You are here

Fun and Joke Aside: Laughter Taken With a Pinch of Salt

Owen Blakka Ellis and Michael Abrahams at 'Fun and Joke Aside'

The Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona, partnered with Blue Moon Publishing to explore the serious side of comedy with two of Jamaica's leading comedians Owen Blakka Ellis and Michael Abrahams at the event Fun and Joke Aside. The result was a morning of great hilarity, heavily seasoned with insight into the nature of comedy and the lives of the two comedians. The Neville Hall Lecture Theatre played host to the event which took place on Sunday, April 12, 2015. 

Though Elllis and Abrahams worked well together, exuding a dynamic energy on the stage, the two are from very different backgrounds. Ellis is an educator, actor,  writer and poet, with his first full-collection Riddim & Riddles recently published by Blouse and Skirt Books, an imprint of Blue Moon Publishing. Blakka Ellis is best known for his comedic work over the last three decades. Dr. Abrahams is an obstetrician/gynaecologist and a columnist at the Jamaica Gleaner. He is also a poet, comedian and song-writer. Well known for his unapologetic social and political commentary, Abrahams has delivered such recent musical parodies as 'Beauty and the Priest'.

Dr. Michael Bucknor provides the welcomeDr. Micheal Bucknor, Head of the Department of Literature, provided a short, sharp and witty welcome and introduced Editor-in-Chief of Blue Moon Publishing and "those Blouse and Skirt books" Tanya Batson-Savage.

Batson-Savage provided the morning's introduction. She opened by reading Ellis’s 'Fun and Joke Aside' from Riddim & Riddles, advising the audience to listen to the poem and "take the comic crack with a pinch of salt." Batson-Savage would also steer the conversation between the two comedians with a series of questions, allowing the morning to be a hybrid of an interview and a talk.

To much amusement, Batson-Savage introduced Blakka Ellis as (among other things) a self-proclaimed lesbian. Several chuckles later, Ellis explained the description by sharing his experiences growing up. He admitted to feeling like he was always asked to perform his gender identity, and that he does not fit the Jamaican definition of masculinity.

Tanya Batson-Savage directs questions at Blakka Ellis & Michael Abrahams"Since I don’t fit all what it means to be a man, I must be a girl," Ellis said. Amidst the hilarious uproar during which Abrahams lifted Ellis’ shirt to, as he declared "check from a medical perspective".

"Since the only thing I have in common with most men is that I like girls, I must be a lesbian," Ellis went on to explain.

Ellis would later deal with this issue more seriously by reading the poem 'Man' from Riddim & Riddles which explores the stereotypical Jamaican masculinity. Ellis also read the poem 'Shame', which catalogues the tragedies of Jamaican history with remarkable verbal dexterity. Toward the end of the morning, he would deliver a deeply personal moment as he read 'At Auntie's Funeral' about the central figure in his childhood who was the source of so much material and much pain.

Batson-Savage asked Abrahams about the seeming discrepancy between his day job as a gynaecologist and night job as a stand-up comedian, querying whether his patients are able to take him seriously. Abrahams pointed out that science has proven the benefits of laughter to fertility and admitted that for the most part comedy helps his patients to feel at ease and to consider him less aloof than the rest of his medical colleagues.

Both Abrahams and Ellis spoke about their introduction to comedy as well as attempted to define it.

"Stand-up [comedy] is not about telling jokes," Abrahams observed, "It’s about telling stories from a different perspective."

Both also spoke to using trauma in their lives as fodder for their comedy, which would become a running theme throughout the discussion. Both men spoke about how they had turned childhood trauma into comedic material. The audience got the full benefit of this as Abrahams performed his parody 'Uptown Story' outlining the many beatings from his father.

Hilarity was a mainstay at Fun and Joke AsideEllis revealed that performing for his friends was a kind of escape from the unpleasant realities of his home life, and became achieved a kind of celebrity status from being the man with the jokes.

Fame as a comedian, however, would prove to be a double-edged sword, as Batson-Savage probed their reactions to the common perception of the comedian as a fool.

Ellis responded with muted outrage at the constant demand for 'a joke'. He recounted an encounter with an immigration officer who demande a joke on learning he was a comedian.  His retort was cutting. "If I were a basketball player, would you have demanded a slam dunk?"

Abrahams also spoke on the issue. He revealed his own encouters, remarking on an incident where he was sick and at the hospital but on bieng recognized as a stand-up comedian, he was being pointed and laughed at by a couple who assumed he was shaking uncontrollably for their amusement. 

Ellis explained that he believed a part of the problem of perceptions of comedians, has to do with their historic portrayal in Jamaican theatre, and that people often confused the intelligent men playing these roles with the idiots they portrayed.  

"We’ve been fed a diet of comic characters that are half-idiots – Titus, Cebert, Claffy," Ellis lamented. "Is never a Sheldon [Big Bang Theory], who so bright him funny and stupid."

Further on, the two comedians were asked to discuss the Jamaican tendency to laugh at terrible things, and if there was anything too terrible for them to joke about.

Audience at the Neville Hall lecture theatre at rapt attention for Fun & Joke AsideAbrahams remarked that the Jamaican characteristic sense of humour which resulted in a tendency to "laugh at funerals and wonder why people cry ar weddings," was related to low emotional intelligence.

"We’re not comfortable treating with emotions from any end of the spectrum," Ellis added. He went on to describe what he calls the Jamaican inclination to 'other', to single out people and behaviours that deviate from the norm.

But when it comes to being too offensive, both comedians have drawn clear lines even though both declared that they do not worry about offending people with their material.

"Art can make things more palatable, and that’s very dangerous," Ellis pointed out. He refered to the popular Queen Ifrica song 'Daddy Don’t Touch Me There' whose comfortable one drop beat contrasts harshly with its troubling lyrical content.

Conversely, Abrahams spoke about couching difficult topics in the medium of comedy, poetry or music to better engage and audience. He brought this concept to life by performing 'We Didn’t Start the Fire', a humorous and impassioned castigation of the handling of the recent Riverton disaster. Not just amusing, the lyrics are a call-to-arms for social revolution.

Interestingly, both men also revealed that they have been battling with depression for years, and that it is the fate of many comedians.

"Being funny is not the same as being happy," Ellis said.

Despite the frequent comic gags and peals of laughter, Ellis and Abrahams gave serious consideration to comedy and humour. They treated emotional and socio-political issues with gravity and aplomb, unafraid (despite Ellis’s self-proclaimed cowardice) to confront the uncomfortable, the irrational and the traumatic and forcing the audience to confront these themes as well.

To rework a line from Shakespeare, it is perhaps bravery and not brevity that is the soul of wit.