DARA E HEALY
“We also have a final announcement to make. Is there somebody out there, we don’t know who it is, lost five $20 with a rubber band around it? Anyone of you out there? Well, we’d like you to come backstage, we found the rubber band.”
– Tommy Joseph, 1990s
NO MATTER how many times Tommy Joseph pulls the announcement trick, I still manage to get caught. A few years ago, around the time of the “old imported chicken” scandal, he hosted an open-air concert in Port of Spain. During the intermission he was making the usual announcements about someone needing to check their vehicle, the length of the intermission and so on.
Then he says something like, “The people in the back selling the chicken ask me to let allyuh know that the chicken they selling is only two years old.” People collapsed in laughter.
It was upsetting to hear that Tommy Joseph was not well. We tend to feel an affinity with the people who make us laugh. As a nation, we have a unique ability not only for humour and satire, but also the capacity to laugh at ourselves. And because we have a nation filled with talented people, I imagine it must be one of the most nerve-wrenching experiences to stand up in front of a crowd and achieve the difficult reaction of laughter.
It is possible that the history of stand-up comedy in TT first took root in the early calypso tents, where calypsonians commented on life through humour and clever lyrics.
One of the first to claim the comedic space was Spoiler, who later earned the title Mighty Spoiler after winning the 1948 Annual Calypso King competition.
The Second World War had once again transformed the world and, in keeping with the geopolitics of the time, a base for American soldiers was established in Chaguaramas.
The soldiers were eager for entertainment and to spend American currency. Perhaps recognising an opportunity, in 1947 Spoiler and a few other gifted calypsonians like Lord Kitchener, Small Island Pride and Lord Melody formed the Young Brigade Tent where for a time they focused on the lighter side of life.
After the war, Mighty Spoiler continued to share his genius for comedy with songs like All Fools Day: “Ah ha I thought I was cool/But is now I realise/That I’m still a fool/…I meet a man inside meh own house kissing meh wife/I ask what is dat/She turn round and say/The only fool is you Spoiler/Is All Fool’s Day.”
Eventually, as the calypso tent grew in popularity, it became equally important to have a host who could link the performances and keep the audience engaged while the band set up or performers were getting ready to come on stage. A link between the comedian and the calypsonian began to develop. Both were entertainers and both told stories using humour. Some of them claimed the comedic space through words and movement.
He may disagree, but I can see some of the influence of veteran comedic talent John Agitation (born Ramdeen Ramjattan) in Tommy Joseph. Agitation developed a deadpan, sometimes childish expression even when he was telling the smuttiest of jokes: “They talk about drugs. Drugs is joke. I see a fella soaking he penis in coffee all day. So it could stay up all night.”
But the potency of comedy lies in its ability to address serious social issues and make us laugh, even as we contemplate the reality of our existence. In New York Tommy Joseph spoke about homelessness: “I walk with this envelope to tell allyuh about something in Trinidad. Now we have a thing we call homeless people, but in Trinidad we does say 'vagrant.' But let me tell you something, plenty of these people you does see on the street, they are educated people. You doesn’t know what they went through.
"One evening, Frederick Street, we see a homeless fella with an envelope like this and he down inside ah it talking. A fella say ‘aye what wrong with you? Is mad you mad? He say no. I sending a voicemail.”
Tommy’s wife graciously stated that his medical bills are still manageable and for that we are grateful. However, until there is an efficient national system in place to take care of artists in need of medical attention, let us contribute whatever we can afford to ensure that he is around for a long time to come. It is our turn to send laughter and love to Tommy.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN