A Priest, a Director, and the Problem with Conyo…Humor

A Rumination on Other People’s Ruminations

(An Essay of Reflection by Alice Sarmiento)

A priest, a film director, and a vagina walk into a bar. The film director goes up to the jukebox to pick a song from, but the jukebox is one of those new things that charges you piso per song, so he’s like “Can anyone spare a buck?” and the priest goes, “We can spare a slot!” And the film director just stares at them blankly and goes, “I don’t speak English.” And the vagina goes “What’s a slot?” And no one laughs, because even the priest had no idea what the joke was.

If it won’t fly with the noontime show crowds, chances are it goes both ways. I can’t understand what’s so funny about Eat Bulaga the same way that How I Met Your Mother freaks the proverbial shit of anyone who can’t follow a non-linear narrative. When the gap between two audiences is so vast, trying to make both parties laugh at the same thing is akin to whispering a secret from someone else’s backyard. But these are only nuances in a system that understands me with my pretentious droll and the “general public” genuflecting at the feet of Vic Sotto as anonymous components of a market segment. To the network, the bigger slice: that’s your audience, it’s them–and not the shareholders or the producers–who get to decide what “culture” is.

What bothers me is that the choice to be true to the culture of this third world backwater has sunk to the level of pie-throwing, clowning around, and paying people to laugh, as if they will not get the difference between simple and simplistic. Noontime variety shows in all their incarnations only pour the salt on the open wound created by the rift between privilege and deprivation. As if to tell the general public at whom network TV is directed, “You’re Filipino, you can’t think.”

In crafting a good joke, the reflex is to dilute–to water down the material on the assumption that people will not get it. This shouldn’t be an assumption, but a given. And that’s okay (that people won’t get it, not the dilution). If it were easy to make something smart look simple, we would all understand Calculus, Einstein, if he were alive, would be my homeboy. Shit gets hard. Deal with it.

What is easy though is to shroud stupidity with style; it is equally a blessing and a curse for anyone with a good education and the capacity to turn a phrase in English (or to put a strobe on a catwalk, and call it “production values”) adopting all the necessary idioms and pop culture references in order to make opinion sound infallible. Especially in the Philippines where English is not just a language but a weapon, proof of an effective education where education is rare.

But just as the built environment, the cast of Eat Bulaga, and the size of Angelicopter’s boobs are susceptible to change, so are language and education. But when it comes to the latter, we are taught to collect rather than curate, resulting not necessarily in change, but in growth. We are educated by everything we do: in the case of TV, how much do you actually learn at school compared to what you pick up from just a few minutes of The Simpsons? Just the same, we add to language, picking up tools and techniques that may not be of any use and may cause more harm than good if we’re not careful. Case in point: Conyo.

Taken from cognoscenti, the term Conyo derived its nasty zing from the Spanish word for female genitalia. It was adopted mostly by middle class boys as a catch-all to use against their more privileged brethren, a convenient means of masking spite with petty insults and well-played jabs. The Philippines is one of the few places where upward mobility and merits can be used as both blessing and curse. Context is everything, but conyo gives a name and an excuse to stereotype anyone bearing mestizo features and even the slightest trace of a “dollar” accent as privileged, henceforth sheltered, henceforth naïve; thus absolving us of the obligation to rise to the level of things we do not understand.

But if we were allowed to condemn people for being incomprehensible, I should have been allowed to do the same to all my Math teachers, my Chemistry professor, Slavoj Zizek, and whoever keeps writing the Terms and Conditions that I am forced to agree to every time I update my software. Fact: You will never understand everything, and you won’t always get the punchline. You will not understand everything you hear, read, or watch, whether it’s touted as “entertainment” or “art”, and maybe–just maybe–if you welcomed the challenge, we would all be someplace else. This is especially true for our film industry.

