Wokeness is impacting how creators of comedy approach their work. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

We’ve all had the experience of watching an old movie that had us ROFLing back in the day, but that barely draws a snicker from us now.

Funniness, it appears, is not a forever quality. It can fade over the years and with changing social norms. Every decade brings a new level of awakening to issues and this impacts not only how we think but what we choose to laugh at. That means that those charged with creating comic relief have to step up and do better. And, for the most part, they do. Movie makers are not completely tone deaf when it comes to working humor into their scripts. If you track the evolution of comedy in Bollywood, you can see a clear progression from Johnny Walker style slapstick to situational scenarios to a more slick version based on wit and banter.  The blatantly sexist gags or fat shaming of yore (think Amitabh in drag belting out ‘Jiski biwi moti’ in Laawaris) have largely been eased out since not much of that would be considered a laughing matter today and been replaced by more subtle sexism. The fact that comedy in Bollywood is not completely in step with our woke times shows that it’s still trying to play a balancing act between mass and niche appeal.

It’s not as if we are entirely shielded from old school humor in our modern lives. Whatsapp forwards still abound with jokes about nagging wives and nosy in-laws, The old tired tropes of men who just want to be men while their women fume at home, rolling pins in hand, are still widely circulated. Some people continue to find them funny while others, largely women, brush them off with an eye roll. Even for people whose relationships have evolved into the 21st century, there seems to be a yearning for this more simple dynamic when roles were clear-cut and divided along gender lines, and feminism was limited to a set of isolated voices screaming at the rest of us from the margins.

In the Western world, where recent social movements have been more wholeheartedly embraced in entertainment, there is a new debate that is roiling the funny circuit: Is wokeness killing comedy?

Absolutely, according to some. Filmmaker Todd Phillips cast his lot with the ‘yes’ camp when he explained why he moved away from the raunchy humor of his ‘Hangover’ series to the sinister darkness of ‘Joker’, his most recent movie.

“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” he said in a Vanity Fair interview. After describing (in fairly colorful terms) the new reluctance of writers and directors to be associated with work that might be viewed as insensitive or offensive, he concluded: “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. So you just go, “I’m out”.”

His remarks got a fair amount of pushback online with people feeling he exaggerated both the impact of wokeness on comic output and the longevity of his brand of comedy. Yes, critics conceded, he had managed to make a lot of people laugh through his ‘Hangover’ movies. But there is a good reason for some of those scenes and sentiments to fade away into the space of stuff that was once funny.

Humor, in short, has a shelf life.

Of course, there are some excesses in the name of correcting the comic record.

Standup comedians who are used to a no holds barred sensibility in coming up with their material are finding this out the hard way. There may be a tendency to go a little too far these days in holding these irreverent performers accountable. This sometimes means withering trials in the court of public opinion based on old jokes linked to them. Many standup comedians are trying to figure out how to navigate this new landscape.

But it can be done. And the trick may be not in what you say but how you say it. As comic James Meehan said in a Guardian article on the future of standup comedy: “The thing about standup is you can joke about absolutely anything. Nothing is off limits. It’s just how well you can write and frame the joke. I know lazy comics who only complain about political correctness because they don’t want to update their material.”

Closer to home, the standup comedy scene looks a little different. The woke culture is definitely a big part of the urban landscape but it has not penetrated every aspect of pop culture to the same degree. And the backlash for not toeing the line in terms of social consciousness is less brutal. However, there are some subjects that comedians have historically shied away from for obvious reasons. Politics is a big one in a country where ideologies and affiliations don’t map that neatly to age group or region. As Kenny Sebastian said, only half jokingly, there are reasons he doesn’t do jokes on politics – fear of finding himself (and his family) in the crosshairs of zealous goons being the leading one.

But in a climate of growing dissent, standup comics are going where the media does not always dare to tread. In fact, they may actually have been the ones who first tapped into millennial disenchantment with the political establishment. There is now a thriving scene for political satire that includes the likes of Aisi Taisi Democracy, a group that delivers stinging commentary on topics such as demonetization and revisionism, all set to catchy and popular tunes.

Comedy will keep reinventing itself to the extent that writers and creators continue to accurately gauge public sentiment and respond to heightened social awareness. As long as these funny people stay on their toes, we can be sure of new and edgy material that pushes boundaries and keeps us in splits. In these divided times, laughing out loud may be our best coping mechanism.

References:

Todd Phillips is Wrong… https://inews.co.uk/culture/television/joker-movie-todd-phillips-woke-killed-comedy-642268

Is Standup Comedy Doomed?

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jan/19/is-standup-comedy-doomed-future-of-funny-kevin-hart-louis-ck-nanette

The Year Indian Comedians Took Politics Seriouslyhttps://thewire.in/culture/year-comedians-took-politics-seriously

Sangita Srinivasa is a writer and the editor of Viewpoint.