Opinions will differ as to what is the most important quality God gave man for coping with life. Ironically, belief in God itself would probably be a common choice. Perseverance would be cited, as would altruism, admirable choices both. My pick would be sense of humour; it is what pulls people through some of the most wrenching calamities or soothes their daily lives. The ability to laugh at a set of forbidding circumstances, to see the comical side of a trauma, can often help us to gain a less daunting view of the matter and lessen that overwhelming effect. It helps us to achieve balance in our views and priority in our actions.
In our daily life, a sense of humour works to ridicule and thereby puncture the balloons of pomposity and arrogance. Two of our current Members of Parliament, for instance, known for their absurdly pompous pronouncements, would benefit greatly from seeing themselves through a humourous lens that shows them, objectively, how ridiculous they are. It may not eliminate the silly rhetoric, but it would palpably reduce it. Unfortunately, sense of humour is rarely something we learn or discover, or are led to, but appears to be something we inherently possess, like cognitive ability or athletic prowess.
Humour as an existential resource is an invaluable prop. It is there in the earliest of cave drawings, and it abounds today in every aspect of our lives as entertainment, advertising tools, mediation, negotiation and therapy. The ability to laugh, and particularly to laugh at ourselves, has time and again shown its value in the view, as the old Reader’s Digest monthly column put it, that “Laughter is the Best Medicine.”
On the entertainment stage, where today’s column is focused, performers come to comedy in a number of ways. There are persons who say funny things or tell jokes (essentially raconteurs) and persons who say things funny – their style, or delivery or the character they’re playing is the source of the humour (Jack Benny, Richard Pryor). There are comedians who do blatantly raunchy material for adult crowds (some of the Trinidad comedians, Bernie Mac, Eddie Murphy), or you can be squeaky clean and still funny (Bob Hope, Paul Keens Douglas). On the content side, as well, the humour can range from exclusively political (Lennie Bruce) to overtly sexual (Redd Fox) or to deliberately ethnic (Edwin San Juan).
Caribbean humour had an early powerful platform in Trinidad carnival where calypsonians in tents were essentially performing “stand up” comedy in song. “Message calypso,” while certainly around, was in the minority; the engine was largely comedy. The sensual musical accompaniment certainly played its part, but the popularity of the genre owed more to the fact that the singers were replicating the comedic view of life that existed in Caribbean society in general, and in Trinidad in particular. From this vibrant and varied tradition, we laughed at Sparrow’s “Dan Is The Man In The Van,” or Kitchener’s “Ah Bernice,” or Lord Funny’s “Farmer Brown.” In fact, we more than laughed; sometimes we rolled on the floor. I remember like yesterday the antics of a stylist Chinese calypsonian, Rex West, who had me actually falling off my chair in the Young Brigade tent in Port-of-Spain in the 1970s.
My music is from that tradition. It was born in Guyana and channelled abroad with the formation of Tradewinds in 1966, but the songs I wrote, drawing fiercely on the Caribbean culture, were often flavoured with humour and innuendo and satire – the essential ingredients of calypso. In my live performances, as well, that inclination to humour, present in the songs, began to appear in my between-songs commentary, and over the years it has grown to be a part of what I do now when I play. In these humourous asides, I’m not really telling jokes. As in the songs, I delve into funny things I see or hear in the culture, or I will introduce, for example, my song “Copycats” with a true story of a fellow in Toronto talking to me “in Yankee” who turned out to be full Guyanese. So in that regard, I can never run out of material because the pot I’m delving into is not a bag of jokes which will inevitably run out. The pot I’m dealing with is being replenished all the time, every day. New stuff is coming in at this very moment. Twenty years ago, for example, we didn’t have the cell phone and the IPod; now I can make fun of those things. A few months ago, at the opening of an event here, I used the concept of climate change to create humour – 10 years I didn’t have that. As I write this column, for example, I’m going to that cultural well again when I referred above to the bag-of-wind contortions of some of our current representatives in Parliament. New topics are emerging all the time.
An interesting aside to this point on subject matter is in our current musical scene. As I noted to a fellow musician recently: “I’m sorry for the guys who have to come up with material for the jump and wave scene. How many songs are you going to write about that? How many different ways are there to say ‘Put Your Hand in the Air’? Why do you think performers in that genre come and go so quickly?” The simple answer is that artistically they’re standing on a very narrow ledge. Soca, and to some extent dancehall, are genres dealing with generating a mood, or a feeling, for dance, and the genre, by its own definition, has narrowed. With humour, there are no limits to content. In all this, the people are your guide. When they shout lines from a song to you on the street – “A man and a bunch of animals was arguing by the zoo;”or “If you want to get a very good brush, better make sure is a Chinee brush” – you know they’re laughing.