Comedy and conscience

26Mar09

Violence does not make me laugh. Yet humour has not only survived nearly two and a half decades of exposure to violence, brutality, intolerance, discrimination, corruption and abuses of power, it has preserved my sensitivity and been a soft padding that shielded me from the hard blows of reality. It has been a key to our resilience as a nation and a safer platform for us to speak truth to power. Because there is a twisted perception that the death of a comedian is more tragic than the death of a philosopher, soldier, a politician or indeed a straight talking newspaper editor.

It’s not easy to make people laugh and it is especially difficult to laugh in the midst of death and destruction of the very essence of our humanity. The most difficult aspect of satirising tragedy however, is dealing with the mix of emotions that you are left with at the end. It actually is painful to make people laugh in the face of tragedy. It is impossible to laugh at the fate of the two LTTE pilots who were shot down, without realising that their fate is in a way tied to mine. Satirising the story only heightens the awareness that a nation that could produce a suicide bomber out of a Tamil could indeed make suicide bombers out of Muslims and Sinhalese and Burgers and Malays and all and any Sri Lankan. I cannot laugh at Mervin Silva without feeling sorry for myself as a Sri Lankan.

Adding to the difficulty and pain is the fear that in satirising reality, one may be inadvertently softening – a bit too much – it’s harshness and leasing a false sense of complacency to the audience. Yet laughter is a conduit that reaches out to a broader audience, much more deeply. It is a good conversation starter – which could lead to a social debate about issues at workplaces and lounge rooms. Satire is a good solvent of tension and diverse opinions. Most of all it adds another perspective to the discourse and debate on social issues and in doing so, teaches us to look at problems from different angles, and inspires us to question not only the status quo, but also our own understanding of reality.

Satire breathes life to our frail optimism. It is also the most honest expression of our hopefulness of better day to come. Perhaps that is why comedy should be a vital ingredient of social discourse and debate. The commission of the comedian in the face of conflict, violence and injustice is not to extract a cheap laugh out of the shallows of apathy, but to lift his audience to the heights of laughter and preserve their sensitivity so that they may be able to dive deeper and with more empathy, into the dark and empty ignorance that has caused, and is, the greatest of our tragedies.

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