Over dinner my friends exchange notes on: what books we are currently reading, what movies we have or want to watch, and what are the subtexts or related stories behind the newspaper headlines. Conversations always start on a serious note, take a side trip into the etymology of certain Filipino words, and degenerate into corny puns or toilet humor before returning to the heavy stuff. Humor is a welcome way to break the monotony or the gravity of the discussion; when correctly deployed in a classroom or lecture hall it maintains interest and moves the narrative forward. Humor looks easy in public speaking, but it is actually difficult to accomplish.
What makes the Filipino laugh? Slapstick comedy, such as when someone slips on a banana peel, or Dolphy smacks Panchito on the head. This is often said to be the lowest form of humor, but it is effective. Humor that is funny at the moment but backfires later is the insensitive gay bar spiels that pass off as humor in TV and movie scripts; these use insult and injury to make people laugh at someone else’s expense. An example was Vice Ganda’s tasteless rape and fat jokes aimed at Jessica Soho. Mike Tan will surely have something to say about this because what we find funny does define who we are. Only humans laugh. Monkeys don’t laugh. Hyenas sound like they are laughing when they are actually warning others to back off.
Toilet humor makes Filipinos laugh. Explosive farting in public makes Filipinos laugh. I remember sitting through a concert of early music played on original instruments in the church of St. Sulpice in Paris where the high-brow audience clapped at the right time and kept the coughing, throat-clearing, and chatting for the intermission. Well, at some point in the concert, one particularly delightful tune that was taken over by an oboe solo, its sound piercing through the dark space into the soul of the audience, it was interrupted by a long fart. It was a fart that the person tried vainly to contain so it began as a sputter and continued awhile before fading into silence. I laughed—the only one—and people around me glared and hissed. I stopped laughing for a moment, turned around, and caught sight of a young lady in the audience whose face was as red as her cashmere sweater. So I laughed again and was almost thrown out for disturbing the peace. Afterwards I was scolded for laughing at someone who was probably ill or in pain. I explained that Filipinos would laugh at a fart, especially if it was audible in a solemn place like Malacañang or the Manila Cathedral.
Even Rizal would have laughed. He actually made a drawing of a farting man that is preserved in the National Library of the Philippines. You will never see this Rizal drawing in textbooks because it does not make the National Hero appear heroic. The same is true of Fernando Amorsolo’s drawing of a woman peeing under her baro’t saya. It does not sit well with those who think the first National Artist of the Philippines was beyond depicting the call of nature.
It’s quite rare to find toilet humor in history, and I was surprised to find just that in Artemio Ricarte’s “Himagsikan nang manga Filipino laban sa Kastila” (Yokohama, 1928) when he narrated how Andres Bonifacio and the Katipuneros took advantage of
fiestas to deliver their fiery speeches to an already assembled crowd. One such event was the feast of St. Francis, patron of San Francisco de Malabon (present-day General Trias in Cavite), in 1897. Another occasion was the feast of the Santo Niño in Naik where comic relief was provided by Ariston Villanueva, the Magdiwang minister of war. He brought the house down with toilet humor.
Ricarte said Villanueva’s speech began thus:
“‘Brethren and compatriots: I want to tell you something that happened a long time ago in this town which may perhaps tickle your fancy for the moment.’ The crowd listened attentively, and with repeated shouts demanded the story. Villanueva then continued: ‘A long time ago, a parish priest of this town prohibited people from committing a nuisance around the church. This was very right as a church is a house dedicated to the Almighty and should therefore be kept clean of all filth, both within and without. Several years passed without this prohibition being violated, but one day during a feast such as we now celebrate in honor of the Child Jesus, the miraculous patron of this town, human excrement was found at the side of one of the doors of the church. Now imagine, fellow countrymen, the great disgust this caused the parish priest. All the devotees of the Child Jesus who had come to the feast were called together to find out who had so shamefully violated the prohibition. I suppose you will all ask me how they found it out.
“‘The procedure adopted by the investigating committee appointed for that purpose was very simple. They examined the excrement and decided that it was that of a woman because the urine was spread all over the pile of excrement, for had it been a man’s, the urine would have been only on one side. The opinion arrived at was circulated, and the women of the locality rightly protested, because as I have said, they respected the order.’ The speaker then descended from the platform amid great applause, much laughter, and playing of the band.”
What makes the Filipino laugh? That is a clue to national identity.
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