Laughing at 2020

2020 has been the year of the Tragedy. To call this year a bad year may very well be an understatement and not enough time has gone by for people to “get over it”. At a point when we entered a world as dystopian as the one we’re in, coping has become increasingly hard. If comedy is a function of tragedy and time, I found it intriguing to explore what happened to an industry that was given quite a dose of tragedy, and very little time to process it. This article hopes to examine changes in comic trends through what has been a devastating year for India, as well as the world.

In the initial few weeks after March 25, when the first national announcement for the lockdown was made, stand-up comedians were faced with a sudden drop in revenue as audiences stopped coming for shows, soon to be followed by venues shutting down. As comedians and actors around the world started recovering from the emotional, physical and financial shock that came about, both optimistic and cynical sides to content emerged. Looking at the brighter side of everything, John Krasinski started a segment called Some Good News on YouTube, where there was a simple attempt to find a silver lining in very trying times. At the same time, people’s frustrations boiled over into the mainstream media, with SNL sketches made from the homes of actors, a prime example being “Let Kids Drink”, expressing frustrations and funny coping mechanisms during what are clearly terrible times.

Stand-up comedians began doing shows on Zoom among other video conferencing sites in India. The audience was different, but despite the awkwardness accompanying clapping and laughing with your parents in the next room can be, both audiences and comedians were quick to adjust to the new environment to create quite a wholesome space.

And then came the phenomena of Reels. Mid-pandemic, just as TikTok started facing legal issues in various countries, The Zuccerburger and Co. launched Reels. An eerily similar feature on Instagram giving all the artists the platform TikTok was now struggling to provide. Instagram became a much larger platform for content creation, the growth of which led to an ad-based monetisation as a source of income.

However, it would be unfair to assume all was well the second people could make jokes on the internet. A global pandemic very effectively pointed out everything governments weren’t prepared for. In India, it was already visible with protests earlier in the year surrounding CAA and NRC that significant sections of the population were dissatisfied with government functioning. The second the pandemic hit, added to this was a migrant crisis a very sizable chunk of the population was affected by. At the same time, in the United States, there was mismanagement of resources for testing for COVID, the politicisation of whether or not people should wear masks giving company to anti-vaxxers. Following this were extremely racially charged events that re-ignited the Black Lives Matter movement leading to nationwide protests in the US of A.

With all this, came the time for political satirists to step up to the call to speak truth to power.

And here is where things become more sensitive but all the more important. The political side of humour is probably one of the most relevant and important sides to understanding crucial issues for the “common man”. In what was possibly one of the most moving half-hour special of the year, Dave Chappelle’s “8:46” drew attention to the flawed institutions of America in response to news media’s enquiry on celebrity opinions on matters of social relevance, yet keeping it rooted in his experience of the world. Simultaneously, satirists like John Oliver actively shifted content to provide the overdue focus required to the racially charged incidents taking place after the murder of George Floyd.
While it wouldn’t be fair to compare the news and satirical media in the United States to India’s on a linear scale, one does see a stark contrast on how politically relevant humour exists in the two environments. India, despite all the laws protecting one’s freedom of speech, is significantly more silent about issues that plague the country, even if trying to use humour to reach out to a seemingly ignorant population about issues that plague others. America is often looked to as an example of freedom of speech prevailing in times of extreme turmoil, and yet, in the face of the examples in front of us, Indian comedians have to remain relatively aloof and subtle in their connection of active politics and humour.

At a point in time when society undergoes drastic changes, humour manages to provide a light-hearted environment for the average citizen to think about the issues that plague society while not becoming overwhelmed by them. Given the situations plaguing marginalised communities, it becomes all the more important to reach out to those with privilege who are unwilling to examine issues that don’t affect them. Which is why humour continues to be an important pillar of the media in the West, with various talk shows hosts, sketch comedians and stand up comics calling out the racist and unprepared institutions of the Trump administration. At the same time, Rohan Joshi receives death threats for simply standing up for a fellow comedian who made a joke about Chhatrapati Shivaji, and Kunal Kamra faces contempt of court for criticising the court for the preferential treatment of his nemesis and Human Loudspeaker, Arnab Goswami. Offence and humour have been debated time and again, and the purpose of this essay is not to rehash those debates but to simply remind you of how far our country remains in the realm of making people laugh.
Until we figure out a future that doesn’t stink, however, let kids drink.

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