The study of law and the legal system is often perceived as a rigid and orthodox social structure veiled by the complexities of statutes, precedents, and formalities that guide its operation. The public perception of law as something that one should be afraid of stems from various factors that contribute to a sense of apprehension and unease. One of the primary reasons for this perception is the portrayal of law in popular media, particularly in crime shows and legal dramas. These shows often depict intense courtroom scenes, severe punishments meted out to criminals, and the power wielded by legal authorities, creating a perception of the law as an intimidating force to be reckoned with. 1 The complexities of the legal system can further fuel fear and mistrust among its stakeholders.
In this article, the author aims to shed light on the significant influence and potential consequences that arise when the legal system is depicted with a comedic touch, highlighting the effects it may have on public perception, legal ethics, and the broader societal understanding of law and justice. The author aims to achieve the same by elucidating the link between legal realism and comedy media, which for the purpose of this paper is defined as any form of media which focuses on humour, and by highlighting the effects of its influence.
Legal Realism and Comedy:
The law in practice involves various individuals, such as judges, jurors, lawyers, legislators, and police, and is distinct from what’s stated in legal texts, known as “law in the books.” These individuals’ (1) actions are influenced by personal beliefs shaped by experiences and exposure to popular legal culture. Legal realists study beyond written statutes, exploring informal dispute resolution and changes in the legal system. This cultural study of law considering the influence of popular culture on legal practices, carries significance similar to traditional legal texts of case law and statutes (2). Peter Goodrich, a prominent legal scholar known for his contributions to legal aesthetics and semiotics, emphasises the contextual nature of law, arguing that legal institutions are significantly influenced by social and cultural factors (3).
Fuller, a legal theorist known for his work on the concept of “the inner morality of law” provides further insights into comedic portrayals of law. He argues that for laws to be effective, they must meet specific moral standards and give guidance to individuals (4). Comedy media proves to be very influential in setting ethical standards for its viewers. A negative aspect of the same can be seen when comedians trivialise societal and legal issues for the sake of humour, leading to viewers overlooking injustice in day-to-day life. In comedy media, legal situations are humorously depicted when these ethical standards clash with absurd or contradictory legal rules, which can often lead to the general population voicing their dissent on these laws.
In comedic portrayals of law, H.L.A Hart’s theories are reflected in how comedy media often presents legal systems as self-contained worlds with their own internal logic. Comedy media often concurs with the same by highlighting the elitism within the legal realm and portraying the judicial system as elusive and mysterious, which leads to viewers feeling alienated from the system itself. Furthermore, Hart’s theories on primary and secondary rules and the legitimacy of authority also prove crucial in the analysis at hand (5). Comedy media often uses the government and the judicial system as the muse of its jokes by questioning its authority and mocking its decisions. This leads to the audience questioning the legitimacy of the government and, subsequently, the legal system, as the two are inseparable. The same is
magnified in the case of micro-organisations and small associations wherein illegitimatepower leads to regression by its constituent members, which then causes the abdication of the authority. This effect, therefore, creates lesions on the legality of the government, causing the downfall of the system and, thereupon, the downfall of the democracy. This raises the question, “Why is humour such a powerful tool?”.
Comedy as a tool:
Comedy media permeates the mindset and ideologies of its viewers much more than other forms of media. This is primarily due to the fact that viewers tend to have their guard down while consuming such media and are less likely to scrutinise the information being propagated. Humour-centric media is used as a form of stress relief and is often the purest form of entertainment, leading to viewers perceiving information at face value rather than paying heed to its undertones. This is imperative as comedy is often exploited to promote and propagate political agendas and ideologies to its vulnerable viewers. This impact can lead to the general populace being influenced to believe their political ideology to be purely objective, while it is predominantly subjective due to the content they consume. The evolution of cartoons and caricatures to the now popular “meme culture” has seen the rise of using humour as a tool to sway the masses. The use of social media platforms to post and share memes is also often used to propagate political sentiments. However, the true dangers of the use of comedy in this manner lie in the nature of such content. Humorous sketches and memes, often perceived by viewers to be neutral on the surface, carry the potential of having discrete agendas which often infiltrate the viewer’s outlook. This means that an educated and well-informed audience proves futile to tactical marketing and content creation.
