Hey! This is why we don’t murder comedians
Nazar Mohammad, stage name Khasha Zwan, was an Afghan comedian picked up and murdered by the Taliban in late July 2021 because he made them look foolish. Portrayal through the lens of comedy, or tolerance of that cheeky process, is an activity our cultures clash on.
A Taliban representative attempted to justify the murder by claiming Khasha was not just a comedian but also a soldier (which he had never been), had fought in many battles (again no) and that he was simultaneously a policemen in another district of the country (um, no). Without knowledge of his stage material, even if not everyone thought he was the greatest wit, why would you waste such a multi-tasking polymath?
Oddly, how you feel about silencing comedians probably depends on when and where you were born and brought up on the Earth’s surface.
The country I’m writing from has a long-standing established comedic tradition, seeing the ivory towers of established wisdom as fine subjects for humour and questioning why our sacred cows are still sacred, but the license for comedic free speech being untouchable began long ago in far away Athens at that culture’s great dramatic festivals the Lenaia and Dionysia. Yes, we have a lot to thank them for, but the single common ancestor of the routines we see on stage today didn’t emerge because Athens, the greatest of early Greek states, had a beautiful and liberal culture; it arose from their tyrants being shits.
You see, the Athenians built their fabulous and indefinitely impressive culture on income from their naval dominance of the Greek city states, a position which they used for formalised, exploitative piracy. That’s quite a criticism but, hey, we’re on topic so spear me. In 415–413 BC the Athenian state took one step too far when they invaded Sicily (Syracuse). At the same time, the structural foundations enabling comedy in Greece were being established as great festivals (which were under the protection of the gods) delivered to the public (1) several days of devotional religious ceremonies, (2) two days devoted to tragedy plays, then (3) a final day devoted to comic plays. When the Greek army and navy abjectly lost the campaign at Syracuse and most did not return home (heavy phalanxes were slow and cut down by the simple attrition of sling-shots), the comedians back home felt brave enough to stand up for the first time and (tentatively, indirectly) criticise their establishment in the theatre. Along with worship came an exuberant sense of release, saying the unsayable under the protection of sanctuary.
Aristophanes soon established himself as the foremost high-quality comic-playwright of the age and the first master of ridicule, parody and caricature. Of his 40 plays, it’s sad to find out we have lost 29. The comedian of that era was not called a comedian or joker, any of the terms we would connect with the role today, they were called a poet and that job title was conflated in the public mind with the role of teacher, didaskalos. When Aristophanes ridiculed the populist tyrant Cleon (in The Babylonians), Cleon could do nothing because the challenger had positioned himself under the protection of the gods of the festival (Dionysus) and simultaneously to go against a teacher would be an attack on Wisdom itself (Athena herself, the city’s patron). All Cleon the outraged demagogue could do in retaliation for this affront was denounce Aristophanes as ‘going a bit bald now’.
Further sassy ancient comedies poked fun at leaders, the ruling establishment as a whole and the way the generals managed war, or argued the case for peace (The Frogs, The Knights, Lysistrata etc.). Whether it was Aristophanes, Aeschylus or whoever followed in a sequence up to the present day, comedians were now allowed to mock men in positions of power, without being killed for it. Aristotle recorded that comedy was slow to grow into acceptance because nobody took it’s power seriously for years, except possibly the vilified. The political side which was ridiculed became more a important concern at times when Athens was an on/off democracy and this would have had an effect on the level of private sponsorship of comedy plays (invest more in election years).
Athens was not the only origin of public performance comedy. In Stewart Lee’s novel The Perfect Fool, the author describes how the Hopi culture of native Americans had a shaman-like figure of a comedian who had licence, once a year, to deflate any pompous balloons in the community by humbling them. One example was for the comedian to wait on that self-important person’s roof and urinate on them as they came out of their door. I didn’t say it was subtle. The key point here is that the criticism was allowed and the (deserving?) victim could not hurt the comedian in retaliation for the insult.
In the modern world, we don’t have divine/religious protection for comedians any longer. In fact, many orthodox religious societies do absolutely the opposite and punish comedians for their criticism of the state apparatus on behalf of, abstractly, ‘God’ — who they argue empowered the state or it wouldn’t have risen to the top. Secular countries punish criticism too, including modern Russia. Although in the UK the political cartoons of 100 to 150 years ago were aggressively insulting, too much for most people’s taste, the level had reached a sort of balance where criticism by comedians had become our norm. For leaders, it went with the job like a fly you couldn’t lay a finger on. The comedy hey-day of my country was said to be the 1980s and early 1990s, from which YouTube still features stand-ups like Ben Elton speaking alternately about their reviled leader ‘Thatcher’ and relating experiences on lavatories.
