The other day, at brunch, a ‘fun brunch’, a ‘let’s meet to unwind and chill’-type brunch, I thought a bunch of us “like-minded” folks would be able to just have a good time. But over starters, someone in the group commented — very good-naturedly — at someone else’s “voracious” appetite, which didn’t go down very well. The person who was labelled The One With A Voracious Appetite got all fidgety, even a little teary-eyed. “You mean, I eat too much?” she gasped. There was an awkward silence, and then the other party began to “justify” his line by infantilising. “It was only a joke, you know,” he tried to spell it out earnestly, but the offended one sulked some more and stated, “Guys, if you’re gonna have a problem if I eat too much, then maybe it’s best if we didn’t do this again.”
So, here’s the thing. The person taking offence has never been uptight. A couple of years ago, she’d have laughed off a much more serious ‘slight’ easily. Last year was unprecedented; the ‘aberrant’ emotions that set in were understandable. This year, the emotions got etched in our psyches. No, it’s not funny what happened with the onset of the ongoing pandemic, but did we begin to lose our sense of humour as a kneejerk reaction? On the one hand, we are subtextualising everything under the sun, getting prickly over seeming perceptions; on the other, we’re a little scared to say anything out of turn, everyone’s treading on egg shells, not knowing when and how anyone’s, everyone’s frailties and vulnerabilities would get shaken.
As 2021 draws to an end — the year we lost (or almost lost) our sense of humour, the year when social media trended to take offence — we speak to someone whose job it is to make others laugh: Mumbai-based stand-up comic Nitinn R. Miranni, who, till a few years ago, used to be based in Dubai (he remains a frequent visitor), and was one of the UAE’s most popular comedians.
We asked him (among other things): these days, does he feel he is more of an ‘offender’ than a ‘funny man’?
A new (kind of) climate change
“Covid made us lose a lot of senses, some people lost a sense of taste, of smell... and, yes, a lot of us have lost our sense of humour. Everywhere, the EQ landscape has changed. It’s a weird change, people are getting offended very easily, it’s a ‘thing’ to do… not just that, they are getting offended on behalf of other people, getting offended en masse. So yes, personally, it’s been a little rough — look at what happened with Vir Das, Dave Chappelle… Consequently, as a creative person, the eco-system is hampering in terms of how we think… like, personally, I think twice before writing any joke because the whole concept of freedom of speech doesn’t seem to exist any more.
In India, for instance, it’s almost dangerous to do comedy right now. Out of fear, I had to take down two videos. These weren’t objectionable till last year but given the current climate, where people are just attacking comedians, I’ve had to. I don’t know why we are taking comedians more seriously than anybody else.
Comedians are just a mirror of society… of course, we need to overemphasise or exaggerate a little. But the truth of the matter is what it is. Humour is a great vehicle… many times, when I am talking about the politics of a country or how Covid is being handled… or if I am talking about mental health, depression, bullying, I put in humour because that’s how people will remember… But take it with a pinch of salt.”
The pandemic of taking offence
“Of course, I’ve always made it a point to not offend people, and tried my best to befriend them but [now] I can’t guarantee that if I do say a bit on something which is true, they won’t get offended.
Many times, comedians speak the truth. And if the truth offends you, there’s a problem right there.
My advice? People should focus more on the content while recognising we come from a genuine place, we want to make you laugh and smile. That’s all.”
Social media trolling — and bullying
“All credit to social media for my career, my success, it’s a great tool to get your work ‘out there’, to get mass recognition, but the flip side is that everybody has access to everything. People are taking things out of context and putting it out there, creating drama, creating a ruckus. They will only take the punchline out, and put that out without showing what the context is. So, if I’ve said 10 positive things, they would not show/say that, and zero in on the one negative/not-so-positive thing and go to town with it.
And then others will jump on to the bandwagon, presuming that this what I do, and this is the mindset I have.
The problem with social media is that it is for everyone. I wish there were filters for people on social media… I am not a big fan of trolls and these people who bully. I am hoping social media gets a little responsible, where we don’t allow those who don’t know what they are talking about to speak in these large numbers.”
“There are different kinds of humour: there’s dark humour, there is satire… if you don’t like a particular brand of humour, don’t watch it… So if you don’t like dark humour [as a genre] and I’m doing something on dark humour and you watch it, you are likely to take offence… People should modify their settings so that the right kind of humour reaches the right catchment… People should laugh and move on.
As for myself, I don’t think my funny bones have changed but I’ve had to rearrange some bones to make sure those bones are not hurting anybody.”
“As comedians, we have an instinct. After 12 years in the business, I would like to assume I have great instincts, and that I am able to connect with an audience. But yes, now I realise [given the current situation], we need to be more mindful than ever. Mindfulness is more important than being scared. Your audience is like a child… when you feed a small child, you give them what they want and, then, within that, you put in a slice of your thought and sandwich it — so that it becomes easier to digest.”
Being a stand-up in Dubai
“I started doing comedy in Dubai, and I’m very glad I started my career here because I learnt the limitations of language and culture, the dos and the don’ts. I’ve always maintained it’s a smart thing to respect the culture, what the country stands for. If I’m a chef and go to a place where everyone is allergic to seafood, I can’t give them sushi and then complain that you guys don’t know what you are talking about, right? These values sort of help you because many a time you come up with another version of it [a joke], which is sometimes funnier than the original. You basically push your mind to come up with an alternative that is funnier.”
The prison experience
“Recently, I did a show for Dubai Police — I actually went into prison to perform for inmates, I’m the first comedian to do that… I was amazed to see how receptive the inmates were to my show — so willing to listen. They were also very interactive and shared a few jokes [that some of them had composed] with me. It was an amazing initiative by Dubai Police, kudos to them.
[It made me realise that] Away from prison, in the ‘free world’, where we were forced to spend with ourselves, Covid put us in our own prisons.”
But laughter is still the best medicine
“Covid actually taught us a lot of patience, but people also became impatient with comedians. I am often asked, what am I doing comedy for when there’s so much sadness and suffering around? They don’t realise laughter is also a vaccine, it’s a scientifically proven method to feel better, to be healthier… and in any case, you are going through so much, you may need a reason to smile, to laugh…
I am not disregarding what the world is going through, but laughter is a medicine. And I don’t think there is ever a bad time or a perfect time to laugh.
See, it’s very simple: humour is therapy. It’s okay to be sad. Not okay to stay sad.”
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