If you have recently watched a video which you found so funny mainly because you are Nigerian and it was made for Nigerians, then you might want to keep on reading.
Sometimes the worst jokes are the funniest jokes translated into a language other than which they were forged. Sometimes even between “dialects” of a languages. Having an appreciation for Humor, I have had to switch languages (or dialects) in order to pass on a joke so that the joke is not lost in translation. Some have theorized that humor comes from proper combination of incongruity and surprise (shattering of expectations). This is mostly true for American and British humor. Nigerians may miss out on many of their jokes, not for the political and cultural references but for the non universality of humor across cultures. In any case, humor is tied to culture, and if this escapes us, it is because of the hegemony of global entertainment culture.
That is why it is admirable to have a “Nigerian Humor”, ignoring the inadequacy of that term for now. One only need to be familiar with American and British stand-up comedy, then watch one of Night-of-a-thousand-laughs series to notice the contrast. Gordons is certainly different from Jimmy Carr. It seems comics (comedians) are linguistically sensitive to their environment. Since stand-up comedy is generally spoken, it is a given that different regions would use language differently to pass on their jokes. However there is also the content of these jokes. This is where my interest is.
I have utmost respect for comedians who don’t give into the pressure of stereotypes. My hats off to the female comedian who doesn’t do a sex joke (sex object stereotype), and the black american who doesn’t curse in every utterance just so they can be “def” (black american stereotype). I have more tolerance for black-vs-white joke from blacks, or a even Warri joke from “Nigerian” comics, though they play on stereotypes. The result of giving into pressure is that comedy becomes less and less creative, then more and more “populist”. By populist I mean consumerist. Why should it matter if comedy is populist, shouldn’t it simply be funny with no other purpose? Well, like it or not, humor is a powerful cultural and political tool. From stand-ups, to cartoon strips on newspapers, to “funny vids” on the internet, to the more relevant genre of satire… humor is pervasive, but how invasive?
The First Thin Line
Satire: the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. – According to Google
Primarily, satire is a tool of political and cultural awareness so that contradictions are exposed, with the implicit aim of triggering corrective measures from the target of the satire. Since satire often involves ridicule, there is often a lot of humor in it, and humor is a game played by two. Therefore, proper satire requires a part to be played by the artist and by the audience; the former making sure their message is passed, while the latter acknowledges and deciphers the message, amidst the hunor. In satire, humour is informative and even aims to be corrective to some extent. In its most debase form, humour is merely used for teasing and insult… in other words mockery. Mockery is built on a feeling of superiority over the subject being mocked.
Mockery: teasing and contemptuous language or behaviour directed at a particular person or thing. – According to Google
Humor has probably succeeded in more subversion of authority and power than even committed Marxists and Feminists. Subversion is easy for humor, but is it simply mockery, or is it satirical? In my opinion, and keeping the above definitions in mind, mockery and satire do not overlap typically. When Humor becomes subservient to the consumer market, its purpose becomes lost, and artists of humor simply seek to please their consumers regardless of the implication. The demarcation between mockery and satire is crumbled by the number of “hits” a content gets on the Internet; consumerism of humour. The capitalist artist takes advantage of this fallen barrier to maximize “likes” (or hits) by skillfully utilizing the mask of satire to make acceptable what mockery cannot. That is not to say the audience, aka consumers, particularly care but perhaps the artists need to live a sweet lie.
Due to the far extent mockery could go, its misuse is easily detected within the shards of morality still recognizable; for instance it would be considered foul to mock a person for being attacked by armed robbers. However it seems easier to make humour out of the same situation if a celebrity or public official was the victim. That is because satire works for the capitalist artist, where mockery comes short. Mockery in the latter case hides behind the mask of satire because it is assumed that the formula <famous person + funny mockery = satire aka acceptable humour> is true. It is a collusion between the capitalist artist and the consumerist audience for ethical bypass where the artist assumes they are not simply mocking, and the consumer assumes there is something non negative meaning behind the mockery. What is achieved actually is that the famous person has been de-humanized just for fun.
The Second Thin Line
On a related matter, there is a thin line between cruelty and “funny”. We like youtube fail videos like these not only for the failed expectation (which is mildly cruel) but also for the extent to which the events turned around, even when that extent is violent. The ethical cushion is that we assume (as is the norm) that any such videos did not lead to dire consequences after the event. Thus, the man who gets flinged by a tornado in his underwear is only funny if we know that the person survived the fling. Closer to home is the reason why the dubbed “Underwear Bomber” can be funny because his attack failed and even backfired. Had he succeeded, it may not be as open to funny comments. Keep in mind the presence of cruelty in all the examples above. There is also a healthy amount of cruelty when people in power are reported or recorded (or on camera) doing the most ridiculous things, or saying the most unintelligible things. It is funny because we discover that they are that dumb after all their apparent success; especially in a culture where fame is equated to success. Need I mention Chai! There is God Woo, and its remixes, or all the interviews with the Nigerian President exposing his lack of charisma and inability to understand the questions, etc.
