A comedy of errors

Not all jokes are meaningless


Many times, our knee-jerk reaction to criticism is that it’s just a joke.  Unfortunately, not all jokes are meaningless.

No matter what kind of emotions we are experiencing, everyone resorts to some, mood-uplifting comedy, regardless of their age and gender. It doesn’t matter what we are watching or listening to, be it entertaining conversations between Moin Akhtar and Anwar Maqsood on Loose Talk or the comfortable laughter of the hit American sitcom Friends, comedy provides a temporary fail-safe method of forgetting our worries.

But the thing with comedy is that it doesn’t just seek to entertain, it perpetrates some effects on our day-to-day lives. While on the surface, jokes and laughter seem to exert a momentary influence, it’s important to question if there are any other consequences, seeing as how many of the jokes relate to issues in our private lives. One such pertinent topic — a recurrent theme in many comedies —  is the concept of weight and how people react to different shapes and body sizes of those they interact with.

Using looks for jest is one of the oldest tricks in the book, with a number of famous clowns and jesters from various stages of literature, art and history, gaining fame via their ability to joke about abnormal weight, height or facial features. From the below average height of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear to the more recent Marx brothers and Charlie Chaplin (who used tight-fitting or oversized clothes), jokes regarding appearances have always drawn laughter from the audience. This method of using physical features as props is acknowledged by stand-up comedian Ali Gul Pir, who believes that comedy indeed requires certain body types. “One of Hollywood’s greatest comedians, Chris Farley, was very large and often used his looks to add to his comedy,” says Ali. “Even though your looks don’t really matter, being overweight can be funny. Take Laurel and Hardy as an example. In all of these cases, imperfection is funny.”

Ali, who’s first single Waderai Ka Beta, a satire about the political set-up of Pakistan, achieved great success back in 2012, understands different forms of comedy and how they deal with weight respectively. “There are different sub genres of comedy,” he explains. “There’s satire which is a reflection of reality in a witty way but there are also slapstick pieces which are only intend to make others laugh. Stand up includes observational comedy and then there’s political comedy. Some of these genres have a message and are meant to make you realise something, but others only aim for laughter.”

Indeed, this type of comedy may be part of a comedian’s self-deprecating sense of humour but what happens when the humour is aimed at others, namely those with a body shape or size that is not considered ideal by society? Research regarding body image and its reinforcement in the media by scholars like Miriam Rachel Lowe and Gregory Fouts provides a clearer look at the risk of resulting physical and psychological damage, especially among young adults. Numerous studies have stated that the depiction of extreme slenderness and the overall portrayal of bodies in the media could be causing a rise in eating disorders, especially among young women who wish to lose weight. They further imply that onscreen exposure to such stereotypes, through funny, dramatic or intense depictions, reinforces the association between being thin and physical attractiveness, personal self-worth and success.

Based on these findings, it is evident that promoting an ideal body image ultimately leads to dissatisfaction amongst the audience, be it male or female. According to Pakistani actress Hina Dilpazir, there is much more to the situation than what meets the eye. “What kind of jokes affect the audience depends upon how a character has been written,” she elaborates. “It doesn’t matter if someone is short or tall. What is more important is the situation and how the joke is carried. In this case, the greatest control is with the writer of the character and the story.”

Hina, known for lending her excellent comic timing to roles like Momo in Bulbulay, Mitthu in Mitthu and Shakooran in Quddusi Sahab Ki Bewah, has extensive knowledge of the genre. According to her, the most important thing in understanding comedy and its relationship to weight is maintaing a good sense of humour. “Creating good comedy is hard work,” she admits. “In most cases, how weight is dealt with changes from character to character. Each character has its own demands, some require more slapstick humour while others don’t. But a good sense of humour is always welcome.”

Nonetheless, the extent to which comedy can influence the psyche of viewers still remains unanswered. While most of us are happily laughing away at the expense of excess chub, dwarf heights or dark skin, will our perspectives ever change? Amna Saleem Khan, an avid fan of comedy, understands how some jokes can have adverse effects in the real world. “There are definitely a lot of jokes about fat, short and dark-skinned people,” she says. Amna highlights India’s most popular show Comedy Nights with Kapil as an example, saying “the show is huge and one of the lead characters is constantly made fun of for being fat. Words like ‘moti’ and ‘ugly’ are used together quite regularly.” Another example can be found in one of the show’s most loved character, Palak — a male actor posing as an overweight female. The many jokes cracked regarding Palak include comparisons to bulldozers, water tankers, drums, etcetera, on top of which, Palak is also mocked for being ambitious and flirting with other actors.

Hence, it appears that the idealisation of slender and fair women is something comedy often promotes, directly or indirectly. Interestingly, this is not a phenomenon restricted to just our part of the world as jokes about weight, body shapes and complexions are common worldwide. Shows in the West are just as culpable for trying to generate laughter over failed diets, breaking balances and tight clothing as their counterparts from the East. “Even in Friends, people laughed at Monica because of her weight although one can argue that their portrayal was  less derogatory,” says Amna. Perhaps this is due to greater awareness regarding obesity in the West than other parts of the world.

Nonetheless, physical comedy can exert a direct influence on anyone, particularly the younger generations. “If a comedy show is portraying the fact that making fun of a fat person is okay then people will think it is okay,” explains Amna. “Ultimately, this increases bullying amongst children as well.” In her opinion, the lack of media regulation and limited dialogue on the matter are to blame.

With such obvious and dangerous ideas being promoted, do those involved in the health business benefit? According to Syed Kamran Ahmed, the head of executives at Shapes, a health and fitness club located in Karachi, there are various reasons why people join the gym but few would admit to worrying about their weight because of the negative portrayal on media. Kamran explains that different people have different goals when it comes to fitness. “While some are aiming for weight loss, a fair number simply want to maintain their weight or reduce fat from certain areas of the body,” he says.

Research on the benefits of laughter often ends with the phrase ‘laughter is the best medicine.’ From lowering blood pressure to stress hormones, it is not only a cure for physical ailments but also helps promote a general sense of well-being and a positive outlook in life. But when this laughter is at the expense of others, propagating ideas that may be harmful, perhaps one should take a closer look at the message that is being sent out through comedy.

Anum Shaharyar is a freelance writer. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Mass Communication.

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, June 28th, 2015.