Every single bulb was focused on the raised platform where trios, duos and every possible combination of people performed. On that stage, they glistened. The glitters on their clothes, the sweat on the foreheads sparkled as they were hit by the glare of the spotlights. In the darkened recess where we, the spectators, stayed, every innuendo, every antic that reverberated through the speakers was perennially tailed by caucus of laughter. While we almost fell from our seats from the fast paced lashes of insults, we fail to questions ourselves of why we laugh at the obvious reliance of the comedians on stereotypes, insults, and most commonly on sex. We fail to understand why we feel relieved of stress after an hour of laughing at insults based on stereotypes instead of wanting to go on stage and stop the comedians from further perpetuating these constrained perceptions. When one is actually in a comedy bar equipped with these questions, it becomes easier to understand why.
I arrived with my friends at 9:45 pm. Though, we thought that we were quite late, the place was not even half full. Yet, there was already a trio of performers on stage. They were barraging each other with insults and jokes. They were not content with keeping the insults and derogatory remarks amongst themselves. They even called out to audience members and urged them to sing. As the audience member sung, their insults and antiques continued, now being directed at either the looks of the person singing or the way he sung. Even the ones offstage are not safe. Comedians regularly called out insults to the audience members—an old man that night was the unfortunate target of the majority of the comedians’ jokes.
This interaction breaks the fourth wall which is common place among performances that employ a stage and a separate area for the audience. This breakage of conventions does more for the performances in the comedy bar as compared to any other entertainment means because not only does it allow for more subjects of ridicule and jokes, it also one of the many means that a comedy bar employs to achieve success in its main enterprise—making people laugh.
A necessary cause for laughter to ensue is identification. The audience must be able to identify with the experiences, thoughts and insights that a comedian uses in his jokes so that he audience member could laugh. The discourses that are needed in the joke should be the same discourses as those known to the audience. By breaking the fourth wall, the comedians make the identification process easier, more unobstructed. The advantage of a more unobstructed conversation relative to the identification process can be seen in sharing of experience of a friend who has a similar plight to a person on the television screen. A person would easily empathize more and identify with the friend who addresses your presence while he tells his story as compared to a person narrating his experience on television.
Before delving further into how the elements of the comedian performance in the comedy bar help in cultural identification (and subsequent success in making these people laugh), it is useful to make it clear how some of the taboos to our culture that are seen in the antiques of the comedians are not to the disadvantage of cultural identification. Moreover, these contradictions to our cultural norms serve to further help in the process of cultural identification.
One of the contradictions to our own social norms that was observed in the comedy bar was the blatant disregard of cultural conventions of conversations. The comedians never fail to insult the person even though it was the first time they have met. Also, instead of the performers entertaining the audience through their onstage acts, many laughs were gained at the expense of the ridicule of some of the audience members. There was even a part where an oversized homosexual male was let out onstage to perform front and center when in our mainstream day to day culture, he would not even have the slightest chance of even performing as a back-up. Even the topics mostly joked about are in themselves taboo such as the genitals and sexual behavior. Yet, we laugh. Our entertainment is not impended by being taken aback by the blatant opposition towards social norms. Again, why?
Aside from being forewarned of all these vulgarities, these insults and antiques are again, blatant. There is an inherent acknowledgement of cultural norms when it is blatantly broken. Actually, when they say that one of the students who was asked to go on stage if he was gay, when they break all of the conversational etiquette that has been taught to us from childhood, they further create avenues for cultural identification because in their parodies, antiques and vulgar statements they show an awareness and knowledge of our cultural conventions. They just choose to blatantly break them. Moreover, these insults and vulgar jokes express and portray stereotypes that we have learned from childhood. These jokes are based on shared experiences making them easier to identify with and subsequently to laugh at.
The majority of the jokes and insults are based on the stereotypical man, woman, homosexual and even those that are native to only the Philippines. One of such stereotypes that were made fun of was the Bisayan stereotypical pronunciation of the word eight as it. Also the plight of how the gay men never really get true boyfriends and instead get men who are more like prostitutes in that they only stay when you give them money was the subject of one of the latter jokes. We laugh at the social realities that are common to the different stereotypical groups.
These types of jokes bank on the shared experience of among the Filipinos. The joke about people from Visaya would not have translated well if it be heard by a foreigner. Sex is the topic of majority of the jokes used that night. Many consider it as a low type of comedy. To a certain extent this is true. Making people laugh about sex is not much of a challenge because it is the most common shared experiences among everyone and also it is a taboo topic making even the mere discussion of it as in the one done during the performance is able to elicit laughter easily. It poses not much of a challenge for a comedian to use sex whenever he jokes around.
What still picks at my curiosity is how though what they show is a parody of the reality of our social world, we leave not with the urge to change anything wrong about our society. Though what is shown in the comedy bar is the stereotypes that we see in our other people and how such stereotypes subvert the people who are stereotyped, we feel no yearning to free them from their plight.
At this moment, I think it would be useful to introduce the Brechtian effect. This is a performing technique used by some theatre performances to distance the viewers from what is happening onstage. They prevent the audience from identifying with the actors. To achieve such effect, the actors here also break the fourth wall (just as the comedians and comedy bars do). Unlike the comedians, the actors here do the strangest things. Mothers throw away their babies; lead actors suddenly become horses. These unexpected occurrences stop the process of the audience empathizing with the experiences of the performers. What is the purpose of distancing the people from what is happening onstage; what is the purpose of stopping the people from sharing in the sadness of a mother who just lost her child?
Brechtian effect is employed so that the people would analyze what is happening. Though the actors do the strangest things, what they present are social realities. Being alienated from what is happening on stage lets the audience ponder on the why’s and how’s of the realities on stage unlike the performances in comedy bars where we question no more why gays are treated as such, why ugly people are deemed ugly, why dark skin makes a person look worse.
Comedy bars provide a means for laughter and relaxation. It removes the tensions that our day to day lives have imposed upon us through jokes that rely on shared experiences to make us laugh. Yet, as we laugh, we fail to notice all the problematic social realities that are presented and stressed in front of us. We fail to feel any urge to create any sort of change because we have become too identified with the comedians.
-John Clifford Rosales