In the case of our filmmakers, what is expected is at a tenuous boundary wherein we’re not sure about what we want our films to look like (or if there’s any overarching aesthetic we have to follow to define Filipino—or if we even want this defined). Abroad, we are represented by the likes of Raya Martin and Lav Diaz, and ushered directly into art house confinement; whereas on local shores, their films are lucky to play in any kind of mainstream venue.

So why the reaction to Rafa Santos? No one’s going to see his movie anyway, and by no one, I mean a ratio of the population comparable to the numbers who set foot in museums relative to the numbers who enter a shopping mall in a given period. The art house audience is a laughable, pitiful entity compared to the millions who turn out for the big budget productions in wide release. The problem was not the joke, nor the profession, but that Santos (or in Wincy Ong’s words, “the kid”) spoke to audiences beyond the art house crowd, shedding light on an issue that has for so long maintained the rift between art and amusement, marketability and credibility. It is no wonder that the verb “malibang” or “to kill time” translates directly to “be entertained” and only loosely (very loosely) hints at any strain of productivity. One is a chore, the other an escape.

To say “I grew up watching TV” is at once completely irrelevant and yet crucial. Post-war generations may have viewed TV as a curiosity, much like the way our own parents regard social networking as an option rather than a given. TV was our given, our means of killing time when killing time was all there was; and to this day some variation of it remains a consistent fixture of our everyday lives. We need the background clatter, the entertainment, what we call “static” is just a reminder that regular programming will return at some point. I was watching CNN this one time and Kristie Lu Stout was talking about how she already created facebook and twitter accounts for her daughter who is under a year old and I thought, that’s retarded. What would a baby have to tweet? What kinds of status updates would we expect from a one-year-old?

But if you think about how quick the turnover with new technologies is, it does make sense that we recognize the luxury of space and the primacy of our names. If you can’t have the privilege to use your own name in a terrain that is governed almost entirely by placelessness, then what other currency do you have?

The same goes for your voice. More and more we are becoming defined by less and less; and if there’s anything immediately recognizable in the whole phenomenon of social networking and migrating more of our time to the culturally ambiguous domains that exist online, it is danger of flattening not only our identities but our ideas. And the more we inhabit this space dictated by the resolutions on our screens and the speed of our internet connections, the more important it becomes for us to speak up and to develop our own voice in doing so. Why on earth would you dilute that for the sake of being understood by a general public that can simply choose to dismiss you as conyo or contradict your views? What kind of sloe-eyed, vacuous audience are you speaking to, and what condescending presumptions are you making by saying: “I should have just said this…”, or “You should have shut up.”

And are your presumptions really better than any comments made about cat food or Sky Flakes?

To generalize that an entire population is sensitive to anything that makes them feel alienated, and then to say that they will embrace the foreign is…baffling…and it fails to consider that people in general are dynamic and can say things and act in ways that will surprise even the most elitist snobs. Instead of accounting for the complexity of character, we resolve the messy backstories dealt to us by shared history (and the fact that we are human, and human beings are pretty fucking messy) by offering escape.

Escape comes with the assumption that allowing a plot to branch out is to lose the plot. Escape is getting paid to laugh at a joke without a punchline, it absolves the Filipino of the capacity to think beyond “ACHECHECHE!” This is not audience recognition, nor is it humility: this is cynicism.

Without a discourse worth moving toward, you can’t expect anyone to go anywhere. This discourse includes jokes. The real punchline is delivered when we resort to pandering, false modesty, and a formula of “I don’t get it so I guess I’ll just make endless jabs at it.” How much longer before hipster replaces conyo in what is (paradoxically) conyo slang?

The convenience of blaming our shortcomings on a pseudo-American upbringing and the sense of “uprootedness” that came with constant sitcom viewing only helps us ignore the actual problem. We could be writing better sitcoms rather than queuing “Ngwekngwekngwek!” laughtracks to stale punchlines. I’m not saying it’s easy, but whoever said it was easy to make someone laugh?

