Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts Institute for Community Development and the Arts, fosters arts and cultural activity that encourages and enhances civic engagement and dialogue. It is based on the premise that democracy is animated when an informed public is engaged in the issues affecting people's daily lives. The arts and humanities can contribute unique programs, settings, and creative approaches that reach new and diverse participants, stimulate public dialogue about civic issues, and inspire action to make change.
Animating Democracy’s December blog salon explored how artists, comedians, and other cultural commentators employ humor in the heavy work of social justice. Starting out the salon, I posed several questions to bloggers including the seemingly simple inquiry, how does humor work? When is humor a strategic choice and toward what social effects? Similar to other art forms, humor is fundamentally about emotions and human connection, which makes it simultaneously risky and inviting; relatable and inexplicable. While their methods and approach vary greatly – from slapstick to satire; political cartoon to YouTube musical number – the bloggers for this salon all seem to agree on the aspects of humor that make it so effective in social justice work:
- On an individual level, comedy and laughter can stimulate creativity, open lines of communication, improve people’s moods, and diffuse tense situations
- Humor comes from a personal place, but connects to universal feelings and experience
- Laughter builds community and a sense of belonging (e.g., inside jokes)
- Humor calls on the audience to finish the piece, think, fill in the blanks, come to his/her own conclusion/interpretation
Particularly as tongue-in-cheek skits and articles without clear punch lines gain popularity, the expectations and dynamics between comedian and audience continue to shift. As I said in my intro post, humor has always been something mysterious and untouchable to me. But, even if I’ll never be a stand-up comedian, the growing expectation and responsibility placed on audiences to interpret, understand, and even add their own layer of irony or satire to humorous work, especially as a tool for social change, gives me and all of us an important role to play in crafting our own punch lines.
Hungry for more? Check out Animating Democracy’s trend paper about the role of humor in the work of social change by Dr. Nancy Goldman and this post from Safe Places for the Advancement of Community & Equity, which has additional resources.
Laughter is the other side of sorrow. The arts explore this relationship in various forms, perhaps most poignantly and concisely in poetry. An understanding of this relationship forms the basis for healing. Artists are known to explore the dark side of human nature through art, an encounter that yields no assurances or promises. Some experiences yield discoveries that hope, goodness, light and love are attainable. In Galway Kinnell’s poem, Wait, written to dissuade a friend from suicide, he says, “You’re tired. But everyone’s tired. But no one is tired enough.” Such renderings rejuvenate us; tell us to hang in there.
In the old days before language was studded with acronyms and technology a cloud over intimacy, people were moved by spectacle. Truths were profound and the process to determine them, mostly known and practiced by the devoutly religious or the highly educated (i.e., not something arrived at through Googling). In the virtual world, you don’t have to be “Somebody” to access many things simultaneously; conceptually; quickly. The effortless speed of this process is powerful, seductive and fun. We have always pitted our mortality against the fast and furious (i.e., invincibility vs. vulnerability). Wit at a clip is a reflection of intellect. Intellect is fast. Feelings? Not so fast. It takes time to experience them. It takes time to let go.
Physiologically, laughter is a spontaneous release of energy and a momentary letting go of our defenses. So when we take our next breath, we are in that instant vulnerable to the realization we have just experienced. A grain of truth is juxtaposed with how we see ourselves or how we see others. Our unexpected exposure to the truth causes uncertainty and invokes laughter. In this way, humor is an effective tool for teaching, encouraging understanding between people, building relationships – and it is universal. Pop art was a successful international movement that still influences artists today. A Claes Oldenburg sculpture of a giant inverted ice cream cone melting over a department store roof comes to mind. Everybody laughs. Read the rest of this entry »
Is there too much humor in religion? Can comic analysis of the last great taboo help save Humanity? Does this parade make me look old?
I’d answer….no, maybe, and yes.
