Changing Minds, One Joke At A Time: Can Comedy Bring Social Change?

Posted by Yashasvini Mathur in Culture-Vulture
February 25, 2017

Standing against a red brick backdrop, holding a mike in his hand, stand up comedian Daniel Fernandes, begins performing his piece in front of a young audience. “If you have been reading the news lately, you’d know that Syria has a small problem. And the reason why I say ‘small problem’,” he continues sarcastically, “is because other countries have ‘real issues’. Like 3G not working, or flights not taking off as per Indigo standard time or the serious stuff, like an entire country spending its time to define a single world – ‘tolerance‘. Compared to that, Syria has an inconsequential problem of a small civil war… that’s leading to 4 million people fleeing the country.”

And just like that, he has not only made people laugh, but also made them think about an important issue. The 31-year-old Indian stand-up comic has in fact acquired a reputation for raising hard-hitting social issues like marital rape, student suicides and terrorism through his acts (he says he prefers to use the term ‘issues’ than the phrase ‘social issues’ to define them, though).

“I choose topics that are in the news and something that you wouldn’t normally find as part of a comic routine. To clarify, I’m not a social activist. I am not involved with any of these issues beyond a certain point. I see myself as a social commentator. Like most comedians in this space, I bring some sort of perspective to what’s happening in the world today and that’s it,” he says in an interview.

Fernandes isn’t the only comedian doing this. Aman Ali, a stand-up comic is trying to do the same thing, highlighting the many challenges faced by Muslims in America on his YouTube channel. “It’s been so frustrating. It’s time for Muslims to start telling their own stories,” he said during an interview.

At a time when critiquing issues can invite heavy backlash or create controversy, an increasing number of comedians are, in fact, choosing to layer their acts with social commentaries, in order to raise difficult questions or highlight uncomfortable truths. Touchy topics like religion and politics, or issues that are usually brushed under the carpet in most Indian households (read: alternate sexuality, student suicide, marital rape), in fact, invite laughter and agreement on stage. Humour does the job of sugar coating the bitter medicine.  It takes away the sting.

The Evolution Of The Indian Comedy Scene

Comedy is arguably the oldest, most universal and basic form of humorous expression. From actors like Mehmood Ali, Kishore Kumar, Kader Khan and Johnny Lever to newer ones like Kenny Sebastian, Vir Das and Sorab Pant, comedians have always been big on the Indian pop culture scene. That said, the country has also seen a dramatic shift in the way comedy is done in the last decade. A decade ago, most on-stage comedy was slapstick or, at most, poked fun at public figures through mimicry. Then, a new brigade of comedians like Shekhar Suman and Ahsaan Qureshi found their spot in shows like “Movers And Shakers” or TV shows like the raucous “Indian Laughter Challenge”. The rise of the Internet revolution, as well as a  growing pub culture, especially in cosmopolitan cities, has in the latest wave, made standup comedy extremely popular.

But the question remains, can stand-up comedy also open a path to social change? And if yes, how?

Deconstructing A Stand-Up Act

Stand-up comedy acts generally involve performers narrating personal tales to the audience. Huffington Post,  in fact, analysed the set pattern followed by most comedians. The first step involves establishing a common ground by asking the audience a few questions, and then making them a little uncomfortable, perhaps by stating something unexpected. This is followed by again establishing common ground, narrating an incident that has a connect with the audience. As the act continues, the performer may make the audience more uncomfortable and then conclude his piece by establishing new ground through an alternative perspective.

But Can Stand-Up Comedy Change Perspectives?

Just like successful social awareness campaigns, good comedy can change perspectives by holding up a mirror to society, forcing it to confront realities that it often ignores. The process gets interesting the moment a comedian gives a pause for the audience to reflect upon a topic. Making someone uncomfortable — guilty, confused, offended — is the first thing to changing minds and consequently behaviours. Why?

Because it seems that making people uncomfortable forces them to think. Once the thought process starts, the chance to establish a new perspective can begin.

Papa CJ, a leading comedian who taps into issues faced by Indian college students, says, “People have limited attention spans now. Humour is a powerful way to get people to listen while subconsciously educating as well.”

The Risk Of Taking The Joke Too Far: Can Comedy Bring About Change?

It surely has the potential. But with humour also comes an added risk – that of trivialising a problem or an issue. The distinction between creative license and sensitivity is a fine line to be walked upon. Here, the importance of treating content properly becomes paramount.

“I think that stand-up can bring about social change because, at the end of the day, it is a conversation. And all conversation can spark change. But don’t think it can bring about a change in isolation, that’s entirely too much pressure to put on a form of creative expression. That been said, if and when it is used that way, it can be used as one tool in a series of many to bring out change,” says Rohan Joshi of AIB fame.

Sure, talking about social issues and not being preachy is a difficult line to toe. A comedian’s first concern is to be funny. It’s their primary job after all. But stand-up acts can spark interest in a topic, they can enlighten, build awareness and empathy.

The trick, however, is to get the right balance, to use humour constructively for the cause of social change. Humour writer Mary Hirsch said it best: “Humour is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.”

Aman Ali is performing at the American Center in Delhi on Feb 27 at 5:30 p.m. Do attend and take the conversation on comedy for social change ahead!

Yashasvini Mathur is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the February-March 2017 batch.