The portrayal of law in comedy shows and media can have unintended consequences on how jurors perceive legal proceedings and those involved in them. Humour can be a powerful tool to engage audiences, but it also has the potential to shape juror bias and prejudice, impacting the fairness of trials and the administration of justice. Influential comedians and popular comedic shows with a large audience base can sway the masses with their depiction of the legal scenario (6).This phenomenon, however, can be seen as two faces of the same coin.
One notable manner in which comedy can exert an influence on juror bias is by perpetuating stereotypes. Comedy often relies on the usage of stereotypes to generate humour. In the context of the legal system, this can result in the portrayal of legal professionals, jurors, defendants, and other participants in trials using exaggerated and familiar characterisations. These caricatures can create preconceived notions about the individuals involved in a case, leading jurors to make judgments based on stereotypes rather than objective evidence (7). Jurors who harbour negative impressions of defence attorneys may be more inclined to doubt their arguments or question their credibility, even in cases where the attorney is presenting a valid and well-founded defence. This bias can tip the scales of justice, compromising the principle
of a fair and impartial trial.
Having said that, the portrayal of the law can have a widespread positive influence on the legal scenario. This notion is echoed by Peter Goodrich in his “Excavation of Law and Comedy” The central idea put forth in his work is that when comedy exhibits genuine wit, it can have a productive influence on judgment (8). At its peak, comedy disrupts established norms and challenges repetitive thoughts, encouraging innovative perspectives. In its most effective form, comedy guides decision-making towards a more light-hearted and realistic approach, embracing truth, even if conveyed through fictional or humorous elements (9). While humour has its place in entertainment, it is crucial to strike a balance that avoids perpetuating harmful notions that could have far-reaching consequences for the administration of justice.
Humour as a catalyst
Over the years, the country has seen multiple voices raised against the legal system and its questionable actions. The government has long used its authoritarian power to silence such agents, which begs the question of whether, in a democratic country such as India, the Right to Freedom of speech is genuinely secured for its citizens (10). As the popularity of YouTube and other content creation platforms increased, it also saw the rise of comedy channels which used satire and humour to broadcast their commentary about relevant social and legal issues. By infusing comedy with legal subject matter, the content-creators found innovative ways to break down complex legal concepts, raise awareness, and encourage public interest in matters of law. The EIC Outrage series, created by the East India Comedy group, actively voiced their opinions on controversial issues such as Section 377, the beef ban and their advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights through their sketches and skits (11).Television shows such as “Office Office” also played a substantial role in minimising the alienation that the general public feels from the judicial system by criticising and showcasing the often-frustrating Indian bureaucracy (12). Another major contributor to the use of comedy and wit as a form of social commentary is the brand of Amul. In the realm of social commentary, Amul stands as an intriguing case study, demonstrating how humour can be harnessed to address critical legal and societal issues. Amul’s utilisation of comedic representation as a medium for discussing legal and social matters exemplifies its role in fostering relatability and informed citizenship, thus shedding light on the broader discourse surrounding the portrayal of law.
In addition to being crucial for an informed populace, comedy shows also act as a catalyst for significant social change. The use of derogatory slurs has evolved into the marginalised communities often reclaiming the words as a form of empowerment (13). Comedians, especially ones from marginalised communities, play an imperative role in the transformation of slurs used against their community. The goal of stigmatised individuals using derogatory terminology is frequently to “take the power back” and change offensive language into neutral ones. Reclaiming is still a risky process, as it may only be viewed as non-offensive and empowering in specific circumstances. Therefore, the question of when and by whom such pejorative labels are employed in a recovered form is still up for debate, and this thinline, if traversed carefully by comedians, can be the social change that is required. Multiple instances of the same can be seen in movements such as Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ+
rights movement and the MeToo movement, where slurs used against the minorities were reclaimed.
India, being a democracy championing the importance of ideals such as freedom of speech, has witnessed several encounters between the law and comedians. The charges range from defamation to hurting religious sentiments under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, a non-bailable offence (14). However, comedians also tend to use minorities as their muse; whether it be cultural, linguistic or religious minorities, under the guise of humour, and they are often wielded for propagating stereotypes prevalent in society. Stereotypes, when perpetuated through comedy, have the potential to fuel prejudices, division, and discord within the community. It becomes crucial for comedians to exercise caution in their artistic endeavours, mindful of the impact their words and actions may have on fostering social harmony. Nevertheless, the paradoxical plight of comedians facing charges casts a shadow over fundamental rights, raising concerns about the intricacies of liberty and censorship. While the country,s legal system seeks to protect freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a), it also encompasses laws against hurting religious sentiments, inciting communal disharmony, and defaming individuals or public figures (15). The boundary between the two still proves a tightrope to be traversed by comedians all over the country to this day.
