Bring out the sirens: an Indian comic fears being canceled. Recently, Samay Raina has been criticized for her misogyny disguised as humor. The “joke” in hand need not be relayed verbatim, as it provides little amusement and does many a disservice instead. The summary is: Raina tweeted about his girlfriend, the girlfriend didn’t like the joke and asked him to delete it. Raina analogizes the instance and applies logic in the most fallacious way, suggesting that he now feels empowered to make his reproductive choices for her on his own. His punchline? “…bolna rug my body my choice.
He managed to take a critical and painful moment in women’s history and drain it of all the care and tenderness needed as a social response.
Raina’s instinct told her to go back to the pillars of nervousness; he invoked the legacy of all past comics to defend himself against public anger. “The left’s fear of cancellation is why we don’t have comics like Andrew Schultz, Jimmy Carr, Dave Chapelle, [and] Ricky Gervais in the Indian comedy scene. Don’t worry I’m here to change that,” he tweeted in response to public anger. A colleague noted how it’s like saying, “I can’t make good jokes, so let me lay the blame for our inability to be good comedians on our audience.”
Jimmy Carr has earned a reputation for being controversial, boldly chronicling everything from rape and “ugly women” to race and the Holocaust. Dave Chapelle has cultivated a particular reputation for transphobia (he can’t grasp the concept of men with vaginas and women with penises) and anti-Semitism. Ricky Gervais followed Chapelle’s lead, taking a bigoted look at the trans community – to some extent some LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have called his humor “dangerous”. Raina is not unique in making these individuals into legends; for fans and some comics, the humor depicted here is of the utmost superiority. It’s edgy, problematic and crude, the highest degree of art in comedy.
But Raina’s defense, and the acceptable substance of the jokes, is a case study of many things. On the one hand, comedians very often feel the need to resort to banal rhetoric: that the Indian comedy scene is not progressing enough, or breaking the pleasant glass ceiling because we are too conservative and insist on stifling the voice people. This is a false dichotomy; it is based on the premise that hate speech is an essential component of freedom of expression, thus wrongfully limiting the imagination present in comedy.
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Ricky Gervais’ special shows how edginess in comedy becomes a front for bigotry
You could say that there is an intolerance of jokes all over the world. Look to India and you see comics facing threats and violence – and being unjustly imprisoned – for even daring to joke about Hindus or the ruling government. If the right cannot be blamed, the instinct is to look to the left and denounce its intolerance instead. People who object to jokes about gender and sexual identity, gender roles, race, and social justice issues are chastised for being “too wide awake”; their awakening is the social plague that the warriors of comedy must face. As they deal with this race, the idea remains that the Indian comedy scene, or comedy in general, is suffering due to many things, but the demand to be more aware and inclusive is not the one which limits its potential.
Second, criticism of Raina’s jokes, or those of her peers for that matter, is not to nullify the culture. If in the popular imagination, nullifying culture means that a person is forever silenced and condemned to a life of visible banishment, no one is truly nullified. These comics will always hit the stage and make thousands, if not millions, laugh. They will share the limelight with other famous people, hug them, be friends and continue to be famous and controversial. No one suffers consequences or is forced to come to terms with their individual biases, at least in a meaningful way.
Three, and chief among them, is how the incident reduces abortion to a comedy canon as such. There’s racial humor, trans humor, and casual sexism, among other subcategories that people with structural privilege tend to lean toward. We can talk about what’s a joke and what’s not. We also know the real and tangible damage that bigoted jokes can cause – they result in real violence and discriminatory behavior.
But we can also talk about what should be joked about and what shouldn’t be. Take the current incident as a case study: the ‘joke’ uses a feminist chant as a punchline and manages to completely strip it of context, and instead imbue it with a deeply misogynistic and ignorant tone. . It’s not a joke, it’s a killer move to get a quick laugh. Abortion is no joke. Anything that deeply shatters and jeopardizes people’s identities, lives and stories can never be a joke. More concretely, “abortion jokes” as a canon deflate the momentum of reproductive justice; it also shifts the conversation from issues of bodily autonomy, agency, and access to health care to a superficial idea that women are whimsical.
The criticism rightly draws on the anger of joking about abortion, twisting a feminist slogan that carries the historical weight of struggle and injustice, commodifying a critical moment in time, and worst of all, because this is a bad joke.
“The edge is the provocative, revolutionary and offensive art form that uplifts the human race,” Rohitha Naraharisetty wrote in The Swaddle last month. “Except there’s nothing unnerving about a man fully aware of his own privilege joking that someone else doesn’t.” It’s not just rude – it serves as the perfect ploy to disguise an unwillingness to grow from your own beliefs. It was never edgy, it was just bigoted.
It’s a more nuanced conversation when applied to the people who gain fame from these TV comedy shows such as comicstaan and establish an identity, without realizing the power of the art form they seem to apply. Humor is about laughter; it can be both to educate, to inform and to respond to a fractured social reality. Watch Hannah Gadsby, who has forged a bond with her comedy specials. Bo Burnham spoke of the sadness and isolation of the modern world. There are many others that allow empathy and benevolence to coexist, and even to be part of the humor.