If They’re Laughing, They’re Listening; Discussing Comedy’s Relevance

Chloé Delaitre is a half Spanish, half French second year International Relations student at Kings. Her passions include journalism, coffee and dogs.

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We live in a world where there is an overflow of news, and increasingly more people are getting these from social media. This was highlighted in a Pew Research Center report, which showed that ‘55% of US adults now get their news from social media either often or sometimes ’[i]. The problem with the fact that exposure to news, opinion and civic information increasingly occurs through social media is that, as there is a bombardment of information, internet users tend to cherry pick information, clicking on material that supports their existing beliefs and values. This allows the creation of echo chambers, where individuals ‘insulate themselves from opposing points of view and reinforce their biases’[ii]. For Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar and behavioural economist, the solution to these social media bubbles is ‘to build more public forum, where people will run into the other side more often’ [iii]. Here is where comedy comes into the picture.

Distils information:

Firstly, comedy distils information. This is because humour is a great way to make more people listen to current socio-political issues; ‘a good joke packs a harder punch than many other forms of dialogue, and it can reach people who would otherwise be unwilling to listen’[iv]. Certainly, comedy has the ability to capture the audience’s engagement through the laughter effect, whilst simultaneously improving their ability to remember the message. This is something which has been scientifically demonstrated, as research in psychology suggests that humour actually requires cognitive elaboration, resulting in increased message recall[v].

This therefore shows that comedy serves as edutainment, a point which is perfectly encapsulated in the comedy show Patriot Act. Hosted by Hasan Minhaj, who was recently in the Times list of the 100 most influential people of 2019, the show, which Hasan describes as a ‘woke TED talk’[vi], discusses topics ranging from the opioid crisis in the United States to student loan debt or censorship in China, all with a sense of humour, highlighting how comedy can make difficult topics more engaging. Hasan himself said on CBS This Morning, ‘people come for the information on our show but stay because of the jokes’[vii].

Additionally, satirical news, which generate impressive public engagement, as demonstrated by The Daily Show’s 700 million cross-platform video views in only the first quarter of 2019[viii], are also a source of political and civil information. Indeed, The Daily Show’s coverage was found to ‘ideologically balance topics and perform a de facto watchdog function, particularly for civic issues, politicians, and the media’[ix]. Satirical news shows critically engage with controversial topics, encouraging critical political discourse. Thus, shows such as The Daily Show can be seen as ‘a variation of the tradition of Rusell Baker, Art Hope, H.L Mencken and other satirists who once graced the pages of American newspapers’[x].

Sparks conversations:

Secondly, comedy sparks conversations about taboo subjects and issues which people would prefer to ignore. Comedy serves to facilitate debate, discussions and dissent, something illustrated by Trevor Noah (The Daily Show host) when he stated that ‘’it’s an opportunity to spur conversations (…), in a weird way comedy helps you tackle serious subjects’’[xi]. Comedians use their platforms in order to call out oppressive power dynamics, questioning the beliefs imposed by the status quo. This argument is perfectly encapsulated by John Fugelsang’s statement that, when done well, comedy is the freedom to subvert to society’s norms[xii]. Hence, comedy pushes social boundaries, promoting deliberative democracy.

This can be seen in how comedians often mix comedic wit with serious social commentary, ‘capturing an audience’s attention as they advance clearly stated positions related to important social issues’[xiii]. Examples of comedians using humour in order to sugar coat social critique are many; Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby on her Comedy Central show, concluding ‘we deserve to watch like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping’[xiv], criticising rape culture. Ellen DeGeneres’s ‘Puppy Episode’ was highly influential in promoting LGBTQ+ equality and acceptance, as well as providing visibility to the community, and Dave Chappelle’s ‘Racial Draft’ or Eddie murphy’s mockumentary ‘White Like Me’ critiqued white privilege and racial stereotypes in the US[xv].

Creates social change:

Finally, comedy also encourages the audience to reflect as they laugh, as Sam Kinison contended, ‘comedy doesn’t just make people laugh and think, but makes them laugh and change’[xvi]. By inviting people into the conversation, comedy participates in the discourse of social change. Furthermore, as comedy attracts mass attention, it’s messages have the potential to have far-reaching positive consequences, for example, after the show Patriot Act called out the American Military’s description of Saudi Arabian’s as having ‘negro blood’, they removed the racist language[xvii]. This shows that jokes ‘help us confront the world’s most pressing issues, inspiring laughs to inspire change’[xviii].

Sources Cited:


[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2017/dec/04/echo-chambers-are-dangerous-we-must-try-to-break-free-of-our-online-bubbles

[iii] https://theconversation.com/the-problem-of-living-inside-echo-chambers-110486

[iv] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160829-how-laughter-makes-us-better-people

[v] The Privileged Role of the Late-Night Joke: Exploring Humor’s Role in Disrupting Argument Scrutiny, Dannagal Goldthwaite Young

[vi] https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/oct/29/hasan-minhaj-netflix-show-late-night-comedy)

[vii] : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMMJUzEsGi4

[viii] https://www.broadwayworld.com/bwwtv/article/RATINGS-THE-DAILY-SHOW-Drives-Historic-Quarterly-Ratings-Gains-for-Comedy-Central-20190402

[ix] https://content.ucpress.edu/title/9780520299764/9780520299764_partone.pdf

[x] https://www.journalism.org/2008/05/08/journalism-satire-or-just-laughs-the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-examined/)

[xi] (https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/jul/13/trevor-noah-on-satires-uphill-battle-in-the-age-of-trump-the-daily-show)

[xii] (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160829-how-laughter-makes-us-better-people

[xiii] (All Joking Aside: A Serious Investigation into the Persuasive Effect of Funny Social Issue Messages ,Robin L. Nabi , Emily Moyer-Gusé & Sahara Byrne)

[xiv] https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/05/how-comedians-became-public-intellectuals/394277/

[xv] (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1367877915595302?casa_token=ejjfvDHo5PUAAAAA%3A0Cb4-FRU231Bc9WYqE-_tXJeLOz2TcuWcYGCwkKuO6ia1hwA7meCbAiKuVZi82KPXFa9AmfYtfnA7A)

[xvi] Standing Up, Speaking Out: Stand-Up Comedy and the Rhetoric of Social Change. Edited by Matthew R. Meier, Casey R. Schmitt. 

[xvii] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/01/world/middleeast/american-military-racist-language.html

[xviii] https://mashable.com/2014/12/19/comedy-social-justice/?europe=true

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