The comedian, OB Amponsah
WHAT CAN'T WE JOKE ABOUT? OPINIONS ON OB AMPONSAH'S 'MAHAMA' QUIP
The star comedian, OB Amponsah told an ‘expensive joke’ at this year’s December to Remember Concert. At the heart of the joke was the idea that names have implications for those who bear them. He illustrated with how Bill Gates is using his products to open DOS and Windows for people as he rakes in the ‘bills’. He ties Steve Jobs to the creation of jobs. He then linked the name, ‘Mahama’ to corruption and immediately apologized. John Mahama is the immediate past president of Ghana. OB’s instantaneous apology proved to mark a strong awareness of the risk he had just taken, and the potential responses to it. After concerns were raised that his joke was in bad taste, OB immediately released a formal apology berating his indiscretion. The saga has incited a debate about the limits of comedy, that is if there should be any limits at all. For some, the brouhaha signals how thin-skinned or polarized or censorial we are growing as a people. Aha Review, in its first ever Vox Pop sought the views of people on this matter. We had some very rich responses.
Should comedy as an artistry have limits beyond which comedians should not foray? I believe it shouldn’t. The core objective of comedy is to make an audience laugh. Compare the news media, for instance. Its core objective is to educate and inform. Publishing untruth is the limit the news should not cross. So, media stories are pulled if they are found to be false. Comedians are not to be held to standards of truth telling. The standard of comedy rather is, is it funny. Not which sensitive pulses it doesn’t hit; and certainly not what or whom it doesn’t offend. So, does that mean comedy doesn’t have any checks at all? The answer is no. Comedians perhaps have the strictest checks – the audience. It is the point the audience do the opposite of laughing – feeling uncomfortable, groaning or even pelting the artist offstage.
Everything is funny when it’s not happening to you. The more we learn how to laugh at insensitive and irresponsible jokes, the less empathetic we get as a society. Laughter should not be the ultimate fetter in my opinion. It’s very easy to get “out groups” to laugh at anything.
At the same time, comedians should be given the benefit of context. I think it’s unfair to judge comedians out of context, by reducing their performance to a transcript. But where it is offensive in context, it’s offensive and as a society we should learn how not to laugh at those. And when we do, shame on us.
For me I think Amponsah’s predicament is a unique case that is bad for establishing a general rule. It is peculiar indeed.
I reckon that comedians have a responsibility to the public in a very wide sense. It’s a duty to deal in reality not alternative facts. Words, symbols and actions have original meanings to all kinds of audiences. It is this basic fact that makes jokes funny in the first place. If we allow a comedian or anyone to call sheep, cows; or call pawpaws, oranges, we are digging at the foundations of shared meaning that makes both serious communication and jokes possible. I don’t think a comedian should be excused from this primary responsibility.
Yet that is what Amponsah wants us to do. Comedians tell untruths for fun. But it’s one thing to say to a Ghanaian audience that Mahama of Ghana and Mahatma of India are related based on the name and any other similar trait and to say as a matter of fact that the name Mahama means something in a language that less than 10% of Ghanaians understand very well. In the first case, any semi literate person can easily tell it’s not true and in the second, you need specific knowledge of a language to make that determination no matter how intelligent you are. Therein lies this comedian’s failure in living up to the common responsibility of shared meaning in the use of language. If I don’t speak Hausa, I should at least be able to believe what I hear from those who purport to.
Hmm, comedians have always been given that leeway oo.
This joke in particular isn’t as distasteful as those that otherize entire demographics. I’ve seen a more spirited defense of Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special where he took on the trans community even though his script could potentially be weaponized against that community.
In this particular case, I think the brouhaha is only because of how guarded we are of our politicians, and the fact of next year being an election season. Beyond that, I don’t think this passes the threshold of what is offensive or unacceptable in comedy.
