Stand and deliver

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By Anthony Deyal

Robin Williams, the actor/comedian asked, “Why do they call it ‘rush hour’ when no one moves?” I use his line frequently, especially when I am at a standstill on the highway leading into any of the major Caribbean capitals, especially Kingston, Bridgetown or Port-of-Spain.

Generally, I always have time for stand-up when it’s told but not when it takes too much of a toll on my patience, time and temper. This is why, in moments like these, I revert to my memory and pull out some of the greats like George Carlin who asked, “Would a fly without wings be called a walk?” or Ellen DeGeneres who advised, “Go to bed in your fireplace, you’ll sleep like a log.” I love the opposing views of Chris Rock who was adamant, ‘There are only three things women need in life: food, water and compliments” versus Trevor Noah who recalled, “When I asked my trainer at the gym which machine I should use to impress beautiful women he pointed outside and said the ATM machine.” I think of just leaving the car on the road and walking out like Tommy Cooper who boasted, “You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen, it said ‘Parking Fine.'”

Rodney Dangerfield was one of my favourite stand-up comedians with lines like “I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous… everyone hasn’t met me yet.” and “I was so depressed that I decided to jump from the tenth floor. They sent up a priest. He said, ‘On your mark…’”. I loved George Burns as well, especially his warning to old men, “Sex at age 90 is like trying to shoot pool with a rope.”

However, my favourite from that time and genre of stand-up was Henny Youngman who had lines like, “Someone stole all my credit cards, but I won’t be reporting it. The thief spends less than my wife did.” and “I take my wife everywhere, but she keeps finding her way back.” He also revealed, “I’ve been in love with the same woman for forty-one years. If my wife finds out, she’ll kill me.” There were also others like, “My wife dresses to kill. She cooks the same way.”; “My wife is a light eater. As soon as it’s light, she starts to eat.”; “My wife and I went to a hotel where we got a waterbed. My wife called it the Dead Sea.”; and “I bought my wife a little Italian car. A Mafia. It has a hood under the hood.”

Caribbean News Global henry_youngman Stand and deliver

Interestingly, stand-up was not always comedy. It started with British Highwaymen who, with a gun pointed at you, either demanded your money or your life, or told you to “Stand and deliver.” This is why I disagree with comedians like Dangerfield and Youngman when they follow a line like, “No respect, no respect!” with “Take my wife. Please!” In their place I would say, “Take my Prime Minister, please!”

The Economist magazine recently pointed out that the boundaries between politics and stand-up comedy are crumbling and while comics are running for office, politicians are trying to be funny. In the Caribbean, they don’t even have to try especially since most of them seem to be neck-deep in funny business. Freedom House, a group which believes that freedom flourishes in democratic nations where governments are accountable to their people, have found the same problems over several years in three Caribbean countries- Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.

Jamaica is the same since the 2017 report, “Corruption remains a serious problem, and long-standing relationships between officials and organized crime figures are thought to persist. Violent crime remains a concern…”  In Trinidad and Tobago for the same period, “organized crime contributes to high levels of violence, and corruption among public officials remains a challenge…” The Barbados overview for 2018-2021 reads, “Challenges include official corruption and a lack of government transparency….” In other words, the problem in the Caribbean with political jokes is that they often get elected.

Fortunately, Freedom House is not the only place where freedom reigns. It is very much alive and kicking in the stand-up comedy world. Jon Stewart asks a question that resonates in the region, “You wonder sometimes how our government puts on its pants in the morning” or, as the social commentator and comedian Will Rogers explained, “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” I like the view that “the word ‘politics’ is derived from the word ‘poly’, meaning ‘many’, and the word ‘ticks’ meaning ‘blood sucking parasites’.” There are two other observations that I find relevant, “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators” and “Politics make strange bedfellows RICH.”

I was considering the situation in Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the Caribbean and compared it with a comment made by the Canadian/American comedian Mort Sahl. He believed, “Reagan won because he ran against Jimmy Carter; if he ran unopposed, he would have lost.” Is there any Caribbean country where this is not also a very strong possibility, especially given the Freedom House reports and the certainty that if the same people do the same things the same way, nothing will change? But then, as George Carlin warned, don’t expect too much, “Just because you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town.” In other words, when you ask how many Caribbean politicians it takes to change a light bulb the answer is, “Two: one to change it and another to change it back again.”

There is even more concern when lawyers are either candidates or brought in through the back-door of the Senate of some countries and then become ministers of government. This goes way back in time. An old joke starts with, “What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 100.” The answer is, “Your Honour.” Then it goes, “What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 50 or less?” The most recent answer in Trinidad is, “Attorney General”. I heard another one that can apply in these COVID days. One person called me and said, “If ignorance, like oil prices, goes to seventy US dollars a barrel, I want the drilling rights to the head of the minister of health.”

The interesting thing is that these very negative comments about politics and politicians are not new. Around 425BC the Greek philosopher Plato warned, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Aesop was not telling a fable when he pointed out, “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.” And George Will, the American political commentator, made it clear many years later, “Voters don’t decide issues, they decide who will decide issues.” Or, as Emma Goldman the political activist stressed, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” If you’re still not with me, go with the advice of actress and activist, Shirley MacLaine, “Never trust a man when he’s in love, drunk, or running for office.”

*Tony Deyal was last seen saying that we should learn from Freedom House and British Highwaymen. Stand up and demand our rights, and then force our politicians to deliver.

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