In the sphere of comedy and satire, comedians stand as jesters and sages for their influence and opinions and play a crucial role in social commentary. Democracy thrives on the nurturing of dissenting voices, and thus, encouraging open dialogue and promoting understanding among individuals of varied backgrounds can be the antidote to these conflicts. Preserving democracy requires embracing the dialectic between expression and restraint.
The examination of the portrayal of law through comedy media also brings to light the challenges faced by comedians, particularly in jurisdictions like India, where freedom of speech is sometimes violated by the arrest of comedians for their satirical expressions on sensitive topics. It empowers individuals to voice their concerns, question authority, and participate actively in civic affairs. The audience’s perceptions are often influenced, challenging or reinforcing beliefs about the legal profession and practices through these portrayals. It also simultaneously raises concerns regarding the misuse of fundamental rights, with hateful and defamatory remarks propagated under the veil of humour and jokes. It also becomes imperative to address problems when comedy transcends the bounds of humour and inadvertently breeds hate, particularly against culture, religion, minorities, and language.
The responsibility of filtering content and not being an instrument of propagating discourse in society then falls on the audience. The balance of becoming aware and raising their voice against the legal system and promoting hate spewed through comedic content is one that the general public becomes responsible for. However, the onus cannot always be upheld by the viewer. Every form of media has and will be exploited by the influential for their own benefit, but the extent to which it can influence the viewer’s perception and decision-making is a can of worms that is to be dealt with by the viewer themself. Comedy, therefore, becomes a powerful tool capable of social control, and the exercise of which lies in the hand of the wielder.
- Jessica Silbey & Michael Asimow, Law and Popular Culture: A Course Book (3rd Edition).
- Legal Realism in Context, 1 in The New Legal Realism: Translating Law-and-Society for Today’s Legal Practice , 147–168 (Brian Z. Tamanaha).
- Peter Goodrich, Law by Other Means, 10 CARDOZO STUD. LAW LIT. 111 (1998).
- Edwin W Tucker, The Morality of Law, by Lon L. Fuller.
- E. Hunter Taylor, H. L. A. Hart’s Concept of Law in the Perspective of American Legal Realism, 35 MOD. LAW REV. 606 (1972).
- Judges and the Media, in The Judge, the Judiciary and the Court: Individual, Collegial and Institutional Judicial Dynamics in Australia , 259–282 (Matthew Groves).
- Machura, S., Litvinova, O. Reflections of Legal Culture in Television Comedy: Social Critique and Schadenfreude in the US Series “Frasier”. Int J Semiot Law 34, 89–108 (2021).
- Peter Goodrich, Proboscations: Excavations in Comedy and Law, 43 CRIT. INQ. 361 (2017).
- Goodrich, P. (2017). Proboscations: Excavations in comedy and law. Critical Inquiry, 43(2), 361-388. https://doi.org/10.1086/689671
- Devika Sethi, Critiques of Indian Society: Katherine Mayo’s Long Shadow, in War over Words: Censorship in India, 1930-1960, 63–90
- Read more at: Know Your Comic: 5 Of The Best EIC Outrage Videos Featuring Sapan Verma – DeadAnt, HTTPS://DEADANT.CO/, https://deadant.co/5-best-eic-outrage-videos-featuring-sapan-verma/ (last visited Sep 7, 2023).
- Read more at: Office Office – Rajiv Mehra’s 2001 satire on the common Indian that gave everyone a chuckle ThePrint, https://theprint.in/feature/brandma/office-office-rajiv-mehras-2001-satire-on-the-common-indian-that-gave- everyone-a-chuckle/860224/ (last visited Sep 7, 2023)
- Mihaela Popa-Wyatt, Reclamation: Taking Back Control of Words, 97 GRAZER PHILOS. STUD. 159 (2020).
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Refworld | The Constitution of India, REFWORLD, https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b5e20.html (last visited Sep 7, 2023).