By Dimithri Wijesinghe
There’s one thing we can be sure of in 2021 – Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere and it’s most definitely going to be an ever-present companion well into the new year.
Despite the bleak future, we have been facing the pandemic for almost an entire year. As humans often do, we have managed to come up with truly fantastic distractions, and entertainment is at the forefront of these many distractions, with one primary source of entertainment being comedy.
Comedy specials are flooding streaming services; Netflix is boasting a new special almost every week, and even in Sri Lanka, comedians are taking part in all the excitement.
We reached out to a number of comedians from across the spectrum to share their thoughts on what role they have played in this mid-pandemic world and whether they feel comedy and entertainment may face any lasting changes in the future.
Are we joking about corona yet?
Speaking with writer/director Feroze Kamardeen, he shared that while it may be a little too soon to use the pandemic as a source of comedy, there will come a time for it, just as we joke about the holocaust, Vietnam war, and a number of other terrible things that have happened. “There is a goldmine of content, of course, but timing is important,” he said.
To nearly all the comedians we reached out to, timing, responsibility, and sensitivity were areas of importance they all seemed to share a consensus on – it is simply too soon to make fun of corona and comedians certainly have a role to play in alleviating the daily stresses of the general public as well as putting into perspective the bitter truth in an easy-to-digest way.
HaHa Lanka Founder Anderson Haran also shared that he believes that there is a huge responsibility that lies with comedians, especially with the use of new mediums they have to work with. Screens have separated the performer from their audiences, as they are unable to interact with the audience and therefore cannot gauge their reactions.
“The role of the comedian is simply to evoke laughter; you must be authentic, genuine, tell truths, and look inwards at your failures. Not everyone can honestly look at themselves and open up about their shortcomings to become the intentional butt of the joke. This authenticity is what creates relatability and therefore the connection with your audience,” said Haran.
Best known for his slot on Stage Light and Magic’s “Freddy”, comedian Nisal Katipearachchi also spoke of the role of the comedian during these difficult and unprecedented times. He stated that comedy can often be enlightening, as it is the truth conveyed to you in humour. He shared that it is done to evoke a laugh out of someone, and they are more likely to realise what is being pointed out if it is done in a humorous way rather than directly focusing on one’s mistakes – people are more likely to accept it if they can laugh about it first.
“The bitter truth is a hard pill to swallow, but in the role of the comedian, they are best suited to help people realise these things,” he said.
However, he did say that these days, the role of the comedian is rather complex – you must be responsible in what you choose to poke fun at, as there is a level of sensitivity one must incorporate. “I don’t believe we should choose to go forth with the same freedom we would’ve operated on sometime back,” he said.
Kamardeen stated that comedy and entertainment in general can serve as an effective distraction.
“It has been a godsend for people looking to make a profit; Russia with their referendum, China’s Communist Party pushing for sweeping power; it’s really been ideal timing for those looking to enrich themselves, with the world preoccupied. People are living distractedly, as they are too busy surviving,” he said.
Veteran actor Lucky Dias also shared his thoughts on a similar vein about profiteering during these times, noting that the entertainment industry has been brought to a grinding halt, virtually on their knees, and if you are not desperately looking to make a buck, then you are, understandably enough, concerned about gathering in large numbers on a film or television set.
“Especially in the case of television, most networks that finance and telecast shows that artists risk their safety to film barely compensate their creatives while making cool millions off of their repeat broadcasts via weekly half-hour slots” he pointed out.
What about this influx of comedy?
With regard to the near-overwhelming amount of random content hitting the interweb these days, we cannot overlook the overwhelming number of comedy specials that are now being made available too. Whilst many of these were shot in comedy clubs way before the pandemic, they are all hitting the air around the same time, leading one to wonder why it is that studio execs the world over decided that the right time is now.
Sri Lankan-born German comedian Vidura Rajapaksa, who had his very own comedy special distributed via Amazon early this year, shared that he believes “it’s mainly just due to the lack of other forms of entertainment and possibly that other productions like TV series and movies have also halted production for most of this year”.
It would seem that this would be the most logical assumption, also given that it is far simpler to shoot a comedy special with one comedian telling jokes than investing in a massive production with numerous moving pieces while adhering to corona regulations.