I fell into the professional Fool business forty years ago, by accident. Too much education, seven years of college, and living in one of the wackiest areas in the world–San Francisco Bay–led me to instigate a gathering of like-minded extroverts to take to the streets for the purpose of sacrilege. A show of comedic, historically correct insubordination in the face of the dominate religion of America…free market capitalism.
There is a movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the Charles Laughton version) in which he is crowned King of Fools. He is paraded past the cathedral in raucus style till the fun is stopped by a church official and he is sent back to the bell tower. A classic movie from a classic book. The street party, the Feast of Fools, was a safety valve for the populace. In medieval European times the peasant worked for the crown or the cross. A little springtime paganism was allowed to let off steam for those whose life was grim and short. Today, the true temples and cathedrals of modern times are the towers of finance. The dollar is King. The canyons of the financial district of San Francisco became the focus of my/our frustration with the ‘way things are’. The first Saint Stupid’s Day Parade took place April 1, 1979. Read the rest of this entry »
Typically, if I ask my 12-year old a question, I’ll get a short answer that I’ll need to probe with many more questions to get the information I need. If you’re a parent of an older child, you recognize that scenario. But when my daughter mentioned her math class was working on integers, I asked, “do you mean positive numbers, the ones that say ‘You go, girl. You can do it!’ and negative numbers, the ones that are sad and discouraged?” She laughed, and we had a free-flowing conversation. If humor can wrestle information from an adolescent habituated to clam up rather than share, what other habits can we change with humor?
Our society needs to save more. With retirement savings too low, this puts an unsustainable financial burden on the economy. At the same time, consumer debt is at an all-time high implying we’re on a path to increased exposure with a shrinking safety net. We can remind people to save more and spend less but the ones with the problem probably already know that and have resigned themselves to these habits. This Saturday Night Live sketch on saving would make an excellent public service announcement to encourage better financial habits.
Another habit worth adopting would be to lay off texting while driving, as this is a growing cause of car accidents. Again, people know this intuitively, and we could try scaring people with graphic pictures of automobile crashes and the consequences. Or we could circulate this video of Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake and their ridiculous Twitter talk and let humor show people how ridiculous it is to bring too much online into our offline lives.
As a longtime professional in the human resources field, I could point out the grim statistics on diversity – too few women and people of color in executive and board positions. Instead, I include a bit about the lack of Asian-Americans in mainstream entertainment in my stand-up comedy.
Humor is a powerful vehicle for social change – one habit at a time. Humor is the perfect tool for raising self-awareness — it’s harder to get defensive when you’re laughing. Humor invites change — it’s easier to stay open to suggestions when you’re feeling silly. If pressed to define an activist’s work, you might think first of circulating a petition, organizing a protest, or rallying from a soap box. But we should also include sketch writing, viral videos and stand-up comedy in our toolkit for change.
Humor is a wonderful way to get ideas through to people. As a cartoonist, that is what I do. Sometimes the ideas are silly, but sometimes the ideas are difficult. Everyone loves cartoons; most people grew up with them and are drawn to them instinctively as if a child. Because of this, the cartoonist is often able to catch the viewer off guard and express an uncomfortable idea. Cartoons—particularly wordless ones—can cross boundaries and succinctly make a point.
Primarily, it is the job of the political cartoonist to give opinion. We are artists and we are observers like many other artists. But our job is specifically to observe the world around us and spit it back to our audience. I often say we are sponges: we soak up the world around us and squeeze it back out. With humor, usually.
Humor works in tandem with culture. Humor relies on culture—it can either solidify or break down cultural traditions. And because these constructs are often very tenuous, humor feeds off of people’s anxiety and manipulates it. Humor is created out of the unexpected, the twisting of the norm, and that’s what elicits a laugh. Humor also solidifies groups, nations and societies, as to common practices and beliefs. Humor can also enlighten as it exposes wrongful stereotypes and traditions. Read the rest of this entry »
In the small town of Brisbane, California, just outside of San Francisco, I was invited to create a special art exhibit in honor of the opening of our new City Hall. This provided an important opportunity to welcome Brisbane citizens into City Hall, to engage the public in a dialog about social commitment and encourage their involvement in local politics. After years of building relationships with Brisbane City officials as a local community environmental activist and arts champion, I wondered how far Brisbane City officials would go to support the arts and encourage public participation.
