'Serial' Season 2 Jokes About Kochis Are Insensitive, Not Funny
Episode 2 of Serial's second season, which looks at the controversial story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban for five years, hit the Internet Thursday morning. With it came a flood of tweets, many of which questioned how host Sarah Koenig was able to call the Taliban, something she teased in the previous episode by saying, "That's me calling the Taliban." Serial jokes about Koenig's phone call with the Taliban — including a Judy Blume send-up, "Are You There Taliban? It's Me Sarah" — swiftly made their way into Twitter feeds, but it was the Serial jokes about the word Kochi that cross the line over to the wrong side of parody.
On the latest episode, titled "The Golden Chicken" — a reference to the fact that the Taliban found Bergdahl alive after he walked off his base on his own volition, making him a prized possession — there is talk of the Kochis, a nomadic people in Afghanistan, who, with their livestock in tow, follow the seasons as subsistence farmers. An interviewed member of the Taliban claimed to have found Bergdahl near a Kochi tent, and that he was later brought to a Kochi mosque. The name, when first said on the podcast, sounded like the word "coochie," which, as most already know, is a slang term for the vagina. It's an immature kind of joke, one that may make you giggle when you're a little kid and probably didn't know any better. But, when you're an adult, you'd hopefully now be able to control yourself.
This wasn't the case for some listeners though, who decided to take what I can only imagine they thought was hilarious insight to the public domain, joking that they can't blame Bergdahl for wanting to stay in a "coochie tent," and sharing a gif of Spanish-American actress Charro's signature phrase "cuchi-cuchi." (Which was actually a reference to her dog, Cuchillo, not sex, as was widely speculated.)
The problem with a joke like this is that it's offensive; it pokes fun at another culture and their language. But, beyond that, from a comedy stand point, this joke is purely one-note; there's not even much of a joke there aside from the fact that this non-English word sounds like a funny English word. It's sophomoric, simply based on repetition. And the joke also completely goes against what this podcast is about.
Koenig and the Serial team, along with the help of filmmaker Mark Boal and Page 1, took on this story of a 23-year-old soldier who walked away from his military outpost in Afghanistan in 2009, and what happened after he was captured by the Taliban, and, in doing so, they might broaden our idea of what war is like. This episode gets at both sides of his disappearance by looking at how the U.S. and the Taliban considered the pros and cons of keeping Bergdahl — or in America's case, finding him alive. Koenig speaks to a Taliban fighter, who shares the mindset of the other side — a group many Americans consider to be an enemy. I'd say it's safe to assume that many Serial listeners are there to learn, to expand their minds on a topic they may have known little about previously. Through the podcast, listeners can get a better, more balanced idea about the Middle East and the Taliban, but then here comes Twitter, making a joke that, in turn, suggests that Americans are close-minded, shallow people who are culturally insensitive.
Humor isn't necessarily a bad way to try and deal with uncomfortable, confusing or difficult stories, but there are appropriate ways to poke fun at the podcast. Saturday Night Live 's Serial parody, where Koenig tries to solve the Christmas case of Santa Claus is a great example, as is the recent Seinfeld/Serial mash-up which looks at George Constanza's workplace missteps like sleeping under his desk and leaving his car in the parking lot so it would look like he was working when he was really on vacation. Both of these examples have found funny, smart ways to joke about the format — poking fun at Koenig's soothing voice, the way its edited, the now famous musical cues — not the content of the podcast. Any joke about MailChimp ("Mail Kimp") will also be tolerated, if not, encouraged.
Even after this week's episode, some listeners wondered why common Internet slang was getting its own explainer: "Did Serial really explain "LOL" as if it's lingo unknown to laypeople?" NPR's Linda Holmes questioned before comparing it to when Pawnee Public Radio on Parks and Recreation explained who Batman is ("a strong gentleman who fights crime nocturnally"). Jokes like Holmes' are funny commentary on the podcast, without becoming offensive, immature jabs about something that wasn't really all that hilarious to start with. Let's all try and learn the difference now before we get to Episode 3.