On the surface, it may seem all well to derive humour out of activities of the famous. But as these type of content become popular with the consumer, we enter the humorous vicious cycle of demand and supply for funny content, which is two dimensional graph missing the ethical dimension. Consumers don’t care to differentiate between mockery and satire, they just want what is funny! This is capitalism without the ethics that Adam Smith intended.
Two Thin Lines don’t Make a Thick One
So far we have seen two lines drawn across the vast ocean of humor. Two battle lines where it seems unethical capitalism of humour is winning. The first line between satire and mockery, which is systematically blurred further for consumerist profits. The second line is the thin line between cruelty and “funny”, which is also further thinned for consumerist ends.
Now I come to the new trend of viral funny videos for Nigerians. These are not simply clips of “fails” from real events anymore because animation and youtube has enabled easy creation of scenes. I am particularly interested in the “funny” political videos. There are popular youtube channels, with quite creative producers, like this one. It has produced viral videos like “Shekau vs Goodluck“. There is also this one where Obasanjo is the protagonist of an action filled animation, in which Obasanjo goes to kill Bankole (former Speaker of the House), David Mark (Current Senate President) and Goodluck Jonathan (Current President)… and he succeeds! While watching some of these, I could see why some think of it as funny, but I was disturbed by it. In the first video, the serious issue of the Chibok Girls was being trivialized to a game of slaps between Shekau (the Militant Leader) and Goodluck (the Nigerian President). In the second video, a powerful politician killing other powerful politicians is taken for a joke in a country where this is very much within possibilities.
As much as I am glad there is a “Nigerian” humor, and as much as I praise Nigerians for relentless use of humor to deal with dire situations, I find some of these consumerist driven jokes distasteful! It is escapism, funny and tragic. It is mass psychosis, sustained by a consumerist demand for humor.
My wish is not to abandon humor completely for all its microscopic implications. It is to be aware of the power humor has, to heal as much as to trivialize, then be sensitive in the way it is mould into arts, and how we consume it. In fact humor is a weapon for ideological frontier as history has shown and we still continue to witness. The touring American/Mid-Eastern comics, The Axis of Evil for instance, succeeded in subverting some of the stereotypes of the American dominated news outlets portrayal of Mid-Easterners by un-dehumanizing them and spinning the political “Axis of Terror” on its funny axis. Take this blog for instance(The Dark Corner) which has a lot of good Nigerian satire (even on the Nigerian God!) which are clearly ideological but the author chose to make fun of the Ekiti Election but not Chibok Girls… at least I haven’t come across one of such.
What is the Fuss about Anyway?
Aren’t these videos I claim to be foul simply animating what newspaper cartoons have been doing all along? To me, the two are different in effect on the consumer. However even if one does not accept that, it is surely evident that the medium of transmission for the two is completely different. These videos are shared on phones, today when most people have video enabled phones, whereas newspaper cartoons has a limited and cadre of consumers (readership). After all newspaper cartoons are placed in the midst of “serious” news which puts the cartoon in context of seriousness. On the other hand, these videos are saved on the memory cards next to other funny videos that are non-political and the ever more distasteful Music videos. So in the case of the videos, it is all fun, funny, and “very funny”. Simply put pleasure and a bit of decadence, whereas newspapers are assumed to be serious.
The subversive power of humor has been recognized through out history. English (and perhaps European) Kings opted to tame them in the form of the King’s Fool and Play Performers who are often commissioned by those in power. In Muslim tradition, satire has been held with suspicion especially because that was one of the tools used against the Prophet early in his mission, just as poetry was. Eventually poetry is being reclaimed, which began when the Prophet was alive, but satire may have not. On closer inspection, early Muslims were more victims of mockery than subjects of satire. The recent explosive mockeries on Muslim religious symbols has brought back the historical repulsion to mockery, which is yet to be distinguished from satire. In the future perhaps.
In summary, the new culture of Nigerian funny media needs to be saved from the consumerism of humor which is ethically impoverished. It requires us to play the part of a critical ethicist when we consume these funny media content, and to desist from sharing, “like-ing” and clicking if we find it distasteful, because we actually help the cause when we click and download. This piece hopes to underline the potency of humor so that there can be conversation, or at least consideration, on how to make use of it. To simply use it driven by consumer demand for humor, and producer demand for likes on Youtube and Facebook, is an unjustified use of such political tool. This is valid as long as we claim to have an ethical framework guiding our lives, unlike those who claim such frameworks don’t exist.
Popular funny videos in Nigeria are indeed Humorous, Tumorous and Numerous!