Each way of looking at the comic moment involves the confrontation and overcoming of conflict in an unexpected way. We laugh when a comedian contextualises a problem for us (set-up of a joke) and then offers a new perspective which can be both truthful and ridiculous (punchline).
In my experience, the comedy scene in Melbourne has changed significantly over the past few years, echoing a global shift in values. I had only been practising comedy for a year when the #MeToo movement gained worldwide momentum in 2017. Since then, the comedy scene in Melbourne and across the world has shifted to being more diverse and inclusive as in many cases, national and state funding bodies have demanded this as a condition for funding. Most of all, popular culture has changed and it’s no longer acceptable, for example, to produce comedy nights with all cis white, male line-ups.
While we’re still battling against racism and tokenism in the industry, it has been a welcome change to see many more opportunities arising for artists from minority backgrounds. For this reason, I believe the most exciting comics of today primarily engage relief and incongruity theory. ‘Superiority theory’ is generally only widely acceptable if it is ‘punching up’ (when groups with traditionally less power make jokes at the expense of those with traditionally more power), rather than the other way around (‘punching down’).
There are challenges that comics from minority groups face, when deciding to pursue stand-up comedy. While the scene is slowly becoming more diverse, looking at comedy across all levels, one can ask why there still seems to be fewer comics from marginalised groups when compared to their Caucasian, male, counterparts? Speaking only from my personal experience as the daughter of first generation migrants from India, the first challenge I faced was my parent’s expectations. Like many other artists from an Indian background, I’ve had to have the difficult conversation of telling my parents that I want to pursue the arts, and specifically, performance. Now that I’m older I can relate to why they were scared. What they saw was little representation on mainstream media, financial insecurity and the racist undertones they sometimes faced in their own, traditional, workforces. Did they really sacrifice their home, all that was familiar to them in hope for a better life, only for me to struggle and pursue something even more unfamiliar and potentially dangerous? Like any parent, they tried to protect me from what seemed like an exclusive culture they didn’t understand and an industry which was overwhelmingly white.
For comics who do persevere despite cultural conflicts, there looms the question of how to talk about our personal lives on stage in a way which is relatable for audiences while still nuanced enough to properly represent our experiences. In the first few years of doing comedy I often didn’t talk about my family on stage. It seemed too difficult to discuss my experiences of growing up in an Indian family, to strangers, and I didn’t want to become pigeon-holed as a ‘race comic’. However, in recent years, I’ve found that exploring this integral part of my identity on stage has been necessary for me to be honest with my audiences.
As Green and Linders outline, ‘comedy creates an environment where race can be spoken about directly and often times, harshly’ (2016, 241). Comics exploring topics of race on stage on the one hand have the power to disrupt social norms and conventional understandings of ethno-racial groups (Wijekumar, 2021). However, they also risk furthering negative stereotypical understandings of race through their portrayals (DeCamp, 2017, Green and Linders, 2016). When practising sets in comedy clubs, a comic will often have only 5-10 minute set times. In order to efficiently familiarise the audience with elements of a cultural background, ethnic comics often use descriptions of stereotypical traits. As Elise DeCamp outlines, the stand-up ‘walks the punchline of the single-story, its balance tipping alternately between reinforcing and challenging ethno-racial assumptions’ (2017, 329). When I discuss my own experiences of growing up in Melbourne within an Indian family, I don’t wish to speak for the entire Indian community in a hegemonic way and yet, the very act of performing on stage when you belong to a minority group, can sometimes feel and seem representative. For example, a joke I tell goes:
My family is Indian and so they insist on cooking for me. Even though I’ve moved out, my dad has found a trolley with wheels and I have to go to my parents’ house and pick up 17 boxes of curry each week and wheel them back to my house on public transport. It’s my ‘curry bag’. I know I’m very lucky but I worry it makes me a giant stereotype. What if I was on the train one day and a racist thug came up to me and said ‘Hey you INDIAN, what’s in your bag? Curries?’ I’d have to open up my bag and say YES, I have heaps of curries, please take some!
Here, I use the word ‘curry’ to quickly convey the type of food that is most commonly affiliated with India. From pop media, many audiences would also be familiar with the Indian cultural customs of protecting their young (even to extremes) and generously feeding others. Of course there’s more to my parents and cultural upbringing than just eating curries but with limited time and a broad audience from various cultural backgrounds, this is an efficient way to convey the parameters needed to make this joke funny.