Colombo, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict

Bridging comedy and conscience

Violence does not make me laugh. Yet humour has not only survived nearly two and a half decades of exposure to violence, brutality, intolerance, discrimination, corruption and abuses of power, it has preserved my sensitivity and been a soft padding that shielded me from the hard blows of reality. It has been a key to our resilience as a nation and a safer platform for us to speak truth to power. Because we somehow feel that the death of a comedian is more tragic than the death of a philosopher, soldier, a politician or indeed a straight talking newspaper editor.

It’s not easy to make people laugh and it is especially difficult to laugh in the midst of death and destruction of the very essence of our humanity. The most difficult aspect of satirising tragedy however, is dealing with the mix of emotions that you are left with at the end. It actually is painful to make people laugh in the face of tragedy. It is impossible the laugh at the fate of the two LTTE pilots who were shot down without appreciating that their fate is in a way tied to mine. Satirising the story only heightens the awareness that a nation that could produce a suicide bomber out of a Tamil could indeed make suicide bombers out of Muslims and Sinhalese and Burgers and Malays and all and any Sri Lankan. I cannot laugh at Mervin Silva without feeling sorry for myself as a Sri Lankan.

Adding to the difficulty and pain is the fear that in satirising reality, one may be inadvertently softening a bit too much – it’s harshness and leasing a false sense of complacency to the audience. Yet laughter is a conduit that reaches out to a broader audience, much more deeply. It is a good conversation starter – which could lead to a social debate about issues at workplaces and lounge rooms. Satire is a good solvent of tension and diverse opinions. Most of all it adds another perspective to the discourse and debate on social issues and in doing so, teaches us to look at problems from different angles, and inspires us to question not only the status quo, but also our own understanding of reality.

Perhaps that is why comedy should be a vital ingredient of social discourse and debate. The commission of the comedian in the face of conflict, violence and injustice is not to extract a cheap laugh out of the shallows of apathy, but to lift his audience to the heights of laughter and preserve their sensitivity so that they may be able to dive deeper and with more empathy, into the dark and empty ignorance of our greatest tragedies.

  • Laughing Sudda

    We need dark humour (a.k.a. dark comedy, black humor and morbid humor) to survive the current darkness that engulfs Lanka and other conflict-ridden or strife-torn countries. The darker the hour, the more we need tools like satire to take a step or two back, and laugh even if only momentarily about our individual or collective plight.

    And, as generations of people who have lived (or still live) in tyrannical regimes know, black humour is about the only safe way to make fun of their rulers and get away with it. Russians under the old Soviet Union knew this, as did all Eastern Europeans. The Cold War inspired large volumes of satire and jokes, some of them very creative and all of them providing the much needed comic relief.

    One of the best known examples of Cold War inspired black comedy is the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._Strangelove
    The subject of the film is nuclear warfare and the annihilation of life on Earth — not exactly laughing matters. Indeed, discussions and artistic work about nuclear war treat the subject with much gravity and seriousness, creating suspense over the efforts to avoid a nuclear war. But Dr. Strangelove plays the subject for laughs — for example, in the film, the fail-safe procedures designed to prevent a nuclear war are precisely the systems that ensure that it will happen. Plotwise, Group Captain Mandrake serves as the one sane character in the decayed society, and Major Kong fills the role of the hero striving for a harmful goal.

    In more recent times, liberal Americans survived eight long years of ultra rightwing adventurism under George (Dubya) Bush partly by making fun of the many ‘Bushisms’ of their semi-literate president. A good collection is found at: http://politicalhumor.about.com/library/blbushisms.htm

    Finally, black humour is helpful not just to cope with tyrants and repressive governments, but also other tragedies such as rape, murder, suicide, war, terminal illness, abuse, insanity, disease and crime.