Long bench of laughter and pain
Owen 'Blakka' Ellis and Dr Michael Abrahams literally drew a long bench for their extensive onstage conversation at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, into early afternoon on Sunday. For much of Fun and Joke Aside, the two were seated on a wooden bench which looked well-worn; by the end, they were standing before the bench, its unease with even their lightness - some movement coming with their gusts of laughter - proof that its weather-beaten appearance was not for show.
There were many moments of laughter from Ellis and Abrahams, with light guidance from moderator Tanya Batson-Savage of Blouse and Skirt Books, which put on Fun and Joke Aside, along with the Department of Literatures in English. However, as much as the substantial audience appreciated the humour, there was no escaping the pain, both Ellis and Abraham doing pieces in which emotional anguish was incorporated into their material.
Ellis read At Aunty's Funeral himself, for the first time publicly. At previous readings, it had been done by Tony 'Paleface' Hendriks. There was a striking difference between prior events' roars of laughter at the liberally sprinkled Jamaican curse words and the Fun and
Joke Aside audience's muted reaction to the cursing and more focus on the anguish of a male abused by his maternal figure.
Abrahams' childhood pain was from the paternal side. He described himself as coming from a nuclear family - when his father lost his temper it was explosive. He did a take-off of Cham's Ghetto Story to retell beatings, slashes of his hand in the air accompanying the "whap, whap" of the imaginary whip.
Both Ellis and Abrahams have had encounters with depression.
Even in those moments, the atmosphere at Fun and Joke Aside did not get heavy. And even though it was a serious discussion on laughter, the guffaws, chuckles and outright gutbusters were many. Both spoke about starting in comedy, Ellis by using laughter to escape beatings in grade three and then retelling incidents in his community to high-school classmates, and Abrahams upon an invitation to speak about the medical benefits of laughter after using Joan Andrea Hutchinson's cassette to put patients at ease.
"Comedy has always been, for me, an escape," Ellis said, pointing out that escapism is not necessarily bad. "If you living in prison, escape is a good thing," he said.
iThere was an extra bust of laughter when Abrahams described how his being stopped by the police has changed since being recognised as a comedian, depicting how the lawmen's expressions change when they recognise him. Then they say, "A you? No write nutten bout me y'nuh."
Off the stage at his home, Ellis said, he is the most boring person, while Abrahams said he is an "idiot" at home.
And they both take using comedy to tackle social ills very seriously.
"I worry about not offending anyone," Ellis said. And, playing the guitar as he sang, Abrahams demonstrated his use of comedy and music to deal with the recent Riverton fire, the song largely based on Billy Joel's We Didn't Start The Fire.
Reading from his recently published book, Riddim and Riddles, Ellis did Shame and Man.