Unjoking the jokes for a very serious nation

Bangladesh is the name of a serious nation. I could say “dull” but that would be a misnomer. We are not dull because sometimes we’re capable of demonstrating a perfect understanding of the importance of not being dull. We know a four-letter-word when we see one. And we hate to have any kind of association with it. That sentiment alone, and the fact that we can produce an outrageous, absurdly clickbait headline every other minute, would disqualify us from the contest for the world’s most boring nation.

But seriousness—oh boy, do we love seriousness. We are a nation that specialises in seriousness (no pun intended). It’s in our DNA. The working principle is: “You tell me a joke and I’ll give you a flag. Write a satire and I’ll give you a lesson in history. Draw a cartoon and I’ll tell you what a prison cell looks like.”

Imagine a normal day. You wake up a Bangladeshi. You go out on the streets, and suddenly it’s all Japanese everywhere you turn. Glum-faced, office-going dudes clinging to the bus door and discussing—yes, you guessed it right—politics, or price hikes, or some conspiracy theories that only exist in a public bus. The politicians, apparently, are public enemy number one, yet everyone is obsessed with them.

At schools and colleges, you’ve teachers being teachers, forever telling you how to behave. At office, you have colleagues being just that. No office romance, mind you! At the shopping malls, you have men and women shopping crazily like their life depends on it.

The fact is, everything that we do, or don’t do, seems to be governed by a certain degree of seriousness. Hell, we’re even serious when we make love, or indulge in sweet nothings. No wonder the divorce rate is going up.

So sometimes it gets difficult for the few people who are not as serious. Just think, how many times did you have to explain a joke just because the other person didn’t get it? How many times did you see someone having a good laugh and then stopping suddenly, thinking they’ve had too much of it?

When we’re happy and have a good laugh, we get scared. We start having second thoughts. Good times mean bad times are coming, right? We get panicky.

Let me share a little secret about how I get my laugh. On days when I’m feeling particularly down, I turn my “Donald Trump” mode on and look at life the way he does. You would be surprised to know how the mind of the president of our favourite war-starting, planet-polluting, arms-exporting country works.

It’s not that difficult, really. He laughs when he’s happy, complains when he is not, says whatever his mind wants to, and types with the same freedom that a two-year-old operates his dad’s cell phone keypad. The evidence is legion.

Just last Sunday, for instance, he tweeted about his favourite nemesis, the Angry Man in the North: “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old’, when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat’? Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!”

While the rest of humanity was busy barraging him with unsolicited advice on how to be presidential, I turned my DT mode on and gave the 71-year-old child a pat on his shoulder, in my mind, that is. And I said: I get you, Donald. No POTUS should be serious about their job. It’s safer for the world.

But for many others, understanding a joke is the difficult part. Take the Star Weekend, which recently published a news satire about the mysterious Subodh graffiti artist, only to realise what it feels like when the “air” from “satire” is sucked out, and left with the proverbial pine box with a bunch of bewildered readers peering inside, looking for meaning.

The story was published with “SATIRE” written prominently at the top. Any other satire platform would have deemed it unnecessary, for what’s the point of writing a satire if the joy of reading it is killed even before one starts reading it?

But we being we made it totally worthwhile. Not only did we not get the satire, even after an unprecedented, second mention of “SATIRE” inside the headline, we dissected the piece part by part to show why satire is overrated. Which makes me think, when The Joker delivered his famous line, “Why so serious? Let’s put a smile on that face!” he probably meant us, his fun-hating, humour-resisting fans in Bangladesh, who take their life a little too seriously.

Speaking of jokes, it’s okay that not every joke triggers the same response. The other day, an Indonesian friend, who is doing a course on English, shared a joke with me via messenger. It went like: A duck walks into a bar and sits down on a barstool. Animal Control is called immediately. They capture the duck, and set it free at a nearby pond!

While I was trying to figure out which part of this is funny, my friend gave me several virtual variations of “haha” and “hehe.” I felt defeated. Later, I learned, courtesy of Urban Dictionary, that it is actually an unjoke, the opposite of a joke, although it has the same appearance. What’s funny about unjokes is that they aren’t funny at all, and you don’t laugh unless you’re desperate. I got my pride back.

So as all jokes and unjokes end with a punchline, here’s mine: we, as a nation, should learn to lighten up a little more. Jokes, satires, cartoons, caricatures, and other such devices offer us a different perspective on life—a bit of poetic justice too, if you will—and help us unwind. A little laugh, even for an unjoke, doesn’t hurt.

So why so serious, Bangladesh?