The comedian’s role, by the latter decades of the 20th century, had become a check and balance on wayward power. If the leadership showed nepotism, corruption or veered unwisely into war, the comedian’s popularly appointed role was to remind them they were mortal and should be ashamed. This undoubtedly is a good mechanism, if directed at the correct offenders. In the 1960s, the British appointed Alec Douglas-Home, an old man aristocrat, as Prime Minister. Comedians such as David Frost of The Frost Report took a dislike to what seemed to him a step backward into a class system of fossilised and entitled ‘old Etonians’ who should no longer be given free reign to run the nation to benefit people very similar to themselves, in direct contrast to the youthful image of US leader John F. Kennedy. Douglas-Home was replaced as leader in 1964, largely because the population sided with the comedians. This led to all sorts of challenges to the establishment, with Peter Cook portraying a biased judge who should have retired before going senile, then comedians for the very first time pretending to be the PM (leader of state), the Queen (leader of the nobility) or the Archbishop of Canterbury (leader of organised religion) — and getting away with it.
The public retaining a hand-brake on leaders going beyond their remit, or increasingly delusional and mad, is the difference between being governed (consent) and forcibly ruled (imposed, no choice).
We may be living in a location and time where no threats are looming and life seems equitable, but we should never accept the removal of the public’s safeguards on power. These are: common law, democracy, the independent press and comedians.
The act of watering down or removing those controls would force a binary choice between people either giving in completely or using illegal violence to seek relief from their plight, which in turn awards to the powerful oppressor the moral advantage and justification to punish. Comedy is a friendly hand-brake on power, not just a silly and dismissible thing but also a genuine scolding mechanism that can be echoed by the crowd until those words, that criticism, goes mainstream. A joke is a chant is a weapon.
You think you’re safe? What about the populations of your neighbouring countries — are they really ‘structurally’ safe from their leaders? Do they have any lawful means of even influencing them? Can you imagine The Netherlands, Denmark, France, Belgium or Germany becoming dystopias? Well, I would argue there is almost nothing the public of those countries could do to stop that change if a few key unelected people chose that path.
Take this example. 27 countries in Europe are today ruled by a 100% unelected government, The European Commission. It is the highest form of government for those countries and answers to no one at all. That’s not the whole of Europe of course, which has 44 countries in all, as 40% of the continent’s population and all four of the largest cities in Europe are not in the European Union and the Commission can’t touch them. For the places where they can, this government can compose a law and put it straight into effect using a directive, with no democratic debate happening in any country’s elected parliament. People have sleepwalked into this dangerous position. For anyone living in that part of the world, if you have a law in your country saying something cannot be done, that superior foreign government can give themselves a law over-ruling yours, saying it can be done, and put it into force without any need to ask you. No working democratic or legal means exists to stop anyone in the European Commission abusing power, or to remove them. This point is about potentiality to do harm.
Governance becoming much more efficient is an attractive proposition, primarily to anyone already working in government who doesn’t see why they should have to stand for election, but giving law-makers the power of a dictator and trusting them not to use it is surely too risky.
Equally, a trend has arisen that people have the right to not be offended. No jokes can be made if any wording or subject matter in them is interpreted to be ‘against’ a living group or category (the list is endless). Jokes are statements on the record now and some could be career-stoppers, where activists ring ahead to the theatre and get that comedian’s gig cancelled (yes, in England). Ricky Gervais said that he thinks you should be able to make a joke about anything, as long as it is funny. Pain for disadvantaged people, for example, isn’t funny — and that’s the reason why you don’t go there. The large number of people who think they are doing the right thing by stopping comedians speaking freely, abetted by the many more people who are scared of their righteous wrath and then let it happen, are really campaigning to remove one of the traditional defences ordinary people have against abusive rule. Some comedians will of course support abusive rulers, but that’s the way life blurs the boundary between comedy and tragedy.
In places worldwide when the safeguards of disinterested law and democracy are gone, the population should still have the twin champions of critical analysis leaping to their defence: the free press and comedians. The case of Khasha Zwan in Afghanistan is not just frightening for Afghanis who could be remembered by their neighbours as having told a joke, but it represents knocking aside the final protection a population has to deter their ruling class from doing anything it likes to them, without any consequence.
Comedians keep leaders everywhere straight because they point it out when the high and mighty are becoming unbalanced. In some parts of the world, that service is a brave thing to perform because power does create madness and that particular state is not particularly forgiving.
Hey! When the joke’s on you, just remember, you can kill the comedian but you can’t kill the joke.