Nothing is sacred in popular humour. Everything goes

Some people may argue that humour is vulgar, uncivilised, uncouth, and disorderly. But that is precisely the function of humour 

That the Taliban are not a fun-loving bunch is obvious to everyone but neither is the government. When was the last time the State told a healthy joke? The fact that the states are almost always serious entities tells us about their inhumanity and remoteness from the people. The people, the sweaty masses, the abusive democratic hordes live their lives belching, cracking jokes, giving vent to their borborygmi, and telling subversive jokes and sending SMS messages of popular disdain about official policies. Nothing is sacred in Pakistani popular humour. Everything goes. 

As a matter of fact, only very few of the gentrified classes can venture into the 'crude' cultural product called popular slapstick theatre. It is total verbal anarchy. All official statements and categories come to die there. The popular revenge of the comedian opens up the belly of the formal discourses and shows their internal contradictions, their entwined and messy entrails, and does not bother suturing the body. 

There is a history of this new kind of sternness that has been imposed on us at a formal level. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, despite all his peccadilloes, had the popular appeal and was a spontaneous performer of dhamaal and ludi on stage. Then came the 11 years of seriousness. We were supposed to protect the serious empire of our faith against the onslaught of another serious monstrosity called communism. But we were supposed to do this with the support of American dollars and Saudi/Wahabi funding. 

Everything was getting sterner in those 11 years of official rectitude. The police used to ask dating couples for the evidence of nikkah as if the victory against the Soviet depended on whom you went horizontal with. This sternness met a popular revolt. The VHS tapes providing abundant carnal knowledge and drug addictions appeared as emergency responses to the austerity of the soul. The sickness that descends on the people when their bodily desires are denied easily mutates into unhealthy addictions. 

The Church knew this in Europe long time ago and arranged carnivals and circuses under its own patronage. To keep the soul of the faithful alive, the carnival was needed and it worked as a safety valve against the moral pressure cooker. 

According to Mikhail Bakhtin, when the circus clown becomes the popular replacement of the king, it is not just a feeble attempt at mockery but a reversal of social hierarchies. When the servant is making fun of the master of the house on stage, it is an expression of popular will that wants to have a level playing field for everybody. In the realm of humour, the officially authorised text of truth is challenged, reversed and altered. The authority of the official statement becomes weaker. The mullah, the general, the president, the prime minister are all answerable and accountable in the royal court of the jester. This reversal, though humorous, is not superficial or trivial. It empowers the audience to carve their own trajectories and not follow the accepted mode of behaviour. That is why totalitarianism does not like the clown -- because Charlie Chaplin can easily mock Hitler. There are no theatres in the Wahabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia because the slapstick comedians can unravel the seriousness of the House of Saud. 

Some people may argue that humour is vulgar, uncivilised, uncouth, and disorderly. But that is precisely the function of humour: to show the failure of the state in bringing civility and literacy to everyone. The bureaucratic logic of the state and its official ideologies can only be undone by the cruel jokes of the pedestrian, the labourers who laugh at themselves and their emancipators alike. It is the failure of the emancipatory promises in the first place that produces a popular satirical, unforgiving, humorous response. Therefore, it may even be unfair to blame the comedians and the plebeians for their jokes on authority. They are in fact only joking back. The first joke is on them. Their votes, their voice, their will, and their representation have been usurped and they only joke back. How gentle and healthy. History has shown more bloody responses of the collective will too. It is in fact civility that makes people see the funny side of the picture.

Published in The News on Sunday

dated May 03, 2009