Is woke culture ruining Pinoy comedy?

In today’s cancel culture, Vice Ganda says it’s becoming more difficult to make Filipinos laugh.

Noontime variety show It’s Showtime recently aired a heartfelt tribute to Philippine comedy icons who have already passed away—Yoyoy Villame, Willie Nepomuceno, German “Kuya Germs” Moreno, and other funny legends. Social media was also abuzz with Vhong Navarro, Jugs Jugueta, and Teddy Corpuz’s AI-assisted performance, where the faces of Redford White, Babalu, and “King of Comedy” Dolphy were transposed onto theirs. 

But it was Vice Ganda’s sentiments on the state of comedy in the Philippines that got more attention. He admits that, lately, it’s been difficult to make Filipinos laugh. 

“Nung panahon nila, mahirap nang magpatawa noon. Pero grabe ‘yung hirap magpatawa ngayon. Minsan ‘pag nanonood ako ng mga lumang comedy, sasabihin ko, ‘Nakakatawa ‘yan ano? Paano ‘pag sinabi ko ngayon ‘yan, anong mangyayari sa akin? Paano ‘pag ginawa ko ngayon ‘yan, anong mangyayari sa akin?’” (“During their time, it was already difficult to make people laugh. However, it’s become even more challenging today. Sometimes, whenever I watch comedy from before, I would think, ‘Oh, that’s funny! But if I say that now, what will happen to me? If I crack that gag or joke, what will happen to me?)

Though Vice Ganda (right) admits that it’s hard to do comedy today, he is hopeful that more comedians can flourish even in the age of “woke” culture.

“Ang sarap magpasaya ng mga Pilipino pero lately, ang hirap n’yo ring pasayahin. Konting kibot, konting utot ‘di ba, mayroong panget na reaksyon. Ang hirap-hirap magpatawa ngayon kaya nakakatuwa na makita ‘yung maraming litrato nung komedyante. Sabi ko, ‘Ang sarap oh, andami nang komedyante.’ Pero ngayon sana dumami pa ‘yung komedyante kahit ang hirap-hirap nang magpatawa,” he adds. (It’s gratifying to make Filipinos laugh, but it’s been hard to make you guys do so today. The slightest action will elicit a negative response. It’s so hard to make people laugh nowadays, that’s why it’s refreshing to see so many photographs of comedians [here on stage]. I’m thinking, ‘It’s nice to see so many comedians now!’ I hope that our kind would flourish more, even if it’s so difficult to be comedic today.)

While there isn’t a specific event or trigger that prompted this moment of vulnerability, recall that “It’s Showtime” recently served a 12-day suspension over what the Movie and TV Review and Classification Board deemed as ‘inappropriate:’ real-life couple Vice Ganda and Ion Perez licking icing from their fingers. 

Beyond this however, Vice is echoing a conversation that has long been running among comedians and the entertainment industry, especially in the Western world: that of “woke culture” ruining comedy. Comics like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle have not minced their words about how it’s been difficult to be funny when everyone seems to be taking offense at, well, everything. 

Jokes about the LGBTQIA+ community have not stopped Dave Chappelle’s (left) continued popularity—one of his acts even got an Emmy nod in 2022.

One development that I’ve welcomed from “woke culture”—and I will risk sounding naive here—is pushing comics and audiences alike to take a step toward critical thinking, or at least a semblance of it. This makes more sense from the points of view of communities who have always been unfairly at the butt of jokes.

Whether the joke is genuinely funny or intended to provoke or offend, it cannot be denied that a homophobic joke, for example, may condition people to consider homophobic acts and slurs as normal. If you keep pushing the joke on transgender people and how they’re “fooling the straights,” you risk promoting behaviors that turn micro-aggressions toward trans individuals into potentially risky consequences. 

The silver lining here is that you get a populace that is hopefully more sensitive about context—a community that thinks twice before saying things. Granted, people can still go ahead and spew their “cancelable” take (nobody’s prohibiting you to do so, anyway); just make sure to prepare yourself for the reactions. And as far as comics are concerned, some of them are actually fine being transgressive, so as long as they’re making a critical point about something and, of course, funny—saying something hateful (with the intent to offend) then cushioning it with “I was just making a joke!” is another thing altogether, though. 

It gets tricky when one’s criticism toward a joke or comedic act exists in a gray area, a zone where you’re left wondering, “Are they actually making a good point that has eluded our minds?” or “Come on, dude, take a chill pill! It’s funny!” Let’s take a lighthearted example from X—see below an exchange I saw online about the specificity of Filipino humor:

Be the judge: is there a normalization (normalization?!) of smart-shaming here?

I was laughing so much when I read this post. The user who attempted to shed light on the supposed undertones of smart-shaming in this manner of Filipino comedy became a “victim” of what he was trying to “criticize.” After the laughter subsided, I did look into his point; yes, considering our history of dropping deep English words to elicit laughs (or mocking those who do use those terms while saying “nosebleed!”), there is an element of smart-shaming at play with this comedic structure. 

However, you cannot deny that the high-pitched repetition schtick is funny. There’s also a case to be made against “intellectualizing” just about anything and everything that we do in our lives, though that may seem like I’m being anti-critical here. Or maybe the more critical, intellectual, and “woke” people should know when a joke (or anything, as Vice lamented) should be read between the lines or be just allowed to exist as a gag?

So see, the discussion so far has been inconclusive, and we’re back to square one: where do we draw the line between being funny and being offensive?

And it also seems too prescriptive to say that comics of today should look into how the great political satirists—Willie Nepomuceno comes to mind—used their talents and platforms to create comedic material that actually has some sort of agency. It calls to mind debates on “art for art’s sake” versus “art for social purposes” a la Salvador Lopez vs. Jose Garcia Villa, and that debate is much alive and well to this day. 

Admittedly, it is a function of one’s brain power (and by extension, education) to gauge whether a gag actually leads to a compelling point, or if it’s just plain hateful or ignorant; similarly, what’s also dependent is that sense of restraint in understanding first whether a joke or action has, as the X user above pointed out, has “undertones” of whatever negative behavior or concept. And considering the various levels of competence that audiences may have, there’s bound to be backlash in some form. 

Perhaps what we can get from this whole debate is that it doesn’t hurt to think twice, whether it’s about the comic saying something funny (and potentially transgressive) or the audience reacting to something they deem “offensive.” 

Or maybe it shouldn’t be that difficult to think of people as humans first before the butts of a joke. 

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