Often enough we have been given an order to make people laugh. A brief that comes with very stern instructions to be quirky and irreverent. Be funny, or else. Blame it on their consultants, who after a thorough (and rather expensive) research have ‘discovered’ that consumers react better to a piece of paid communication when it tickles them pink. It gives Mrs Kapoor the jollies and makes her forget that she is enjoying an interruption. A deviation from the very evil Saas wrecking her vengeance on the hapless but heavily made-up Bahu.
But humour as the cliché goes, is a very serious business.
We try everything. From the slapstick to the spoofy, from sarcasm to irony, from the over-the-top raunchy style to the understated refined dig. We make faces. We recycle jokes. We write fresh ones. We do improv. But what we can almost never attempt is a brand taking itself lightly.
But we make an attempt nonetheless. We set up the presentation with a history of brands that have been truly irreverent. Volkswagen. Mercedes. MTV. We show them the commercials. They look and seem to like them and admire them. The brand manager shakes his head vigorously and nervously. He starts stuttering and then gets angry. Where are the options? He doesn’t see beyond the logo bursting into flames part. And while we think the white-haired, benevolent CEO might have taken a shine to the idea, we are not even given a chance to present to him. Keep it safe. If it’s avoidable, avoid it. We don’t really need to make people laugh that desperately. What will my employees say? What will my wife say? My kids will have a horrid time at school. My consumers will laugh and never take me seriously again. No. No. No. Please. Do something else. Be funny, but in a safe way.
We are still not comfortable laughing at ourselves. A brand that doesn’t take itself seriously is destined for doom. Thus states the rule-that-must-not-be uttered. And this is not a rant against clients. Or their MBA stained lackey. Or the Hustler of Jargons planner.
It is a rant against us.
As a people, we are touchy. So emotional and melodramatic, that we refuse to believe how funny we actually are. How can I, a father of three, a self-made man who had to struggle all his life, appear funny? It is a vilification of terrible proportions. It mars my name and my very existence. It is an insult to my upbringing. My mother. Father. And his God-like self would never approve of anyone laughing at any member of our family.
Even our ancient epics are full of such instances. I remember having read numerous episodes where the Gods have been upset with civilians who have dared to laugh at them. And Gods, being of an often irrational and impulsive disposition, have out of divine wrath, turned these devils into cattle, caterpillars and other lower forms of life.
That is what happens when you try to be smart, okay?
And what better display of this when we see an irate politician huffing and puffing because of a cartoon that she finds so offensive that she has to rob us of our dignity and our freedom of speech? In the last three days, the not-so-honorable Chief Minister of Bengal, Ms Mamata Banerjee, has shown us just how ugly the lack of a sense of humour can be.
This, as an incident, is particularly worrisome. It would be extremely stupid of us to write this off as an anomaly. It would be dangerous to record this, as the antics of a foolish and deranged woman. It is a far more important event. It is, in fact, a direct reminder of our intolerance.
It is proof of us being stuck-ups.
And the only place where we can change it is here. And I believe that strongly. If there is a creative force in our country, that has the power to expose people to newer ideas, we stand at number two. Second only to the mighty Bollywood.
And we have caused shifts. However small and gradual, but we have pushed society ahead. We have managed to make changes.
From a time a commercial was banned because it showed a couple kissing, we are today at a place where a middle-aged couple’s consummation in a soap, is touted as the biggest eyeball grabber on primetime television.
We gave young people the sanction to fall in love and defy traditions. And yet a few years later, we told them that an arranged marriage was just as profitable.
We taught people to be flirty, naughty and delicious. We taught them it was okay for a woman to be tomboy. And that it was okay for a man to get an occasional facial.
We made people aware of choices. Our images and words have changed lifestyles, attitudes and aesthetics. It has broken myths, created logic and has possibly carved an entire generation that is far more exposed to newer ideas than we can ever be.
We made them laugh too.
And we continue to do so.
All we need to do now is teach us to laugh at ourselves. To teach us that it is okay to be the centre of the joke sometimes.
To tell us, “You know what, you might be a saint in real-life, a hero and an inspiration to many. But the way you talk when you are upset, Sir, really cracks us up!”
Trilokjit Sengupta is the creative director and one of the founder members of Metal. He has spent over a decade in advertising and currently moonlights as a photographer.