Pop Stuff: Stand-Up: For Something
In the fight back against a murky establishment and the inescapable self-reckoning of an environment too charged to tuck your beliefs under the dinner table, comedians are the ones speaking truth to power
We live in unhinged times and extreme situations call for unconventional solutions. Entertainment, from Julius Caesar’s lessons on tyranny to Wonder Woman’s palatably packaged feminism, has often examined our values. But in the fight back against a murky establishment and the inescapable self-reckoning of an environment too charged to tuck your beliefs under the dinner table, comedians are the ones speaking truth to power. Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Anuvab Pal and Radhika Vaz who all found their beginnings in stand-up comedy are amongst the people I consider to be the voice of my generation as Trump, Modi and other leaders fail us. And while headlines in America, send a relentless message that not even the truth is sacred, two of the bravest voices that have emerged in comedy are Hasan Minhaj and Aziz Ansari.
31-year-old Minhaj was best known for his role as a correspondent on The Daily Show. That is until he was the featured speaker at the White House Correspondent’s dinner or as he put it, “I feel like I’m a tribute in The Hunger Games”. Minhaj didn’t flinch. He used the pulpit to call the president “Liar-In-Chief” and lambast the press. As he closed with the question, “Do I come up here and not ruffle any feathers or do I say how I really feel because this event is about celebrating the first amendment and free speech?”, I felt that this young Muslim American, son of Immigrants from Aligarh, was my American hero, Batman for a modern day Gotham. Ansari, earlier in the year, accepted a similar baton when he became the first South Asian host of America’s most watched comedy hour, Saturday Night Live. He presented a scorching indictment of racism in the US, urging Trump to act ‘presidential’ and calling on people to mobilize because “Change doesn’t come from presidents, change comes from large groups of angry people”.
This May also saw both comedians release work on Netflix that is some of the most important content on TV. In Season two of Master of None Ansari addresses stereotypes around South Asians in a hysterical primer, demystifying Namaz and presenting a Muslim as TV show host not terrorist. He opens with his protagonist Dev, on sabbatical in Europe and wakes us up to the idea that an Indian in Italy is no more unusual than “An American In Paris”. Likewise, Minhaj in his stand-up special, Homecoming King artfully lays bare his own experience of racism and forces us to question the mantra of ‘Lok Kya Kahenge’, ‘What will people say’, on every level. I challenge aunties, uncles and even bigots to watch it without laughing, crying and almost certainly having a slight change of heart.
The current soap opera playing out in the US is a cautionary tale for anyone who puts too much faith in their government. And news networks trafficking in the currency of ratings not information can hardly hold nations to account. So as traditional institutions fall short, comedians have gained ground as stewards of morality, inclusion and freedom providing the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine – crucial commentary on race, gender, power – go down. As a brown person living in the US, I’m grateful that artists like Minhaj and Ansari are telling inclusive stories. As an Indian woman, I’m thankful that Radhika Vaz and others are defying the patriarchy. The comedic stage as with every other stage, needs to get more diverse but it’s moving in that direction. Thankfully, while our leaders regress, our funny men and women are holding them in check and using laughter to bridge the chasms that divide.
The author is a film producer and journalist and a former hedge fund COO. Twitter: @soleilnathwani