We would like to believe that it’s easy to make people laugh, but the fact is comedy is an art, with a canon that encompasses pie-flinging, irony, satire, timing, delivery, and yes, even sarcasm. And all of the above (except maybe pie-flinging) are more difficult to master than crying on command–a non-skill that the people you see on network TV seem incapable of getting right. How else can you explain all those slap fights?

Is the problem really that trying to be funny means pretending to be smarter than we are; or that we try not to sound so damn smart, resorting to “simpler” language on the assumption that people will not get it?

In the same breath, we dismiss the voice some of us actually grew up using as a consequence of a perpetual hard-on for all-things American, conveniently overlooking the fact that America is just as responsible for The Price is Right and Jersey Shore, as it is for Woody Allen. It’s the new Godwin’s law; identity crisis? Blame America! Class war? Blame America some MOAR! And when we can’t blame America, we blame the internet. Heck, most of us are illiterate with the attention spans of toddlers on adderall anyway, let’s just KEEP BLAMING THE INTERNET. #LATFBDinTGD* TEH FEEDBAK LOOP IZ OPUN!

As far as I can recall, TV came with no pointing of manicured fingers or hidden agendas to lure me towards foreign shores. I grew up in a household of people who didn’t want to be bothered, and the tacit agreement was not “I will raise you American!” but “Please, stay out of trouble, sit down, take in these pretty pictures”, making it no different from any other middle-class household. What probably made it different was the element of choice, my TV time was not regulated and I was free to flip between Ang TV and Sesame Street as I pleased, or to not watch TV at all.

The solution TV provided wasn’t so much a conscious means of immersing me in a foreign culture, but a means of keeping me from doing stupid things, like starting fires or venturing into neighborhood streets that were too dangerous (I lived in La Loma, which was like the armpit of Quezon City) for little kids with American accents to be wandering alone. That I adopted so much more than the accent was mere consequence, and it did not change the fact that we lived in Quezon City. I was lucky though that enough people were watching the same things I was (i.e. enough people knew who Snuffy was), and we know where that leads.

Say what you will about immersion in “American culture”, an amorphous concept that resembles our own more than we’re willing to acknowledge and represents a lifestyle that resembles my own more than I care to admit. If you have the luxury of reading this, then it’s probably just as true for you. But none of that means you don’t belong here, that you don’t have a place in this culture. That does not make your voice any less relevant.

Say what you will about facing a reality that is more turbid than the waterlogged potholes we do our best to skidaddle around in our tsinelas. To dismiss one person’s appropriation of the foreign as inauthentic or dishonest is to ignore the multiple narratives that make humanity so interesting in the first place. No matter how much you think you know what it means to be simple, and Filipino, you will never be absolved of your own failures to connect to a reality that you would have the gall to suggest is absolute. What does it even mean to be honest to a culture that is inherently fragmented?

When I was growing up, my mom spoke to me in English, my dad in legalese/Bob Dylan/Areneo, the help spoke a mix of Tagalog and Bisaya, and my lola spoke a mix of English and Ilonggo. I enter a restaurant and am greeted in English which I answer in Tagalog. To a Pilipino trained to read, speak, write, and think in a mix of other languages, the concept of a mother tongue is as flimsy an imperative as patriotism. I had just as much to do with where I was born as I had to do with the language I was taught to speak; a language I recognized not as the language of colonial force or even of sitcoms, but simply as “not the vernacular.” But even the definition of a vernacular was debatable.

English has become the language I use as the most honest and simplest means of expressing what’s in my mind as well as my heart. My jokes are part sitcom, part preschooler. My voice is the sum of every person I’ve admired, every speech I’ve memorized, lecture I’ve given, and song I’ve sung off-key. If any of this will be used to question the authenticity of my views or my allegiance to the nation where I was born and raised, then I’m not sure if the devotion’s even worth it.

*Look at this fucking breakdown in transgenerational discourse

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