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The Politics of Politically Incorrect Jokes

picture of comedian hannah gadsby with the text 'hannah gadsby, nanette' written beside her

Nanette was the first stand-up comedy show that I really enjoyed. That probably tells you a little bit about my stomach for stand-up comedy, as a genre. Unless it is finely thought through, can deliver great substance with few clichés and pack in “bad words” not as humour but as frills to the actual humour, I think stand-up comedy is usually a joke (pun intended). Even if I stand in solidarity with a stand-up comedian whose show might be on the verge of being censored and whose freedom of expression needs to be defended, I can only really laugh during the performance if the sets are actually smart and politically astute. Otherwise, it strikes me as another form of entertainment that simply survives by picking on those that already feel persecuted and persecuting them some more.

Somewhere in the middle of Nanette, as I was crying and laughing, I thought about how political incorrectness is the soul of stand-up comedy. The punch line works only if the tension building up to it comes to an anti-climactic close — a point that Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby underlines throughout her performance. Her point is that sometimes to achieve that anti-climactic effect, you are forced to bury the actual story; instead you seal the story with a punch line, get a few laughs, and close the show. Over time, you forget what the actual story was; instead you only remember the punch line and begin to believe that is how the real story ends. Her show then goes on to reveal both painful and pleasurable moments that Gadsby has buried in order to build her punch lines. As you begin to laugh and cry at the actual endings, you begin to wonder about the success of the genre of stand-up comedy and the point of political incorrectness. Political incorrectness is something we like because it promises to be bold, audacious and rebellious. But does it always deliver? Or sometimes, is it that proverbial rebel without a cause? Do punch lines always reveal ideas and possibilities that were being stifled under all the political correctness of mainstream life, or do they inevitably abet in stifling the stifled some more? Gadsby’s entire show is a ‘show don’t tell’ version of how stand-up sets often end up being handmaidens to mainstream humour, even without intending to do so. And in abetting mainstream humour, politically incorrect jokes simply work to reinforce mainstream politics of gender, body and sexuality. Yes, like that joke about the lesbian woman that continues to take new avatars and feature in many, many comedy routines.

Partly, it is the genre of comedy itself — for a joke to work, you need the audience to get it. And for a joke to work well, you need them to get it like they are getting it for the first time. It needs to feel both familiar and surprising. It has to pack in both the old wine and the new bottle, without seeming either too niche or too clichéd. In other words, it is hard. So, it is not entirely surprising that comedians draw from a commonly shared pool of social categories that are deemed funny —the wife, the mother-in-law, the lesbian, the single woman, the woman with a moustache, the fat lady etc. These are politically incorrect categories — stand-up gives you the right to bring up these stereotypes without causing people to wince about your bad manners. In fact, it is that one spot where you have the license to be politically incorrect, even brazenly so.

It reminds me of a category of social relations that British social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, termed joking relationships in the 1940s. A joking relationship is ritualised teasing, even mockery, that is meant to break the ice and ease two people into a better relationship. Like that proverbial mother-in-law joke in Britain during his time. Cracking jokes about the mother-in-law to friends or even to the mother-in-law is meant to help the son-in-law laugh off the stress that he feels when he ‘handles’ his wife’s ‘very demanding’ mother. Buried under this mother-in-law stereotype are two connotations: the innocence of the young female object of affection in the form of the lovely undemanding wife, and the manipulative tendencies of the older woman, or the demanding mother-in-law. Imagine how much these connotations allow men to gaslight women — both the young and the innocent, and the old and the demanding. Radcliffe-Brown did however take such jokes for a given in any society, and so he meticulously searched for, and inspired others to search for, these ‘joking relationships’ in all societies around the world. He therefore carried forth without critique a Eurocentric stereotype, and through comparative study, established its presence elsewhere in the world as well, without stopping to study the broader politics within which such ‘jokes’ become laughable.

