The Dalai Lama and the death of humour

Last Updated: Wed, Jul 24, 2019 10:02 hrs
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You know humour is well and truly dead when the Dalai Lama cannot get away with a joke.

Back in 2015, the Dalai Lama had said his successor might well be a woman, but that she should be attractive, or no one would pay her any attention.

It was clearly a joke – a self-deprecatory one, because when he said it, the Dalai Lama pointed at his own face, came close to winking, and laughed; also deprecatory to the world-at-large, because he appears to say that people set different standards for men and women.

At the time, it created a controversy, which eventually died down.

During an interview this year, a female journalist, Rajini Vaidyanathan from the BBC, raked it up again. The Dalai Lama laughed, seeming to think he was asked to tell the joke again, and eagerly began to explain what he had said.

The anchor asked him, stiffly, if he understood why women might find that offensive.

The Dalai Lama struggled to understand the question, and then added that women who were not beautiful could wear makeup.

It does not appear he even caught on that his interlocutor was offended.

There are several things at play here – the Dalai Lama does not speak English even as a second language; it is a distant third. Second, he belongs to a different generation, which was amused by different jokes. Third, he is used to an odd mixture of receiving and showing obsequiousness, thanks to his unique position as both a spiritual leader and a political exile needing to constantly negotiate with world leaders.

Eventually, his comments from the old interview and the new one stirred such a storm that his office issued a statement, saying “His Holiness genuinely meant no offence. He is deeply sorry that people have been hurt by what he said and offers his sincere apologies.” The statement went on to clarify that the Dalai Lama is against the objectification of women. One wouldn’t think a monk would encounter circumstances which necessitated such a clarification.

The statement made the point that “off-the-cuff remarks” which were funny in a certain cultural context could fail to translate humorously into another.

It should not surprise us that social media offered no concessions to an old man who was trying to be amusing in a language that was not his own, to a spiritual leader who is constantly asked to comment on world affairs and has to portray himself as accessible and amicable because his public image necessarily impacts how his people are treated by international policy.

The Internet has become singularly unforgiving.

People say ugly things to each other, things they would never say to each other’s faces, and not just anonymously, because they will find support for the nastiest remarks from others – friends and strangers – who think like they do.

We live in the age of “wokeness”, and its first victim is humour.

I wonder sometimes whether Seinfeld would be as successful a show today as it was a couple of decades ago. Chances are that it would play with trigger warnings: “ableist, misogynist, racist, ageist, Islamophobe, body-shaming, victim-blaming, hair-shaming”.

One sees the death of humour in comedians today.

Trevor Noah held forth on actress Scarlett Johansson’s remarks that she ought to be free to play any person or tree she wanted to, quite as a panellist on a prime time current affairs show would have, with the odd one-liner inserted as indulgence to the nature of his programme. At the time, Johansson was dealing with a controversy over a film in which she was to play a transman, a role she gave up after the blowback.

Jim Jefferies, who once made wisecracks about “unconditional love” by wondering whether his mother would still love him if he mutilated her, now sits at a desk talking about toxic masculinity and the greed of big businesses in America.

The legendary stage comic George Carlin once said, “It’s a comedian’s duty to find the line and deliberately cross over it.”

Lenny Bruce was of the same persuasion, and in the early half of the twentieth century, served jail time for obscenity, came out, and went right back to his routines, punctuating his swearwords with anecdotes from his time served.

One would think, a century later, we would be against someone serving time for a joke. We are happy for comedians to swear on stage, as long as they’re swearing at the right people.

Female comedians hold forth on male chauvinism, even when they’re on stage.

The Internet is rife with columns about how political correctness is actually helping, and not killing, stand-up comedy.

Seth MacFarlane was all but ostracised for his political incorrectness as host of the Academy Awards.

And the Dalai Lama cannot get away with a joke.

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How Modi-haters became his PR angels

Why the Indian elections will always go wrong

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Abhinandan Varthaman: Hero, yes, but victim first


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Pulwama attack: When humans become symbols


The legislative dangers of election year

Priyanka and the inheritance of power

The G.O.A.T vote: When opinion offends

The hooligans in our homes

Why the Ambanis should rule India

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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com