Comedy's ditching stereotypes for authenticity | the delight of stand-up Aliya Kanani

Comedy's ditching stereotypes for authenticity the delight of stand-up Aliya Kanani

Long before I began performing, I’d go out to watch live comedy. I’d notice that every time there was a performer  who I felt represented me in some way, whether it was a woman or a person of colour (or, rarely, both), the focus of their jokes would be on what made them the ‘other’ on the line-up.

Usually they’d spend their time on stage putting down their culture or gender. I’d always feel disappointed that when I finally saw someone I could relate to, they would make me feel bad about myself. The jokes often just reinforced stereotypes. I would leave the club feeling annoyed, knowing this audience would now leave and re-enter society carrying these jokes with them, and those same stereotypes would eventually find their way back to me. 

I can’t assume to know why these comedians did this. Perhaps it was their own internalised racism, them playing to the crowd, or doing what they needed to do for a booker to deem them worthy. Whatever the reason, their jokes made me feel small.

An example of these belittling jokes is the misuse of accents. To this day, I always get extra attentive when I hear a comedian doing an accent on stage. Look, if your dad has an accent and you are doing your dad’s voice then of course keep the accent… that’s authentic representation. Now, if you do the same ‘bit’ without the accent and people aren’t laughing any more, well then that’s not a joke. Then, they are just laughing at the accent  – and that is not cool. At least not any more. 

When I started comedy, I remembered that feeling of being in the audience. I did not want to make people who saw themselves in me feel that way. I wanted to make sure that the folks who felt represented by me on stage would leave the club feeling proud and empowered. I decided to use that as a measurement of my success.

I’d talk to audience members after the show and hear their feedback as they would point out what resonated with them. Over the past few years, there’s been a clear shift in the conversations I’ve been having with audiences. I think people are reaching out more for that kind of ‘real’ representation, with more and more people telling me how much they enjoyed my authentic approach. They liked that I didn’t make stereotypes about my culture, but instead showed my real experiences.

Women would say I made them feel seen by talking about the issues we face as women, instead of approaching it with a male gaze. People with their own uncertainty would say how relatable it was to not know how to define one’s sexual identity after growing up in a heteronormative society. They were happy to see someone delivering a genuine version of their experience because it was more relatable. 

From my experience, audiences are very clearly seeking more authentic representation. When you look at the way our society is evolving, it is not only on our stages that we are looking for this authenticity. These are the things  I believe are contributing to this shift:

  • Awareness and accountability: Overall, we are becoming more aware of – and placing more importance and accountability on –  the respectful portrayal of underrepresented voices. We are more sensitive to how we showcase things like our cultures and races, and what values and attributes we associate with gender and sexuality. 
  • Celebration of self: People who belong to minoritised groups have recently been recalibrating the way we connect with our identities. We want to celebrate ourselves, and it is beautiful to see. With Black Lives Matter came #blackexcellence. With #metoo came more female empowerment. The queer community has become louder and prouder. And with this shift in how we perceive ourselves, we now also expect to be seen and celebrated by others, not have people further reinforcing stereotypes.
  • New audiences: Women and people of colour have more earning power than in the past, and therefore more disposable income. Children of immigrants are now wanting to be more involved in the arts than their parents were, and are ready to spend their money on entertainment. We are coming to comedy shows and taking up more space in the audience, giving us diverse folk, aka the ‘other’ voices, more power in what we want to see represented on stage. 
  • Access and options: Though we still have a long way to go, we see more variety on shows now, which means you can see more variety in the representation of people from the same background, gender or sexual orientation. The folks booking comedians, managing comedy clubs and running networks are also becoming more diverse, creating more space for others to be included and rise. The more we normalise our presence in these spaces, the more we can find our authentic voices rather than being placed in the token categories. And the more we can bring our authentic selves on stage, the more our audiences will show up for it. 

 Everything is connected. There are certainly many other reasons I have not thought of or mentioned, but for these reasons and many others, I believe that audiences are now seeking out more authentic representation. And frankly, I like it! I can be myself and talk about my dad on stage without anyone wondering why I am not doing an accent.

Though these are my observations, this is far from being my unique experience. The more I look around, the more I see this is what other comedians and artists are gravitating towards as well. We are no longer trying to fit into the mould, but rather changing these narratives and creating more genuine connections with our audiences by sharing our real experiences.

This makes me very happy to see, knowing that when we as performers break those stereotypes on stage, our awakened audiences then leave and re-enter society, and those new open minds will find their way back to us. 

Aliya Kanani’s debut stand-up show Where Are You From, From? will be at the Just The Tonic at The Tron at 7.40pm during the Edinburgh Fringe.

Published: 19 Jul 2022

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