Using a comedian as an educational/information source is irresponsible on the part of the listener. His entire purpose is to create laughter and amusement. I lean heavily on the side of the comedian on this issue. No topic should be too controversial or offensive for a comedian to touch, however he/she does have the responsibility of ensuring that his audience find it amusing and tasteful. Being able to laugh at anything is how we demystify taboo topics and create conversations. The star power, influence and fame comedians have gained in recent times seem to have led to a movement to impose a certain responsibility on them to conform to certain popular political sensitivities and taboos. The excuse is that they need to use their influence to educate or better still ‘indoctrinate’. I argue that this goes beyond their remit and amounts to censorship. Every category and topic should be open to a comedian. S/he is not there to educate or inform but to create laughter. Her/His responsibility is to ensure it is tasteful and if it isn’t, the inquisition must be directed at those who laugh anyway. A comedian who is not funny or cannot appeal to the audience is punished by a lack of patronage. We stifle their creativity by imposing rules of political correctness and censorship.
What is funny about saying a name means something in a language when it actually doesn’t? You absolve comedians from the duty to make sense at the risk of public discourse. Again, comedians can bend whatever they want to bend but it’s not the same as inventing an alternative reality which is what this guy has done.
I have been following OB’s performances for about three years now . Together with Clemento Suarez and Foster Romanus, they make jokes about politicians and it’s usually funny. Clemento recently made one about Sam Dzata George (with Sam sitting there in the audience), about his epic Matrix moves at the Ayawaso West Wuogon. Everyone laughed including Sam. Romanus made a similar joke about Mahama’s come back and we all laughed because they fell in the right context… but this particular one by OB was just off .
- The translation was untrue
- I didn’t see how it related to the initial premise he made
Personally, I thought the Dumas joke was really bad in taste (bordering on objectification). Overall, I think the Jobs, Gates, Abebrese and even Dumas correlations ‘were not lost’. I know someone called Dovlo who would say his name means ‘useless work’ and so ensures that wherever he goes, he doesn’t live after his name. If Mahama does mean corruption, that would have been a different argument. Some jokes get you in trouble. And if you’re trying to establish a pattern, even as a comedian, you must be coherent/consistent. I am even inclined to think he knew he had goofed. That is why he started apologizing endlessly.
In 2006, E.T. Mensah, the then Member of Parliament for Ningo Prampram, dragged the popular cartoonist, Akosua and her newspaper, Daily Guide, to court for defamation. The suit followed a publication where Akosua, whose métier is in many ways similar to a comedian, had published a caricature of a sheep with a human face that was being dragged by a man said to be former President Agyekum Kufour. E.T. Mensah claimed he was the one depicted as the sheep and that presented him as sheepish and a sycophant. Judge Ofori Atta ruled among other things that E.T. failed to present enough facts to substantiate his claim. The Judge also summarized that the work was meant for HUMOUR AND NOT TO RIDICULE.
Creating humour—not necessarily providing education, information or stating facts—is the main focus of a comedian. It’s the reason we have stood behind many comedy acts that have been attacked or being censored. It’s the reason the Charlie Hebdo attacks were unfortunate.
Indeed if a society finds a topic or focus not worthy to create humour on, it reflects how illiberal and edgy, the society is, not how “uncreative” the comedian is. The joke is on any comedian who instead of creating humour decides to make it his focus of constantly ridiculing or using the platform to publicize their bigotry thoughts. Over time, they lose their audience.
I don’t think OB Amponsah erred in anyway. His apology is just to satisfy the tradition of the young deferring to the old, even when the latter has made no mistake. Perhaps it is also to protect his budding career against the gangsterism of foot soldiers. A person who offers themselves for public office offers themselves to public scrutiny—the least of which is a comedian creating humour about them.
You should ask the NDC footsoldier what it means to them. Mahama has been seriously tagged with corruption so if they accept the joke and laugh it off, it leaves a digital trail of what the NDC has been trying to make Ghanaians forget. It could even be played on political platforms during the 2020 political campaign season. OB’s later apology means a lot in countering the unguarded joke he made. Furthermore, I think this joke should not be analyzed in isolation. Trust the footsoldiers, they dug the timeline archives and brought previous posts and jokes he made on his Facebook wall. His political jokes are biased, he seldom or never jabs NPP and even once suggesting that joking about them could land him in trouble. In a nutshell, he has dug his own professional grave by ignoring the political high tensions flying everywhere. His comedy and medical career may now be dead or alive depending on who is in power!
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