Is Comedy Dead or Alive: When is a Comedy No Longer a Comedy?

By Matthew Ma
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Matthew Ma

“This type of behavior must come to an end. It is unclear whether those who attack comedians are familiar with the harm they cause to others. However, we need to put a stop to this immediately. Comedians offer us much-needed relief during difficult times, and we should encourage and appreciate them rather than ridicule them.”

Laughter has long been hailed as the best medicine, and for good reason. There is nothing quite like a good laugh to brighten our spirits and lift our mood. Whether it is a playful exchange between friends or the comedic stylings of a seasoned stand-up, laughter is a universal human activity that helps people from every corner of the globe cope with life's difficulties. Scientific studies have confirmed what we have all suspected: comedy is indeed good medicine. It has been shown to reduce stress, strengthen the immune system, and even alleviate chronic pain. It is no wonder that humor and pain are so closely linked. While laughter can vary widely across cultures, one thing is clear: laughter has the power to bring people together and produce positive physical and emotional changes in the body. Laughing strengthens the immune system, lifts mood, reduces pain, and protects us from the damaging effects of stress. It is a powerful tool that can help us release anger, connect with others, and stay focused and alert. Best of all, laughter is free, fun, and easy to use. It is a priceless resource that can help us overcome challenges, improve our relationships, and support our physical and emotional well-being.

As children, we used to laugh several times a day. But as we grow up, life has become so severe that people laugh less frequently. However, by actively seeking humor and laughter, we can improve our emotional well-being, strengthen our relationships, and even add years to our lives. It is important to note that while comedy may often lead to laughter, not all laughter is a result of comedy. Defining comedy can be tricky, as there are multiple recognized definitions with subtle differences. However, we can seek help from Wikipedia as an aggregator to provide a working definition. In modern times, comedy is a genre of fiction that aims to induce laughter through various mediums such as theater, film, stand-up comedy, and more. It is important to note that while the goal of comedy is to make the audience laugh, it is not simply about getting cheap laughs. It is important to remember that not all art is inexpensive entertainment. And in the same vein, not all comedy is just lowbrow humor.

According to Dean Rubin, the origin of comedy can be traced back to the Classical Greek word komoidía, which strictly denotes something that provokes laughter. The classical view of comedy, which dates back to the 4th century BCE (and continues to be relevant today), suggests that it is primarily concerned with humans as social beings rather than private individuals. Its main objective is to serve as a corrective mechanism that helps cure the wickedness and madness in the world. The comic artist aims to hold a mirror up to society and reflect on its flaws to rectify them. Henri Bergson, a French philosopher from the 20th century, shared this view and believed that laughter intended to bring the comic character back into conformity with society. When we laugh while watching a comedy show, we experience a release from distressing emotions. Laughter helps us relax, recharge, and reduce stress, allowing us to stay focused and be more productive. It enables us to shift our perspective and view situations in a more realistic and less threatening light. The psychological distance created by humor can help avoid feeling overwhelmed and diffuse conflict. Laughter also brings people closer together and affects our mental and emotional well-being.

More refined forms of humor contain a similar element, albeit less apparent. Take romantic comedies, for instance. The protagonist is often persistently thwarted in their attempts to win over their desired romantic partner until they finally succeed. At that point, the story comes to a close. Stand-up comedy employs a similar technique, albeit without any role-playing. Here, the element of humiliation primarily occurs through clever wordplay. Self-deprecation, such as Akpororo's references to his madness or Akproko's jabs at his appearance, is a common type of humor in this genre. Other jokes may aim at influential figures, such as the endless stream of quips aimed at former President Muhammadu Buhari. Sometimes, they may challenge social norms and conventions, as psychologists call them, as benign violations of social norms. However, recent events have raised questions about the limits of comedy. At the 94th Academy Awards on March 27, 2022, actor Will Smith had an altercation in a controversial incident with comedian Chris Rock, who mocked his wife's shaved head due to alopecia areata. Smith responded by slapping Rock across the face, which led to his resignation from the Academy and a ten-year ban from attending Academy events. These events have led some to ask whether comedy is dying or at what point comedy ceases to be comedy.

One potential explanation for the preceding questions is that societal standards of humor and acceptability have evolved over the past 25 years. Stand-up comedians have frequently discussed how portraying ethnic identities in their routines has drastically changed their industry. A recent instance of this shift occurred when some individuals criticized Tiv comedians on social media for allegedly mocking their community's English-speaking abilities during a comedy skit. While some interpreted these objections as well-intentioned, others felt that the author was unfairly insulting comedians who work tirelessly to bring joy to people, particularly during challenging times for the nation. This issue divided the populace into opposing factions, with some defending the comedians and attacking the writer, while others praised the writer for speaking out. This notion begs the question: when does humor cease to be a joke? Besides, why is there something inherently wrong with the people of Benue? Are we cursed? Are Benue's residents the sole Nigerian citizens who understand how to navigate social media?

