A few weeks ago, I saw “Koper” (“Suitcase”), a theatrical play embedded with stand-up comedy performances. The line-ups are harbingers of a new Indonesian comedy movement, and include Sam D. Putra, Ernest Prakasa, Boris T. Manullang, Miund, Ryan Adriandhy, Soleh Solihun, Sakdiyah, and Insan Nur Akbar.
I have seen each of these comedians perform in a variety of shows, but not until recently did I notice common characteristics — and themes — among them. Almost every issue discussed on stage depicts the life and concerns of Indonesian middle class society. A performance with diversified comics such as those featured in “Koper” could give insight into how the Indonesian middle class perceives their nation and surroundings.
Indonesia is often branded as the “third largest democracy in the world,” and the country with largest Muslim population. I often hear people brag about Indonesia’s (supposedly) democratic system, pointing out that we were once a dictatorship, once had a female president, and that democracy and Islam are a tricky combination that we’ve mastered and perfected.
These concepts have often been satirized in comedy. Sam D. Putra said that Indonesians believe there is a joke consisting of three letters: S, B, and Y, who has made it difficult for poor Indonesians to claim that they are living under the poverty line. It is interesting to hear so many people laugh about the three-letter-joke, especially when we remember that those three letters are also the initials of the president that more than 60 percent of Indonesians voted for back in 2009.
In “Koper,” Sam depicted his on-stage character as a successful person who had numerous achievements in his career, but was still unsatisfied and unhappy with his wife and his life. Similar matters were also discussed by Insan Nur Akbar in a slightly different point of view. By comparing the way Sam and Akbar characterized the issues faced in daily life, we can learn how 134 million people who belong to the same middle class category face similar issues, but solve them in different ways.
Ernest Prakasa was given the role as a member of a cleaning service staff, discussing the perks and drawbacks of being a Chinese-Indonesian. Along came Boris, a Bataknese pickpocket. With a noticeable accent, he addressed all the characteristics that fall into the Indonesian stereotype of the Bataknese, from having a sturdy physical appearance, to Bataknese food and how it’s supposed to be enjoyed.
From these two performances alone, the audience could see that although Indonesia has the Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) slogan, the diversified culture and ethnicities living side by side will always generate stereotypes, although most of them (like many stereotypes) consist of common misconceptions. But even with the existence of prejudgment, there are plenty of Indonesians with strong differences who live together harmoniously.
Ryan Adriandhy and Miund shared the perspective that most younger generations from the middle class have much in common, including love, fashion, lifestyles, and social media and its impact in our lives.
But all of “Koper's” content has a message crafted behind it. Ryan’s complaints about the absurdities of life, for instance, has been a tool for him to remind the audience on how we often overlook the little things in life. How could the words on shampoo packaging remind us to appreciate life’s idiosyncrasies — if not addressed by these comics?
Sam, Soleh Solihun, and Sakdiyah shared the deepest of their personal values: Their religious beliefs. It might be quite difficult to perform something as controversial as George Carlin’s bit “Religion is bullshit” in this country, but most comics who discuss the subject use the ridiculousness of religious-related content in Indonesia (of which there is no shortage) as their subject matter.
Comics are able to discuss these important and sometimes overlooked matters in fresh, funny ways. Comedy is about telling the truth and getting your point across. With these issues brought up almost every day on open-mic sessions, I have no doubt that stand-up comedy is going to be one of the most effective tools to open people’s minds.
Indonesian comics share what we all have experienced: That to achieve democracy, we are still learning and exploring; that to live harmoniously with different ethnicities, culture, race and religious beliefs, some misconceptions, stereotypes and negative remarks still linger; and that one day, we might all be able to reach the state of “success” and “happiness” if we let our eyes and minds open to change, which might be sensitive and controversial, but necessary.