“The chairs have heard it all,” I thought as I endured interminable meetings at City Hall. In keeping with my artistic practice of creating site-specific work, I wondered what the view might be like from the City Hall conference room chairs’ perspective. It is in this very conference room that we speak our minds, fight for what we are passionate about, work together and laugh together. I decided to convince our Mayor and the entire City Council, Police Commander, Fire Chief and Harbormaster to immortalize their derrieres as “Seats of Power,” all in the name of Art.
In order to photographically capture the impression of City officials’ pants sitting on their chairs, I asked them hold a piece of plexi-glass firmly against their derrières. “Bend over, this won’t hurt a bit.” And from that position I chatted with them about their passions for being involved in City affairs.
I came to appreciate Brisbane officials from a perspective different from that of the Council Chambers or City Hall offices. The posterior photo images were later woven into textiles and upholstered onto chair seats. Read the rest of this entry »
As the dark kid in Hickeville, USA, I remember using my outrageous silliness as a way to deflect and distract from my queerness. I’m transgender, born with a vagina, but always aspiring to look like LL Cool J. Growing up, no one questioned my boyish swag; in fact, for the most part, I felt encouraged in it. I was funny and (thankfully) cool – though a different type of cool than the cool-white-kids at my schools – nonetheless, cool enough not to get bullied.
Moving into adulthood, I used my “funny-ness” to facilitate healing and social change. It is well known in our queer circles, how comedy plays a role in our healing. Carol Burnett said “Comedy is Tragedy mellowed by Time”. Sometimes, we queer folk come back from a family reunion where we have had to hear our blood family react/respond to us with negativity (to put it mildly). We hop in our cars and our tears blur the lane lines and the oncoming traffic headlights, but we don’t care if we get into an accident. We arrive at our home and drink at our pity-party and hopefully, before the 3rd glass of wild turkey, we have called a friend, rather – chosen family, over to our house. We sit with them and cry again while recalling the events that broke our hearts. And by the time we’ve consummated our water-is-thicker-than-blood ritual, we’re falling over each other, laughing, taking power back by sharing sentiments over the absurdity of close-mindedness.
This humor that enables healing can go on to create space for social change–space to initiate the dialogue, and the sometimes uncomfortable conversations in which mainstream society members have to question themselves and their hetero-normativity. The vehicle for this humor is our stories. Read the rest of this entry »
Comedy can play a number of roles in promoting political change. First, many people will be open to comedy in a way they won’t be to a political speech. We turn off political ads, while turning on funny online videos all the time. Second, the best performers with a knack for manipulating nuance and crafting memorable lines have the ability to communicate about progressive ideas more clearly and powerfully than many elected officials. A third feature is the endurance of mockery. When you raise your voice at an opponent in a political argument, you can seem shrill or out of control. When you raise laughter at your opponent, the effect of making him or her the butt of your joke can stay with an audience — or a voter — for a long time. Fourth, there is the power of surprise. A good punch line catches you off-guard, just as a good argument may push someone out of an entrenched stance.
But there is another power of comedy — just as important as its ability to surprise, persuade or attack: comedy’s power to unite, give those who laugh together the sense that they belong to something larger together.
I have had the pleasure of seeing this play out through the work of Laughing Liberally, the national comedy enterprise that promotes democracy one laugh at a time. Laughing Liberally comedians have toured the country, local Laughing Liberally Labs have sprung up in over a dozen cities, and our team has worked with non-profit and advocacy partners to mix the power of humor into their creative campaigns, communications strategies, and online initiatives.
