Using Humour To Deliver Important Messages In Central Java: Comedy As A Mechanism Against COVID19

May 30, 2020 | All posts, Letters from..., Opinions and contributions, Relevant news and stories

By Nathan Porath, University of Southampton, and Hezti Insriani, independent researcher

There is an adage that laughter is the best medicine. Comedy does not only help to alleviate stressful situations, but it can also serve to make a point about human conduct through an unthreatening play of words, incongruous representations and witty punch lines.

In Java (Indonesia), a new local celebrity has emerged, who has been championing the cause of keeping older people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mbah Minto (‘old Mrs Minto’) is a seventy-year-old woman who has been involved in the creation of several comedic sketches filmed with a thirty-year-old man from Central Java, who goes by the stage name of Ucup. Mbah Minto lives in a one-room brick house and in poverty. Ucup was already making short videos for his Instagram. He decided to work with Mbah Minto because when he first met her, she was alone, and he wanted to help her out.

To the average Indonesian, Mbah Minto’s appearance conforms to a stereotype of an older person: grey-haired, with few remaining front teeth, walking with a careful gait, holding on to staff and seemingly oblivious to the fast changes of modern consumer culture occurring around her. She speaks in low Javanese, utilising all the vocal earthy expressions that typically signify this more egalitarian speech register (in what is otherwise a very hierarchical language and culture).

In the sketches, Mbah Minto plays an elderly mother living alone in her one-room house. Her bed is hard, and she cooks her food in a wok resting on a clay stove outside in her yard. She has a mobile phone which seems out of place in her simple home setting.

In an “Instagram Live” interview, she confirmed that she really does not know how to use it. Her inability to use a mobile phone in real life only strengthens the comedic image of her exaggerated skilful use of it in the sketches.

Her performance commends the importance of modern communication for older people during this time of crisis. The sketches usually start with her thinking out loud (talking to the viewer) or doing something at home. She then gets on the phone to her son (played by Ucup). She develops a dialogue with him. She speaks with a soft but firm tone of voice signalling authority and wisdom about the subject matter she is developing with ‘her son’. The dialogue is accompanied by musical cues and background audience laughter which accompany Mbah Minto’s punch lines. The last scenes always show Mbah Minto laughing joyously at the camera, thus persuading the viewer to laugh with her.

Although this unlikely duo was already making several sketches for Instagram, they came to public attention after producing a sketch which endorsed the government’s warning that children could put their elders at risk if they travelled back home for Idul Fitri.

The video opens with a scene showing her cooking on her clay stove as the phone rings. Her son tells her he wants to come back home to see her. She tells him not to, as there is a virus this season. He persists, saying he misses her. She rebuffs him by saying she will send him a photo of herself. She then places the mobile phone in front of her face and, like a teenager, takes a selfie. She then carefully presses the button on the phone and sends it to him. He receives a stern image of her. She then asks him, ‘how is it, am I beautiful?’ He affirms that she still is, but still not easily dissuaded, he tells her that he is a healthy man and can still come back to see her. She reminds him that he is young and might not be easily affected by the virus, but she is old. She adds that if he returns, he could bring the virus with him, he should, therefore, empathise with her and stay put. Then she audaciously slips into the conversation that he doesn’t need to return home this time, but some money could travel back home in his stead. Cheekily, she asks him if he still has kept her bank number at which point Mbah Minto can’t restrain herself and begins to giggle. After the call, Ucup thinks out aloud and says, ‘for sure I will not go home now but maybe some money can be sent to mother’. As an afterthought, he muses: ‘there is one problem’. Taking out some banknotes from his pocket, he adds: ‘this is my money!’ (all I have).

Here are some snapshots from the videos that have been going viral:

Mbah Minto cheekily asking her ‘son’ if he still has her account number (as an indirect way of asking him to deposit money into it! (YouTube)

And on reflection giggling at her own ‘naughtiness’ for asking it.

Since this video was made a few businesses have approached the couple asking them to make similar videos while advertising a health product. In another video which was made to promote a hand sanitizer cream, Mbah Minto is filmed rubbing her hands. She is clearly showing how to do so. Then, thinking out a loud she says that she is always cleaning them now to avoid the virus.

Mbah Minto disinfecting her hands (From YouTube)

Mbah Minto showing how to clean the hands with hand sanitizer cream (From YouTube)

Then as though wishing a spell she mutters, ‘virus keep away from me’, while the recording of a laughing audience can be heard in the background. Her private magical world is interrupted by the phone ringing. She mumbles, ‘the phone is ringing again’ and looks at it to see that it is her son calling her. She surmises that as he could not come back home, he must be missing her a lot as he has been phoning her 50 times a day. She then answers the phone and Ucup asks her what is she doing? She says that she has just cleaned her hands following the government’s advice to do so. She then adds that when he sends her money, he should not forget to spray his hands first. She then throws her little bottle up in the air and magically it transforms into a larger spray bottle. Mbah Minto tells him in a strong Javanese accent, the bottle’s name, Hani Shanitaker, Sekreet Sreen, (Hand Sanitizer, Secret Clean), accentuating the trilled ‘R’, a typical Javanese phoneme. In the background is the sound of a recorded audience laughing, Ucup laughs and Mbah Minto holding the bottle laughs at her deliberate faux pas of English words. Ucup then says: ‘wow you have become diligent in washing your hands now’. She retorts ‘of course and when done (with clean) hands, I will be ready to receive your THR (holiday allowance for Idul Fitri)!’

The comedy conveys its messages through a play on ageist stereotypes and expectations and counter-expectations, and on the symbolic juxtaposition of recognisably traditional and modern signifiers. In the comedy sketches, Mbah Minto represents the older generation and every Javanese person’s mother or grandmother. From this exalted position, she speaks to both young and old. The messages in the comedic sketches are clear, don’t return home this year, keep in touch by phone calls, but you can still show your love to your parents by giving them some financial support to help them through and keep your hands clean. To lighten the weight of a difficult order borne during a threatening time, the duo has conveyed these messages through homegrown familiar humour.