There has been a recent controversy involving stand-up comedians and a particular lady in Benue state. The lady argued that comedy related to culture or language is too regular and that the situation appears to have gone beyond what is acceptable. Some critics of modern comedy argued that too many of Benue's comedians have centered their acts around the Tiv language. Indeed, language was taboo in the past, and professional comedians were careful not to focus too much on it. Nowadays, however, comedians are realizing that language deficiencies can contribute to social problems. A recent interview with actress and filmmaker Funke Akindele revealed her belief that she can effectively deliver severe messages through the use of comedy. Speaking about her latest project, Battle on Buka Street, Akindele stressed the importance of blending comedic and dramatic elements in order to create a dynamic and engaging narrative that touches on vital social issues. The goal of the film, according to Akindele, was to educate, inform, and entertain audiences, encouraging deep reflection on the themes addressed. Akindele also shared that she is always intentional about the messages conveyed in her work and that her character in Battle on Buka Street came from the struggles she has faced in her own life. Through her character's strength and resilience, Akindele hopes to inspire audiences to confront their challenges with courage and determination. Thus, instead of only mocking the government and ruling class for failing to provide basic amenities, comedians can also imitate an ethnic group for struggling with English. Some people are upset about this use of language deficiency in comedy. But it is likely due to personal biases and a desire to return to a time when particular issues were socially unacceptable. While stand-up comedians do use language deficiencies in their performances, they also address other pressing social topics such as unemployment, corruption, poor leadership, and poverty. Many comedians recognize that these issues are at the heart of our social problems and use humor to shed light on them. Ultimately, jokes about cultural situations are a way for people to cope with everyday life.

Recently, there appeared to be much discussion surrounding the so-called Death of Comedy. Several people believe that comedy today, whether in stand-up, movies, or parodies, is far less amusing than in previous decades. This notion is because comedians are now unable to joke about sensitive topics without facing criticism and losing their jobs. The media and those who cannot take a joke are quick to attack and damage the reputation of veteran comedians who have made a career out of jokes about men and women, bad government, and ethnic stereotypes. Critics often argue that making jokes about anything nowadays is impossible without offending someone and facing arrest. While it is easy to dismiss this argument, statistics show that using people or ethnic stereotypes is increasingly offensive. Combine this with the comic acts of veteran comedians such as Ali Baba, Basketmouth, I Go Die, Seyi Law, Okey Bakassi, AY, and Klint the Drunk for their various acts, and we could argue that comedy, as it was once known, has indeed died. In many ways, I agree with this statement. The things that used to make us laugh do not make us laugh anymore. As a result, most people watch their favorite comedians on YouTube or through various streaming services. Today, comedians and pranksters are often insulted, bullied, criticized, intimidated, or threatened. While I understand why people are growing disillusioned with popular comedies, I am fascinated by how humor has transformed our world. What is concerning, however, is that even educated people, such as professors, medical professionals, journalists, and lawyers, use their social media platforms to humiliate those they do not agree with because they are not in the same social class. It is disheartening to see that today, tolerance, cooperation, friendliness, hospitality, and the space for collective thinking, opinion, ideas, philosophy, worldview, and consulting have all diminished beyond recognition. Virtue has given way to everything wrong, and taking down a brother or sister has become the norm. This destructive drive has left Benue comedians at a disadvantage since Nigeria's inception, and ironically, we have created the most significant obstacles for ourselves. No one is safe from this destructive force.

This type of behavior must come to an end. It is unclear whether those who attack comedians are familiar with the harm they cause to others. However, we need to put a stop to this immediately. Comedians offer us much-needed relief during difficult times, and we should encourage and appreciate them rather than ridicule them. These individuals can be a symbol of bravery, as demonstrated by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Despite his rumpled t-shirt and bearded appearance, he visited wounded Ukrainian soldiers in a hospital, gave them medals, and brought smiles to their faces. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a law school graduate who gained fame as a comedian, is a perfect example of how we should embrace comedians. He wrote and starred in Servant Of the People, in which he portrayed a high school history teacher who spoke out against corruption and was elected president of Ukraine after his speech went viral. Ukrainians elected him president four years later. Although political opponents have raised concerns about his ability to combat corruption as fiercely as he did in his role, he has garnered international admiration for his determined leadership of a nation under siege. He refused a U.S. offer to evacuate him from a besieged city, stating, "I need ammunition, not a ride." He also cited Shakespeare while addressing the British parliament, saying, "The question for us now is to be or not to be..." and invoked Winston Churchill when addressing the British people, declaring, "We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost is. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, and in the streets." Comedy employs truth, pain, and psychological distance to make others laugh. President Zelenskyy can connect with others. This act is a skill he honed as a comedian. As he struggles to keep his country alive, he uses his comedic talents to help guide him through this tragedy. Therefore, let us support our comedians. Who knows, one may one day become the president of Nigeria.

Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and PhD candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.

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