I didn’t start Laughing Liberally (with comedian Katie Halper, innovator David Alpert, and others from the Living Liberally family) because I had a team of comedians that needed a title, but the other way around: I had an audience that needed to be inspired. Read the rest of this entry »
My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the political utility of art. Too general. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the diplomatic efficacy of theatre. Too ambiguous. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the dialectics of storytelling and social change. Too academic. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the empathic functions of humor. Whatever.
Now that I’ve introduced myself, and established my “scholarly” credentials, how about indulging me a few terrorist attacks? Specifically, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.That Mother of all Terrorist Attacks. Gut-busting, sidesplitting, rip-roaring funny, right? Not even remotely. But a catalyst. And a damn good one. When me and my husband, Malik Gillani, set out to create Silk Road Rising, we envisioned a theatre company that could articulate a “proactive, artistic response” to 9/11. Our destiny was to become 9/11 second responders, responding both to the hatred and fanaticism that fueled the attacks and to the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-Brown people backlash that quickly ensued. First Al Qaeda hijacked Islam, then public anger hijacked our citizenship.
From the get-go, our activist logic maintained that although our work would be serious and political, humor would be an integral ingredient, the fermenter of provocative ideas. The plays we’d produce would employ humor as a point of clarity and connection. Not to make light of a situation, but to deepen our understanding of it. Which means the humor would be organic to the stories we’d tell, neither gratuitous nor diversionary. A company birthed in trauma cries out for empathy, and empathy manifests viscerally. We knew instinctively that the laughter that transcends barriers is the substance of social change. Unpacking a clash of ignorance masquerading as a “Clash of Civilizations” demands irony and satire and parody and sarcasm. For when the world gets divided into monolithic, historically fossilized, spatially demarcated “civilizations” forever at war with each other, it’s time to call in the humorists! Read the rest of this entry »
At the San Francisco Mime Troupe, we have been using humor as a method of presenting serious socio/political topics to our audiences for over 54 years. Our intent is to engage and activate them and offer a sense of solidarity with their fellow viewers. It’s not a new concept.
Broadly drawn, easily recognizable characters are the basis of all forms of Popular Theater from Ancient Greece to the Commedia dell’arte of Renaissance Italy to American Melodrama. Be it Kabuki or Jatra, the basic archetypes are present onstage, demonstrating the commonality of humanity’s struggle with itself. The lines are easily drawn; heroes and villains, bosses and workers, landlords and tenants all evidence of the ongoing class struggle that is our collective history. It was (and is) humor that allowed the servants to laugh publicly at their masters as they were often portrayed onstage as vain and idiotic. It was a liberation of their spirit as audiences delighted in the undoing of the patricians at the hands of a clever underling.
Whether we are tackling GMO’s, corporate personhood, workers rights, C.I.A. backed wars or oil companies, our methodology is the same. Like Mary Poppins’ “spoonful of sugar,” we have found that facts and evidence stick with folks if the information is delivered through physical comedy and witty songs. People who might routinely disagree with our point of view are more receptive to alternative ideas when laughing. Often the humor acts as a time release pill of realization when an audience member sees in real life what we illustrated onstage.
Our call for activism is usually manifested onstage by our “every person” character, who is typically called upon to make a conscious choice between their own self interest and the common good. Often that character’s sense of disempowerment mirrors that of the audience. In “Social Work”, Sharon Lockwood played Phoebe, an overworked social worker whose ability to help her clients was hamstrung by budget cuts. Driven by frustration, she dons a disguise and as The Lady in Red, and in a comic Grand Guignol eliminates her foils in elaborate murders. Clearly we were not advocating murder, but the over-the-top style provided a catharsis for the audience as they cheered Phoebe on. Often audience members recognize themselves onstage in a way that might affect their choices in the future, as in the portrayal of the disillusioned and disengaged activist. Humor can provide a wake-up call. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been making my 4-minute comedic political rant videos twice a week for close to 3 years. They’re called “Moment of Clarity,” and there are now 280 of them online as well as a book by the same name. (I’ve also been a full-time stand-up comedian for 15 years.) While I could go on for hours about the use of comedy to affect change, I want to talk about one specific area where I feel my comedy is successful at informing people.
