The Inside Story of How Humor Became a Respectable Enterprise in Tibetan Society
When my brother and I were small, one winter vacation our mother dedicated to the purpose of scolding him for trying to be funny on stage. For two months, she tried to set him straight.
He had gotten on stage several times that school year, after debates and elocution contests when they open the stage to the floor, and cracked some lame jokes. During one Suggestions Session, when the entire student body meets to make suggestions that are passed on to the school principal, he said that that the school tingmos, the flour buns for breakfast, should be bigger and puffier.
In those days, at Patlikuhl, sobriety from humor was considered as important as sobriety from alcohol; the idea that your kid might be seen as a “joker” was a terrifying prospect for most parents. It meant that no one would take them seriously.
Hence the long winter ordeal. I mean he should have expected it. When my mother came to school, teachers took her aside and in the deathly serious tones of something saying, “He takes drugs,” my mother was told, “He tries to be funny. He tells jokes in front of the other students.”
I think what everybody was so alarmed about was that humor is always irreverent. Humor deconstructs, subverts, turns something –an idea, a concept, a belief- on its head. Where humor flourishes, reverence diminishes.
That’s why authority figures like our school teachers could not abide students being funny.
In those days our entire community looked down on humor. People talk about how Tibetans are so good natured, ready to find the humor in anything but in fact our humor was too broad and shallow, too easily satisfied with watching people fall on their faces. Where there is nothing to be seen of wit and irony, satire and black humor, only slapstick survives.
However, and I am not sure how it happened, being funny slowly became an asset. As I moved schools from provincial Patlikuhl (the back of the woods) to Dharamsala, the cosmopolitan exile capital at the top of the hill, I noticed that the ban on humor was here lifted.
The funny students were known and lauded, and it was fine for them, good even, to be funny.
Don’t get me wrong. Humor still wasn’t so valued that women were going around saying of their prospective husbands, “I am marrying him because he makes me laugh.” No one was going that far.
But it was hip to be funny. And over the years it has grown progressively cooler to be funny.
Perhaps we were all so anal in the beginning because we were poor refugees working as coolies or settling farmland and there was no time to make or listen to jokes?
But now there was. A number of years ago, we debuted our first stand-up comic. Pasang Tsering. Ex-monk. His jokes were pretty funny, but a large part of his routine was song, or the singing of Indian songs with funny Tibetan lyrics.
And from Tibet there was Migmar la and Thupten la, but I heard them in Boston and thought they were pretty awful: theatrical and stagey, stiff and scripted, and just not funny. It was slapstick rather than standup: two grown men on stage feeding each other terrible, unoriginal lines and expecting you to laugh.
Which, to be fair, the audience was doing but only because Menla Kyab, who went before them, had hammered them with his Amdo accent to the nth power, and they were relieved to hear central Tibetan again.
Now we have Sonam Wangdue, ex TCV and a good friend of ours. He has a gift for physical comedy, a taste for impressions, and can be genuinely funny off the cuff. The other day we were hanging out with an Inji friend who speaks some Tibetan, and SW said, “Ok, please speak Tibetan in Tibetan only.”
He did a standup routine in Boston at Thanksgiving, and the audience was splitting with laughter. He topped it off with a dance routine, of the different dancing styles that our people have, which was totally hilarious. He does also have some jokes which fall flat, which he has to cut, but he is not ruthless at cutting.
He has a talk show that will debut on Vajra TV but I don’t know how funny that will be. Fingers crossed. He is also a professional MC and that’s a new thing. He keeps (and I mean this very loosely) a blog at www.TibetanComedian.blogspot.com.
We still have a long way to go. Our political cartoons have no teeth. I don’t think the cartoonist at Bod-kyi-dus-bab even tries anymore. It’s like he’s just doing drawings.
But I live in hope. We have tottered this far. Surely a Seinfeld or a Stewart cannot be all that far in the future now.