I work in a couple of different mediums, mainly comedy and theatre, and the reason can be broken down to this: comedy is good for easing an audience towards a social truth. Theatre is good for holding a social truth up to an audience.
I remember being told once, at an awards dinner, that I had a gift for ‘speaking truth to power’.
I think that's bullshit.
Speaking truth to power is not a gift and no one should romanticise it. The protester holding a sign and yelling at a politician is speaking truth to power. It's not a gift. In a democracy it's almost a civic duty. That we value it so highly perhaps points to an unspoken truth about the repression of our society.
Of the various tattoos I've had put on me, there's one not many people know about. On my right ribs I have written, in small text, ‘The Truth will only have meaning when questioned by those who seek it’.
I'm big on the truth…and I've written that to wind up people who know me. I'm not advocating constant lying, but truth and lies are part of the human condition. In comedy, often you can only deconstruct the truth – and people’s perceptions – with lies.
I'll let you in on the joke. I see the truth as a tool, but not fundamental. It can be overrated. It doesn't always bring understanding. In fact, sometimes it only brings trauma and nothing more. Deconstructing truth with more truth can lead to a cycle of pain that some are not equipped to handle. To those who say that at the bottom of that cycle is a pathway to ‘moving on’ I would argue the hard truth is that, sometimes, there's not. Sometimes a person's psyche is at risk. Sometimes there's a need for lies.
Trust me, I have a degree in this. That is a lie.
Incidentally – this mentality of mine is probably what allows me to look at politics and political players in a way that produces satire, but it's also why I've always stepped back from jumping fully into the political arena. For all my cynicism, there is a romantic underneath and I think democratic power can only properly work with truthful leaders, to allow for accountability. That is a truth.
We like truth because we relate it to trust, and if we can trust someone fully then we don't have to waste mental energy on considering them as a three-dimensional person. We know, because they always tell the truth, that we can trust whatever they say. But think about how much truth you really want from someone. From a politician? Sure – because it allows for oversight. But from your mate? Your lover? Your cat?
It's good to have friends who can ‘tell it like it is’, but also you want friends who can lie to make you feel good. Yeah, you know it's a lie, but we live in a society of hard realities, and a lie, like a good coffee, is sometimes what gets you out the door.
You've actually got to go inception when seeking the truth. It's not enough to seek it just to know. You have to be honest what you want from it, and why you need it. Because often, when it comes to people, and the histories of people, truth is layered in pain. A truth doesn't start out hidden. If, when you find it after seeking, you're genuinely surprised by that pain, then chances are you went looking blindly.
James Nokise is an award-winning comedian who has generously supported our partner charity SpinningTop and many other organisations over the years. Learn more about NZ's most famous Samoan-Welsh comedian and when he's next performing at www.nokise.co.nz
Words by James Nokise and Illustration by Natasha Vermeulen.