In his open column submission, Aufa Ahdan mainly talks about how he sees stand up comedy as a self-heckling medium, or so-called comedic sociology, and relates it to the current divisive nature of (some) Indonesian people.
Aufa is a graduate of University of Indonesia majoring in International Relations. Aufa, not a comedian himself, enjoys laughing over witty and smart jokes, and tries to produce them, too, for the sake of self-fulfillment. Sometimes, he also likes to play with words through pictures.
I laughed guiltily as I was watching a Youtube video of one of my favorite stand up comedians Russell Peters telling a joke of how he was afraid of making fun of Arab people in his comedy. The reason why he didn’t do Arab jokes (when it was already a joke) was simply because he didn’t want to.. die.
“See, because I’ll do a joke about an Arab, and they’ll look like they’re laughing. But, it’s not the same laugh you’re doing (referred to non Arab people)” (Peters, 2008).
Everyone, even the Arab people in the audience, burst into laughter.
Only seconds before any first-timer watching the video started thinking, “Man, this is not funny; it’s racist!”, Peters twisted the joke by implying that that was exactly what the ‘media’ was trying to stereotype the Middle East world, such as violence and bombs; thus, we shouldn’t fall prey to the false description—and of course, he continued onwards poking fun about the Arabs.
Peters himself was a Canadian with Anglo-Indian descent stand up comedian famous for his humor to joke around the issues of racial, ethnic, class, and cultural stereotypes. You can easily find his videos talking about how cheap Indians and Chinese are, or how crazy rich Arabs are (and yet the Indian workers are treated like the new Mexican of the Middle East), or how he was fed up with people talking in Spanish; and still all the Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Mexicans, and Latinos in the room cried laughing.
Then I thought, “This guy should come to Indonesia. He’ll find a lot of materials for his jokes!”
Stand up comedy as a self-heckling medium (in other words, way to laugh at ourselves)
Daniel Smith on his article ‘Self-heckle: Russell Kane’s stand-up comedy as an example of ‘comedic sociology’ states that stand up comedy may provide a new lens in interpreting social life. Adopting his word, stand up comedy can act as a medium for ‘self-heckle’ – an interpretive device whereby comedy acts as a cultural criticism providing sociological insight into the lives of people (Smith, 2015). Using Russel Kane, another well-known energetic UK comedian, as his case study, the observational nature of stand up comedy somehow shares affinities with the interpretivism in sociological tradition – thus, called ‘comedic sociology’. The approach that Kane uses through his comedy offers a chance to explore social and biographical narratives and demonstrate comedy’s ability to provide sociological insight into contradictions, absurdities, and incongruities of the ‘social’ and also the possibility of different life (Smith, 2015).
Both Russell Peters and Russell Kane (what are the odds having two Russells here?!) practice observational comedic sociology through their jokes—they observe, record, dramatise the reality that consists of contradictions, absurdities, and incongruities (Koziski, 1997), not to mention, stereotypes, despite their different delivery styles.
There is actually a similarity between the so-called observational stand up comedian and interpretive sociologist: they share an epistemological starting point to their own expertise. King states that a sociology that interprets life is one that rests upon the comprehension of the ideas and ideals that define it (King, 2004). So, reflecting to the comedy side, to ‘make fun’ is to have, from the very first, understood the contents of social life and present their limited conceptions, internal contradictions, and inadequacy to eventually show the full picture.
That way, stand up comedy isn’t only a stack of laugh-earning meaningless jokes, but also a medium for people to self-heckle or self-criticize and admit and open their partial mind, especially on the existing knowledge and stereotypes of people, both us and them, so that we can together do the ugly chicken-sound laughter.
Down is the follow-up of Peters’ above joke on Arabs.
“Doesn’t it feel like everytime you turn on the news nowadays, some new country is fucking with an Arab country? I kind of blame the media for what’s going wrong in the world right now, because they kind of just perpetuate stereotypes about people. They don’t tell you that’s what they’re doing.. what they do is they’ll show you an image of somebody of a different racial background, and they’ll show you an alternate image like right away, of something completely different. The don’t say the two images are together, they kind of present it like, “What do you think?”
They’ll show you an Asian guy and then a car accident. They’ll show you an Indian guy and 7/11. They’ll show an Arab guy and an explosion. What do you think?” (Peters, 2008)
Appreciating diversity through stand up comedy, case of Indonesia
I’m honestly among the people who are tired of the hatred spread during, and even after, the latest Jakarta gubernatorial election – let alone other regions; the online fuss netizens create over different political or even general views; the everyday biases on genders; and most importantly, the clashes ignited by racial sentiments and stereotypes.
I’m thinking, “I guess we have to chill a bit, don’t we?”. Why do we have to be negative all the time? Why fuss? Why do we have to focus on differences as something absolutely divisive, rather than see them as a uniting force – better a funny one?
Realizing that stand up comedy can act more than just a people-telling-stupid-stories, it can also perform its specialty in making us realize of how rich and funny our differences are—and by saying us, it includes us and them individually. That way, we can learn about each other, especially the us (first person point of view), as we are commonly blind to ‘the ugly side’ of ourselves while crystal clear about the others/them. As pointed out by Simmel, we never appreciate the absolute individuality of others but rather always have a limited conception of them as a social type, e.g. officer, priest, businesswoman (Simmel, 2004), and even to some extent, ethnicity.
Indonesia is indeed a very huge archipelagic country with a big number of people of hundreds different backgrounds. We are Javanese, Sundanese, Bataknese, Chinese, Arab, Mixed, moslem, christian, men, women, supporters of certain political belief, and other labels, you name it. And it’s so sad that we as Indonesian have to often quarrel sparked by our self-claimed absolute understandings of us and them; it won’t end, will it?
We have to change our laughter from the superiority-type one – laughter expressing feeling of superiority over other people or former state of ourselves (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016) – to something honest and non-judgemental.
I know some Indonesian stand up comedians that already do it, such as Pandji Pragiwaksono, Ernest Prakasa, Arie Kriting, and Boris Manullang; but, mostly they are only ‘allowed’ to make fun of their own background, and not others’, for example Ernest bringing up Chinese narrative or Arie on his eastern Indonesia heredity. That’s clearly not bad, and perhaps the best way for now, looking at the sensitivity of Indonesian people nowadays.
Of course I realize that such pure expose to issues, like race, religion, and ethnicity, in Indonesia is still a sensitive space to roam in, due to some historical experiences, primordial belief, and superior feeling over another. That’s why the (comedic) sociological approach shall take place to learn, adapt, and adopt the best way to bring up the stereotypes, laugh over it, self-heckle, laugh again over how little our understanding about us and them are, and get enlightened through seeing the big picture of once the only puzzle we know of.
Stand up comedy certainly can act as a platform for people to observe their surroundings and take-and-give the insights through a comical way, and when people laugh and are happy, they tend to positively respond and open their mind to the new information. Thus, note to stand up comedians: see and observe things and try to use your ‘stereotypical’ joke as channel to transfer new knowledge to your audience; and note to audiences: be open-minded, less-prejudiced, and easy-laughter.
That way, we can all laugh at and with each other.
Instead of depreciating our differences, we can start appreciating them, gleefully.