Are natural disaster jokes funny? AY's Netflix comedy special fumbles answer
'AY: Spotting the Difference' is the latest to fumble the question of if it's worth it to joke about taboo topics.
Anyone who can make funny jokes can convince people to pay top dollar and leave their homes to watch them do just that on a stage for one hour, or find some time to wade through the cesspit of content on Netflix to click on their comedy special.
AY: Spotting the Difference, Ayodeji "AY" Makun's debut comedy special on Netflix, starts with the veteran comedian making a light-hearted crack about how a Cuban audience member looks "like Maggi cube." Get it?
He doesn't stop there. "I almost thought that was my Uber man. Uber! Uber!"
It's the kind of strained opening punchline that helpfully prepares you for a bumpy 50 minutes likely to leave you wondering about the dozen other things you could be doing with all that time.
The natural disaster of 'AY: Spotting the Difference'
What's become a sticking point in AY's Netflix act is his dive into one of the most prominent natural disasters in the history of the United States, where the comedy special takes place.
"The whites, they're very very different," he starts, just seconds after a painfully rough bit about how white people have no dance rhythm.
"That's why you'll hear something like Hurricane Katrina," he continues, "What's Hurricane Katrina? Just because water left their beach, you'll just hear that 100 white people died. Why? Because water left the beach."
AY, arguably Nigeria's most commercially successful comedian, is now knee-deep in the murky waters of a joke premised on a natural disaster that claimed 1,392 lives in 2005.
The devastating Category 5 Atlantic hurricane also caused property damage estimated between $97.4 billion and $145.5 billion, especially in New Orleans, a six-hour drive from the Atlanta location where AY is opening up old wounds. He must have a good reason for this, you think.
"I don't know what exactly is wrong with my white people. What is the problem? You guys, you need some help. Water left the beach, and 100 white people died," he emphasises before he moves on to his punchline, which has to really blow the audience away.
Here it comes — "Never in the history of Lagos that water will leave Bar Beach, and you would hear that two Yoruba men died. It is impossible. As soon as they see the water coming, they're gone. You will never see a black man wait. A black man will never wait."
He moves on and launches into a segment about immigration right after.
That's it. Thank you for coming.
The science of taboo jokes
Should everything be made fun of?
This is a very delicate question all comedians have to deal with in their careers. Even the most random person, or bot, posting jokes on Twitter, without the burden of responsibility, battles the question when the occasional self-awareness hits.
It's a fair question, especially because as much as humour can help with gaining refreshing perspectives on issues, it can also stir up hurt.
This is why taboo topics — like paedophilia, genocide, rape, disabilities and natural disasters — have always been controversial for as long as jokes have existed.
But in the world of comedy, these topics aren't taboo in the sense that they should never be joked about — at least that's the argument free speech proponents make; but they're taboo in a way that they're complex and filled with more landmines than jokes about, say, Lagos traffic. And this is when jokes need to do more than just be funny.
What's the punchline of AY's Hurricane Katrina joke, if anyone is charitable enough to call it that? 1,392 men, women and children were too white to outrun a hurricane?
Not only is it a confusing punchline, but Nigeria, where he jokes the same situation can't happen, suffered a devastating seasonal flood crisis in 2022. Over 500 people died, and that wasn't even a hurricane.
When dabbling into delicate taboo topics, the occasion compels the comedian to display more skill than usual in sticking the landing. More importantly, they must show that it is worth it to go there.
Comedians can help their societies craft amusing and captivating observations about even subjects they'd instead not engage. But when it comes to taboo topics especially, the comedian's most important responsibility is to make sure the delivery of the joke is challenging to question because the ethics of it will always be under the microscope.
As a rule of thumb, the punchline to a complex taboo topic shouldn't be lazy, pedestrian or, worse, non-existent. Spotting the Difference is guilty of all of the above.
Did AY spot the difference?
More than the curated clips now swimming online may suggest, AY: Spotting the Difference isn't a colossal misfire as a performance — more like a mixed bag you consume at the risk of a stomach upset.
AY jarringly compares Atlanta's weather to Kanye West's exceedingly-troubling bipolar disorder; takes a shot at CNN's myopic media coverage of Africa; extols his appreciation of U.S. healthcare over Nigeria's chaotic system; examines, with a slice of self-awareness, the difference in the power dynamics of a marriage in Nigeria and the West; and enjoys a riff on Asaba Nollywood, which is considerably hilarious but, perhaps, too common to be the peak moment of a Netflix comedy special, even by comedian's standards.
The whole point of Spotting the Difference, according to AY himself, is to make his brand bigger and build real estate in the minds of a global audience. But he needed to do more to establish his awareness of the new terrain.
In his opening act, he points at an Asian woman in the crowd and says, "You must be Chinese," before launching into a series of gibberish phrases to mimic Mandarin. The woman is Japanese, but a sweaty AY is comically dismissive when he informs her it doesn't matter much because Nigerians consider all Asians to be Chinese.
It's embarrassingly true to some degree, but it's not as uniquely Nigerian as he may think and/or want his audience to believe. Non-Chinese Asians already get the same tired joke about their similar appearance from many other non-Asian societies, so the only benefit of that joke is to earn him unnecessary baggage, or a cheap laugh unworthy of his status as one of Nigeria's most visible comedians.
To his credit, AY does get self-conscious enough to acknowledge what appeared to be race-bashing further along in the special.
"Sorry, I'm not picking on the whites. I'm not a racist. I'm just doing comedy. When I say white people, it's not detrimental," he says, beckoning his audience to trust his sincerity.
There's some truth to his declaration as he's been mostly complimentary of the Western system during his set, but the finesse of the jokes needed more work. The absence of finesse is the whole reason he feels the need to call special attention to what he says are his true intentions.
AY's Spotting the Difference is one of the first comedy specials by Nigerian comedians on Netflix; and as our comedy reaches the global stage, so must the sensibilities of our comedians.
There's enough onscreen to suggest the live audience enjoyed AY's set as he burned through jokes with the precision of a diner eating a bowl of spaghetti with a spoon.
But there's also enough, as the early critical response indicates, to show that certain minefields should have been avoided or treated with more tact.
How much you enjoy Spotting the Difference depends on how much you love AY and his brand of comedy.
This comedy special is at the watcher's risk.
Pulse Editor's Opinion is the opinion of an editor at Pulse. It does not represent the views of the organisation Pulse.
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