’s better to remain silent. I know these are both extreme cases, but can we just for a second consider that they very easily could also be a reality? By making such statements, I am not asserting that it is the comedian’s responsibility to shelter everyone’s sentiments. It’s simply not possible. It would be a zigzag of boundary lines going in all directions and even crossing each other.. We must, however, acknowledge that there’s a very thin line between reality and a joke, and most times, people are not able to distinguish the two. A joke does have the potential to be taken as the truth, and one can’t even blame the viewers for it as more and more comedians are using their comedic talents to educate and bring to light several issues, and essentially be “woke”. And they’re doing a great job at it. It does, nonetheless, sometimes call for controversy and backlash, even if it is done in the name of “It’s only a joke” or “Freedom of Speech and Expression”.
Speaking of freedom of speech and expression, considering that comedians are strong believers in the exercise of it, why aren’t audience members privy to this exact exercise too? If I, as an audience member, express discomfort with a comment made by a comedian, aren’t I too simply exerting that same right? The worst defenders of comedians are not comedians themselves, but their fans who are sometimes unable to comprehend that jokes can hurt, and a person expressing that certain jokes did not sit right with them is (most times) valid in feeling that way. I will probably never understand the implications of using the term “–gger”, but can I reprimand a black person for identifying the joke as racist? Would that be fair of me? The same goes for jokes on rape or war or disabilities. They are by nature sensitive topics to begin with, which even in normal conversation one would tread carefully, and if one fails to find the humour in it, why must the person be made to feel terrible for thinking otherwise or forced to laugh along, simply because “it’s only a joke”?
It’s difficult to define the space of a comedian, and there’s no hard and fast rule on what’s funny and what’s not. However, I do believe that as comedy is becoming an increasingly popular form of entertainment, we cannot ignore that there is a certain responsibility that does come with it. A comedian also deserves to be routinely kept in check. At the same time, I do not hold that a comedian should be judged or shunned entirely because of one joke, unless maybe it was just a really, really terrible joke. A comedian with every act is testing the boundaries he can cross, every joke is in a process of trial and error, and while some work, some can be met with a great deal of backlash. It’s difficult to ascertain and pin-point exactly what will work and what will not, but is it also too much to ask for comedians to at least consider the impact of their words? And can we stop guilt-shaming people for not finding EVERY joke funny?
I read somewhere that as long as comedy is provoking, it’s a reflection that society still cares and there are in fact humane boundary lines, and that we’re basically not a bunch of robots. Perhaps this debate is one with too many loopholes and not meant to end. There are merits in daring to cross the lines, but backlash helps to keep the comedic space from being absolute.
Author: Camilla Lyndem
Camilla Ann Lyndem is a Staff Writer. Based in Bengaluru, she is a graduate of St.Stephen’s College, Delhi, where she completed her Undergraduate and Postgraduate degree in English Literature.Although a hardcore liberal arts student, she enjoys coding and has worked on building smart models, including a smart irrigation system (take that, CS students).