Stand-up comedy often thrives on the same mistakes as old British structural anthropology — as a genre, it takes political correctness and incorrectness for granted, and pronounces certain stereotypes to be ‘timeless’ jokes. But there are no timeless jokes. Like everything else, jokes are products of particular historic changes and the results of evolving politics. Politically incorrect jokes must therefore have a ear to the ground to sense political shifts, both subtle and seismic. Simply replacing the ‘frigid woman’ in an old joke to ‘lesbian’ because now it is somewhat kosher and somewhat thrillingly dangerous to say the word lesbian out loud on stage is not humour. It is laziness, which as Gadsby points out in Nanette still assumes a predominantly male audience who is able to laugh at a woman who ‘doesn’t need men’ for sexual pleasure. It helps ease male discomfort by making women the butt of jokes. It remains a painful reminder that women are still defined and framed in relation to men. Not only does this assume certain things about women’s sexual pleasure, it also assumes certain things about men and masculinity. So, in spite of its cravings to establish itself as an alternative to politically correct mainstream humour, such incorrect humour barely manages to scratch the surface of ‘alternative.’ Rarely, and very rarely, when delivered really well, and by an appropriate comedian, it subverts the stereotype, actually paving way for a new politics of the body.

The infuriating thing about joking relationships is that Radcliffe-Brown came up with the category at a time when such categories were assumed to be universal, as were notions of gender and sex. So it was possible to take the idea of joking relationships to any part of the world, and merely label social performances as “joking relationships” without analysing the particularities of gender, sex, and sexuality within which such stereotypes emerged. Radcliffe-Brown, thus identified mother-in-law jokes in South African tribes without quite asking how Eurocentric assumptions of what constituted jokes or gender or sex may have shaped his analysis.

But that was the 1940s; everything European was assumed to be universal — either already a part of the primitive elsewhere, or soon to become a part of the developing non-European world. What’s sad is that we carry traces of such thinking even today. Nanette takes up the problem of jokes within a historical context — a stage whose main audience is rich, straight, white men. But it immediately gets you wondering about how the idea that jokes are universal has led to these jokes being reproduced elsewhere, with modifications that now make them likable for rich, straight men of colour. Sometimes, so poor is the sense of humour that the butt of the joke is the sexuality of white or ‘western’ women. These jokes make it everywhere — to award functions, talk shows, in movies, in stand-up. In fact, recently with an increase in the number of movies that want to play up the pride of the Indian man, it is not at all uncommon to have comedy tracks that compare the sanctity of Indian womanhood to the wanton mess that non-Indian womanhood is assumed to be. I’ve a list of movies I have stopped watching, talk shows I’ve turned off, and comedy shows I’ve muted because of the racist mess it becomes in an attempt to salvage the pride of an “Indian man.”

Nannette brings up the challenge that comedy thriving on the delivery of refreshing political incorrectness faces, because of its inability to divorce itself from its mainstream audience — affluent, white, straight men. But it raises several questions for comedy everywhere – can we even begin to historicise and politicise comedy itself without losing our sense of humour. Can we laugh at something that is truly traumatic without traumatising someone else or something else? Can we laugh with people who identify as a race, as a gender, as a sexuality that is different from ours, without making them the butt of our jokes, the raison d’etre of our humour? Can we build a sense of self that doesn’t rely on some else’s failing?

For the Indian comedy scene, where you barely see enough female comedians, in spite of the fact that there has been enough proof from women like veteran actresses — Manorama in Tamil or K.P.A.C. Lalitha in Malayalam — or upcoming and emerging comedians like Aditi Mittal, Radhika Vaz or Aparna Nancherla that women can indeed be funny, the challenge of breaking free from the straight male audience may seem burdensome. Maybe there is only one way to do it — don’t cater to them; and, maybe there is an entirely different audience waiting to wake up to the refreshing fun of politically incorrect humour. A small audience, maybe and niche even, but hey, who says the laughing won’t be loud?

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