These days, comedy and politics are related. Like laughter and wailing, they both involve the baring of teeth. When we get those funny memes that make us laugh at our political reality, it is good to remember that there are underlying battles drawn along those same lines. Humanity’s race for sociopolitical favour is often marked by battle cries hiding behind harmless humour. How else do we relate America’s giant inflatable chicken prank with the backlash suffered by Mayor John Curtatone of Somerville MA? You will remember Curtatone as the open-hearted Harvard man with a controversial #BlackLivesMatter banner on his city hall wall. These days, he is the good mayor who is getting flack for making a humourous comment on social media.
Across the globe, our repertoire of modern political comedy has become quite mature. And on social media specifically, Africans appear to have become exceptionally adept at laughing at our leaders – without malice. From the hilarious Patience Jonathan cartoons of the Buhari Change Campaign in Nigeria, to the equally rib-cracking memes and gender jokes credited to President Mogabe of Zimbabwe. Or funnier still, the very creative ethno-comic memes between different tribes of #KenyansonTwitter. In a strangely therapeutic way, social media is helping us laugh at the irony of our political situation, and spurring us to make better-informed choices in the future.
This is by no means new. In both Yoruba and Dahomeyan cultures, the historical gelede masquerade was used as a tool for political commentary. Efe (Humour/Satire) was established as a traditional genre for the public discussion of issues that are pertinent to the community. Peggy Harper’s narration explains that the gelede ceremony, “is combined with entertainment to remind the community of their ritual obligations …and of the social attitudes and moral values traditional to their people.” (P. Harper, London, England: Royal Anthropological Institute, 1970), A more recent (and very entertaining) example of Yoruba traditional satire can be found in Tunde Kelani’s cinematic interpretations with Saworoide (1999) as a humorous representation of the Nigerian socio-political terrain.
In Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai enkiroret ceremonies still use dark humour to dramatically (and often lewdly) prepare young men for the responsibilities of full manhood. The communal teasing helps to show how layered rituals of initiation and marriage are related to adulthood, procreation, and tribal leadership. In many parts of the African continent, traditional performers in public spaces use humour with dramatic costumes and props to address serious social issues. With no backlash.
Today’s audiences are indirect participants in a 3-way marriage between popular culture, traditional belief and modern interpretation. It is clear that satire has found new form in social media, and is helping to air those thoughts and opinions that cannot be safely expressed otherwise. Although many painful situations can be objectively explained, and sometimes diffused by humour, social media freedom does escalate an issue despite joking about it. In many cases, we become unpaid broadcasters for an increasing number of clever minds who use comedy as a business tool to reach a broader base of listeners – or customers.
When Nigerian comedian Okey Bakassi performed his ‘rape case police report’ monologue at an event sponsored by a telco, the crowd was in stitches despite the gravity of the matter. In culture where traditional dowry payment and conjugal ownership prevails, it is easy to overlook social attitudes and lukewarm police responses to marital rape. But, rape victims are a painfully large percentage of our female demographic, and to suggest that the police does not see reason to adequately defend them, is to point out huge gaps in our internal security policies.
Positively though, social media does point out painful truths that our sensitive societies often neglect to address directly. Comedy can be very easily politicized and negatively re-directed towards a particular person or group, without much attention to the facts behind the funnies. And with the click of one button, that funny message can be sent to an endless number of people who will see reasons to laugh and pass it on. Knowing that communal memory will often outrun formal reports, comedy platforms capitalize on our very human need for shared entertainment. For now, it is difficult to objectively evaluate the effect of comedy on a business or person. But in the near future, we may be able to see (or simulate) brand backlash, judge humour-to-candour situations, and use the information to make decisions about business and leadership.
Successful comedy campaigns rely on the propensity of humans to remember things that make us laugh, and to relay those anecdotes along our networks. As involuntary contributors to this genre, we are faced with questions about ethical use of humour, management of brand associations, and dissemination of information with minimum backlash. And this, while remaining culturally and politically correct.
So, the next time you hit that share button, remember that you have been co-opted into deciding how we (as the consuming public) should sieve the laughter from the wailing in our enjoyment of socio-political satire.
Funke Michaels is an MIT Sloan Fellow, and Edward S. Mason Fellow at Harvard University