Comedy with a cause: humor in the realm of social justice

by Sarah Alexander / Beacon Correspondent • September 28, 2016

People like to laugh. People like to make people laugh. But what happens when the joke doesn’t land? And what happens when it shouldn’t?

We often see how deeply comedy intersects with issues like gender, race relations, and electoral politics. Some comedians successfully infuse politically-driven material into their work to summarize a complex issue into a simple, yet nuanced message that is accessible to more people. If not for farce, it might be hard to handle the chaos of this election. But when does the gag go too far, and when does it detract from the point?

Recognizing who is telling the joke and what motivation is behind it is important. Beyond laughter, the goal of comedy can be healing and advocacy. When someone experiences certain systematic injustices and traumas in their life, they have the authority to use their struggles for comedy. Aziz Ansari is a comedian who uses his own life as the source material for his jokes. He uses his experiences to illuminate on the struggles Asian-Americans face. Through his humor he brings awareness to the serious underlying issues of discrimination.

The content comedians create could be for their own healing, the healing of their community, or for the education of those outside of their community. When an affluent white male jokes about how afraid they are of the outcome of this election, and how they want to move to Canada, they ignore two key points. : 1.They can move! There is economic, racial, and social privilege that comes with the ability to pick up one’s life and move to another country. 2. This whole election is a serious concern for many people. Women could lose even more rights to proper health care. Immigrants could be ripped from their homes at even higher rates than they are now. Muslims will continue to be villainized. The murder of black men and women by the police will be justified, while the murder of transgender and genderqueer black Americans will be overlooked all together.  

There is a difference between comedy based on individualized pain and systematic pain. For example, imagine falling down the stairs in front of a large group of people. Any onlookers who retold the story later on would be able to comment on the hilarity of the sight. But only you experienced the “wait what I—oh I’m falling” revelation. Only you can understand that shift from panic and physical pain, to viewing the situation as funny. That shift is crucial.

If we can understand the ownership of storytelling on an individualized level, then we can apply the same logic when the stakes are higher. Obviously, it is inevitable that we will incorporate social commentary into our humor. But there are people who make jokes about things they haven’t experienced—and they can be potentially detrimental to the issues they’re talking about. Comedians should be telling their own stories to accurately explain how they connect to larger communities.

So, comedians: If you’re passionate about an issue unrelated to your identity, take a moment to think about how you can actually make a difference. Educate yourself on the problem. If other comedians who have a personal stake in the conversation are already talking about it, then give them your support. And be conscious of how your privilege is affecting your work.

Emerson students focus on producing socially smart media, but we need to do better. We need to stop talking for other people, and start listening instead. When someone makes a good joke, everyone listens. We must strive to make content that’s not only good but better—for society, for ourselves, and for our consciences.