fear and comedy

by anzya

Someone wise once told me that the opposite of love is not hate as is usually thought, but is in fact, fear.

I was thinking about this last weekend after I went along to a pretty wicked stand-up comedy night: a joint gig from the Melbourne comedy team “Fear of a Brown Planet” and the US group “Allah Made Me Funny“.

It’s not often that you get to see a multi-performer comedy show where none of the performers are white. And in the audience white folks were definitely in the minority too. The MC of the night, Azhar Usman, made a point of it when introducing the show. After asking all the Muslims in the audience to make some noise, then the Jews, Christians, and atheists, he paused and whispered conspiratorially “we can take them”.

I also realised that while I was giggling away for most of the night, there were people around me who seemed to find the jokes way funnier. And I realised (perhaps obviously) that what’s essential to comedy is that it can relate back, and comment on your own culture, and the beliefs, norms, customs and values that you were raised in/ adhere to/ are practised around you. Comedy, at its best, is insightful and self-revealing. And though even though a lot of the jokes about Arab superstitions, India and Islam went somewhat over my head, I think I still related a lot to the jokes about immigrant families and parental expectations, and to the jokes that referenced politics in Australia and abroad, or made fun of racist, ignorant and/or clueless people, and which could give a perspective on white, western culture from a standpoint of otherness.

All in all, there was a really friendly, warm, vibe about the show. Everyone in the audience seemed to be laughing, supportive, cheering and good natured. But about halfway through Aamer Rahman’s (one half of Fear of a Brown Planet) set, a couple walked out. (They actually weren’t the first – a woman had ducked out earlier in the night, which had prompted a string of jokes from Usman the MC, who reasoned that she must be a doctor and clearly had a medical emergency to attend to… But the same lady apologetically, and accompanied by further doctor related commentary by Azhar, returned to her seat a short while later.) So, maybe not expecting a the response he got, Aahmer said something like “leaving so soon?”, to which one half of the couple replied “well if it was funny we’d stay”.

I suppose it might not be a surprise to Muslim comedians making kind of provocative, political referenced jokes, to have walk-outs like that quite often. But it felt weird to me. Why would this couple find a joke SO offensive that they would walk out on a comedy show that they paid to see? Especially when they went in with the full knowledge that it was called “Fear of a Brown Planet”. And they left halfway through the show when there were a couple of different acts still to come. I mean, I’ve seen some pretty awful comedy shows in my time (the Mebourne Comedy Festival is always a bit of a gamble like that). And even when I’ve found comedians dull, sexist, moronic or excruciatingly irritating, I’ve never walked out on a show. In fact, there’s something so brave – even desperate – about a the act of putting yourself out there alone on a big stage with a single spotlight, trying only to get people to laugh; I find there is a kind of respect, or patience that goes hand in hand with this, that people necessarily give to stand-up comedians. Haven’t you ever got stuck in the front row of a really bad comedy show, and still laughed when the comic tried to crack terrible jokes? You do, even if you swear to yourself never to see that person’s gig again. It’s just, you know, human.

Though I’m not sure exactly what prompted this couple to walk out, they did so pretty soon after a joke Rahman was making at the expense of the Australian military, in which, to condense a longer, and funnier joke, he joked about how Australians were proud of their military incompetency, which is why they celebrate Anzac Day. It wasn’t that Rahman’s jokes weren’t funny or weren’t engaging the audience, cos they totally were. But a friend remarked afterwards that joking about Anzac Day is one of those taboos which make Australians uncomfortable. I think she’s right. Though I also think it’s odd that at the same time, Australians seem to think of themselves as being so good natured, and willing to laugh at their own expense. I think that in fact, while this is what many Australians might think, it isn’t true. Obviously, we’re pretty touchy about jokes about Anzac Day, especially when their made by a young, brown, politically engaged Muslim guy.

So, it seemed ironic that in a show that dealt with fear and racism, there was this obvious example of why Fear of a Brown Planet is so important and relevant, in the couple I watched tensely make their way out of the theatre.

I’m looking forward to catching Aamer and Nazeem’s gigs again soon, and to see these guys continue to make great comedy.