Katipearachchi also spoke of comedic content hitting the internet, with even some of the productions he was a part of having been made available on YouTube more recently.
“In the case of Stage Light and Magic productions, the release of pre-recorded content is based on timeliness and relevance, rather than simply releasing content for the sake of releasing content,” he said, adding that they are utilising the online platform in order to entertain during these troubled times with content that remains relevant and relatable.
Haran also said they too have utilised the online platforms, sharing that while in the past they scouted fresh talent via regular open mics, they hope to carry on this practice by following through with a similar concept where they host Instagram Live shows every Saturday featuring new faces and new talent who will perform for the HaHa Lanka audience.
Dias spoke of his thoughts on making attempts to go online, stating it is the only choice of platform that is available where you can create from the safety of your home for online content. He shared how he too took part in one project where he was the only senior artist amidst a large group of young contemporary actors and actresses.
He said under the circumstances, it was a novel attempt, and this “new normal” has presented the opportunity for people to think out of the box and come up with fresh ways to approach one’s audience. However, he said that there also appears to be more limitations.
“You can’t film on a grand scale – to take those beautiful shots, to evoke what cinema is able to do, etc.,” Dias said, adding that it can be an Indie production that gets us by, but it is not enough for the long run.
Will comedy adapt to suit these times?
With the talk of comedy, common questions that were brought up were “how will we adapt?” and “what are the lasting changes we need to look into in order to keep things going”. And really, what we saw was a great deal of resistance from everyone who shared their very valid concerns about the way things are right now.
Comedian Dominic Keller shared his thoughts on this matter, stating that while we do see some socially distanced live shows around the world, the drive-through-type shows where you honk your horn and flash your lights, in terms of stand-up comedy, really only work when you have an audience to bounce your material off of.
“It is nearly impossible to carry on a show where you cannot gauge the audience’s reactions, unless of course your style of comedy is a little dark or sarcastic and there is no great reliance on the audience’s reactions and if it is not as interactive,” he explained.
For the most part, he said that when they put on a show, on opening night, they are able to gauge what works and what doesn’t, and they can then move on from there. But in the case of an online digital performance, this is not possible.
Keller said they have been approached to do online performances, adding that, however, it is just not possible to do it that way. He said that if things are to continue the way they are, the next best alternative would be socially distanced shows, but even still, it might not work. He referred to how Lionel Wendt is offering up their venue to be housed at half capacity; they would then have to price the tickets to compensate for just half the audience and then that would not be affordable, leading to a vicious cycle, he said.
Kamardeen too added to this sentiment, sharing that while there is a tremendous opportunity to be funny, comedy is the best medium to express yourself and you can see many resorting to it online, as there are plenty of hilarious memes. However, he said adapting what was meant for stage for online platforms is a limited business, insisting that theatre is the pinnacle of show business and really there’s no replicating it.
“You can call me old-fashioned, but somehow, speaking to a screen simply doesn’t have the same feel as performing to a live audience,” he said, adding: “There is no replacing the stage show; social media content cannot substitute for the live performance.”
Difficult times are among us
It would seem that for the most part, those who entertain for a living are doomed. Veteran actor Lucky Dias said that this year, from March to now (8 December), he may have worked a total of three to four days’ shooting, and that too was due to a previous commitment where he was the lead and therefore did not want to be the one cog in the wheel that was being difficult.
Veteran actor Mahendra Perera also said: “I am fully bankrupt, everything is either cancelled or postponed, the theatre is non-existent, and there really seems to be no hope in sight.”
Perera said that he is currently playing the wait-and-see game like everyone else; as a veteran artist, he has not had a taste for mega television serials and such “fast food”-style productions and he only hopes that there comes a time in the near future where he is able to perform. He believes in his versatility as a comedic actor as well as a character actor, if only he is given a chance.
Dias too shared that unfortunately, while he does not wish to be a Negative Nancy in all this, he truthfully does not see a way out and doesn’t see things getting better even come 2021. He said that while Sri Lanka has always been yearning for a tomorrow that never comes, things seem to be even more bleak than they once were.
He said that it is a shame that in their golden years as veteran artists, these could’ve been the years they would’ve seen a lot of love from the people and created some lasting impressions; however, they are left to deal with this pandemic.