“Why did the chicken cross the road?”
The answer to this varies from person to person, just like the answer to the question: can comedy be taken seriously?
Comedy is not just banana peels and slapstick. It is an essential part of culture—not Western or Eastern culture, but human culture; laughter has no language, no race, no religion. One of the most important roles played by humor is in bridging the chasms between different people, spreading mirth and a spirit of bonhomie. It does this not through political persuasion or moral compelling. Comedy taps into the vein of common human experience, showing us that the “other” person is more like us than we care to acknowledge. The rich man’s child may walk about in finery and the beggar’s child in rags, but when they both laugh, their tinkling laughter brings the same smile to their parents’ faces. An excellent example of humour overcoming long-standing rivalries is the TV programme “The Great Indian Laughter Challenge”, which also features Pakistani comedians. We are at our most vulnerable when trying to make someone laugh, and it takes a special kind of bravery to walk on stage and do so in front of hundreds of strangers—more so if you’re from a traditionally opposing side. Through this show, we have seen how the people across the border are like us despite so many differences, and I believe it has done more for peace in three seasons than decades’ worth of political speeches in the past.
This also highlights another important aspect of comedy: political and social comment. From the satires of Aristophanes to the occasionally offensive humour of Borat, comedy has been used throughout the ages to bring us face-to-face with harsh truths we may have been denying. We realize how much or how little we have changed and we see the irony of some of our best-intended actions. It allows us to step back and take an honest look at ourselves and what we believe in. Humour lets this be a humbling experience, but not humiliating and therein lies its genius.
Great comedy makes its point without being predictable or patronizing. This is also a reason why comedy is an excellent way to see the change in society’s mores and conventions. The hugely popular Pakistani talk show hosted by Begum Nawazish Ali is special not just because the guests (politicians and the ilk) are asked candid questions in a country where people have learned that speaking up may get you into trouble, but also because Begum Nawazish Ali…is a man. Never before has the serious issue of tolerance towards people such as cross-dressers been so openly presented, that too in a decidedly conservative country such as Pakistan. It would not have been possible had humour not been incorporated into the show. In this way, we can see that times comedy may even prompt social change. How would this be possible if comedy could not, on some level, be taken seriously?
It is argued that comedy runs the risk of trivializing any issue it touches upon and distracting people from working on it.
However, I ask you: did Michael Moore’s deliciously anti-Establishment wit undermine the sombre topics he addressed in “Dude, where’s my country?” Did the visit of an entertainers’ group to U.S. troops in Iraq trivialize the grim reality of the Iraq war? Have the jokes of Pakistani comedian Umer Sharif ever belittled the plight of the country’s women? On the contrary, they have done more to highlight them. “Funny” will always be considered synonymous with “accessible” and that is a great way to start when you want to educate people about particular problems.
The only thing that is in danger of being trivialized is comedy itself. Life is hard enough, but if we lose the ability to laugh at it, what will we have left? Comedy is an expression and understanding of our lives and our selves. It is a celebration of the Human Story, the little time we are given on this earth between oblivion and eternity. It is an integral part of our humanity, while also being vital for our psychological well-being. These are some very real, very serious aspects of comedy. But the beauty of it is, there is no need to feel guilty for enjoying its lighter side. It would not be comedy otherwise.
So have a laugh. And let us all wonder—why did the chicken cross the road!
“Why did the chicken cross the road?”