Turning To Comedy For Catharsis In These Troubled Times
What do you turn to when you are going through a tough time? A tub of ice-cream? Junk food? Soul-crushing ballads? I turn to comedies, the happy-sad, bitter-sweet, raw, healing kind. In India, there was a film called ‘Mera Naam Joker’ (My name is Joker). It was about a man who lived a very sad and troubled life but, as a clown, he made other people laugh. He channeled his grief to create humour that helped other people through their tough times.
And, it is in comedy that I have found not just laughter and joy, but catharsis. I don’t mean the crass comedies that spew out profanities, or those that perpetuate stereotypes, or those that punch down instead of punching up. It is the comedies (and comedians) that have taken life — its challenges, its tragedies, its rawness, its dark and ugly side that no one usually talks about and turned it into something beautiful. Here are some of my favourite comedies that have brought out tears of laughter, sadness and release.
When I watched the first episode in 2019, I absolutely downright hated it. I wondered why a show about a snooty family was such a big deal. In 2020, during the lockdown due to the pandemic, I gave it a second chance and this time, I fell in love with it. Here was a family that had been uprooted from their life of luxury and comfort and were forced to face the harsh realities of life, similar to the situation many of us were facing. The Roses had to come to terms with their ignorance, their pride, their fake friends, and most of all, their cluelessness about each other. The show takes us on a journey as they rediscover themselves and what really matters to them. Through Johnny finding a worthwhile business to devote his experience to, Moira getting what she was truly worth, Alexis finding belief in her skills, and David finally finding love he can trust, this series had me rooting for the strange characters I once disliked. The show taught me the value of kindness, love, inclusivity, doing away with prejudices, and mainly, giving and making the most of second chances.
Outside in — The Lockdown Special
While everyone was trying their best to not think about the lockdown, Vir Das, one of India’s most noted stand-up comedians used it as source content. Though he was slated to tour the world in 2020, Covid-19 changed his plans and the tour turned into 30 virtual shows instead. Since he couldn’t go around the world, he brought the show to people’s homes — Outside in — The Lockdown Special. He began each show with the same question — “What’s the first thing you will do once the lockdown ends?” And each show took a different route based on his audience’s answers. Some were hilarious like one in which a father-son duo joined as separate audience members and the son instructs his father on how to unmute himself. Some were sad like the one in which a young guy was supposed to go the US for future studies, but now that he was stuck at home, all he wanted was ice-cream. Some were heart-breaking like the ones in which people hadn’t met their families in a really long time, when Vir himself was frustrated being stuck at home, going through his own emotional rollercoaster. Some were heart-warming like the one in which he applauded all the health-care workers for their immense courage and strength in service. Some were enraging like the one where he spoke about how his neighbor sneezed on him deliberately. Hearing each story felt relatable and brought out a feeling of togetherness, of solidarity, of being in the same boat though far apart.
You might think I’m into trauma porn because I like the next few shows. I’m not. These writers are brilliant. They crack you up. They know when to make you hold your breath while you wait for their punchline. These shows deal with disability, death, grief, heartache and self-hate. But they help you to love yourself and be kind to others in spite of all that. Who knew dark humour could be so freeing!
If you want some light-hearted comedy, this is not it. Hannah Gadsby lays out tough truths about her life for everyone to witness. She talks about the challenges of being a lesbian and gender non-conforming woman growing up in a homophobic society, dealing with misogyny and being assaulted. She shares her experiences and the difficulty in finding herself, and coming out, all while hitting every single punchline she planned. She bares her soul, and gives you her truths — blunt and unvarnished and leaves you to take in all in, in the tense, pregnant silences. At the end of her show, she throws you off saying she’s done with comedy; done with the self-deprecating humour for someone who has been in the margins, done with humiliating herself for the sake of laughs; done with trying to make her mark in a highly sexist male-dominated stand-up comedy scene. While comedy is often known for pointing out difficult truths, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette calls out bullshit like never before. Through her sarcasm, wit, wonderfully written narrative and delivery, she created more open safe spaces for people to feel and share their trauma.
I happened upon this show by mistake but it’s one I’ll never forget. The show began with this Scottish guy named Daniel Sloss who seemed rude, arrogant, privileged and profane. He freely gives his opinion on popular topics like veganism, white male privilege, politics, religion and relationships but he also touches on touchy topics like disability and death while constantly keeping his audience on tenterhooks and guffawing at the right places. In his show, he says, “Laughter is not the opposite of sadness. Happiness is the opposite of sadness. Laughter is a reaction. It’s free to exist in both.” While it may seem like he is preaching from the pulpit about finding humour, lightness and laughter even in sadness, you come to realise he’s talking from experience. He shares stories of growing up with a sister with cerebral palsy and only lets you know toward the end of the show that he lost her when he was seven.
If you’ve found it difficult to talk to someone with a disability, here’s some of his advice: “Disability can be hysterical. You just have to make sure that you’re on the right side of the laughter. If you’re laughing at the disabled person, congratulations, you’re a pile of shit. But if you’re laughing with them, what a joy. But to say disability is never funny, to me, that is dehumanizing”.
I approached this series knowing that Ricky Gervais doesn’t mind telling truths that get on your nerves. I expected to be turned off and in episode 1, I was. Who was this man? Why was he making everyone’s life so difficult? Why was he wallowing in self-pity even though everyone was trying to be kind to him? How dare he try to give up on life while there are those who are worse of? While I began with questions such as these, I found my answers as I progressed. Here was a man who had lost the love of his life and, along with her, he had lost his reason for living. She had been his heart and soul and he didn’t find the world worth living without her. And yet, in extremely unexpected ways, in his rudeness, blunt truths and cynicism, you realise he is kind, compassionate, non-judgmental, helpful and just trying to make it through with his grief-stricken heart. Ricky Gervais got me crying! I came face-to-face with my prejudices against people. As Tony deals with the death of his wife and begins to find meaning in life, I saw, through his rude kindness, it was still the kindness that mattered.
Damn! This is a series like no other. I began watching it without any idea what it was about and I fell head-over-heels in love with it. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character is a fleabag — a horrible, despicable human who doesn’t seem to care for anything or anyone beside herself. And, she has no filter. Famously known for breaking the fourth wall, Fleabag lets you right into the protagonist’s life. She talks to you, shares her deepest and darkest secrets, her wildest and most horrifying thoughts and her most frightening fear — of ending up all alone. While her behaviour is repulsive, her sarcasm and quick, dry wit are endearing. She deflects her hurt with humour. You can see her struggling to keep her business alive while trying and constantly failing to mend her relationships with her family, while also dealing with the death of her best friend — the one human that understood, accepted and loved her. To save herself from being hurt again, she prefers to build a one-sided relationship with her audience. We are chosen to know her better than the people in her life. For those of us, who find it difficult it embrace the darker, uglier sides of ourselves, Fleabag feels like a close, relatable, non-judgemental friend. All she wanted was love, kindness and acceptance to be a better person. And that’s all we need too.
Comedy will always be one of my favourite genres. It doesn’t just entertain and make me laugh but feels like a comforting friend. I really admire the writers and comedians who have created these shows and am grateful to them.