As most of us know it’s largely not “cool” for America’s youth to care about the world – and by “youth” I mean anyone under 30 and sometimes up to 40. The cooler attitude nowadays is apathy or ironic detachment. Comedy, music, and some other art forms have a unique ability to get past the wall of ironic detachment that blankets the younger people in our culture. Most of this population would never listen to a speech by Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges, but they might watch one of my comedy videos about that speech and forward it to a friend. Freud talked about using humor to mask true intent or meaning, and in that way I am able to somewhat mask the desire to educate and inform. I don’t mean to say that it’s not evident, but when something is funny, the education factor is not as front and center. Humor can be a backdoor into people’s brains, and once that door is open, I just have to hope that the seed of information I leave one day blossoms into a full-on tantrum of truth. …Wait, can a seed grow into a tantrum? Perhaps I should’ve said “Rhododendron of truth?”
“What’s pissing you off right now?” That question—that liberating license to tap into our anger—serves as a point of departure for the satirical projects created by Fulana, the Latina arts collective I co-founded with Andrea Thome, Lisandra María Ramos, and Cristina Ibarra in 2000. It was our colmo-reaching ire at the incessant talk of “illegal aliens,” combined with our love for our grandmothers’ plastic-covered furniture, which led us to create our first piece: a mock commercial we shared with friends at a barbecue in Queens, hi-tech style, by popping a cassette into a VCR, aka the Y2K version of posting on social media. (Bonus: beer!)
Three of us had recently moved from to NYC from San Francisco, where we’d collaborated with artists like Latina Theatre Lab, Culture Clash, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Cherríe Moraga, and later, Guillermo Gómez-Peña—so a California humor aesthetic was running through our veins. For the past 13 years, our work as Fulana has focused on popular culture, using parody and satire as critical tools to respond to the ways ideologies and identities are sold to us—and how we sell ourselves—through the mass media. Our projects explore themes relevant to Latina/os in the U.S., experimenting with strategies to make visible what we’re so often made to read between the lines. We’ve tackled issues such as U.S. historical amnesia, post-9/11 politics of fear, President Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, and the so-called “Hispanic Paradox.” Read the rest of this entry »
When coming out in the early ‘90s, I began promoting live comedy shows featuring gay and lesbian comedians for gay and lesbian audiences. At the time it was uncommon to be out at work or to see gay depictions in media. These performers were doing much more than telling jokes and making us laugh; they were making us feel normal, validating our experiences and shaping our identities. Coming together for these comedy shows gave us a time and place to discuss the issues impacting our lives and to socialize, and solidified our sense of community.
So, you might ask, what were these comedians doing in states like Texas, Arkansas and Kansas, performing in clubs filled with straight audiences that were easily surpassing their two-drink minimums? I’d suggest that they were planting seeds of social change.
In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire poses the question, “Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society?” For the past 50 years, stand-up comedy has provided an outlet for marginalized populations, and an opportunity to dispel stereotypes and reclaim lost power. Immigrants, most especially Jews in the 1950s, then Blacks in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and women in the ‘70s, have used the stage to hold a mirror to society, both reflecting and retracting social norms. These performers were invested in promoting positive examples of their communities, and were determined to increase tolerance by raising awareness and social consciousness. Above all, they must have believed that we should all be doing better as a race and society and that improvement was possible. Freire (2000) thought this is essential to effecting change. “In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation, which they can transform.” For me, these comedians were not only catalysts of change, but agents of hope. Read the rest of this entry »
I have always used humor to get through life’s personal challenges. But as a playwright, I discovered that humor can also help communities come together to talk about contentious topics and/or deal with difficult topics. I will share with you two examples: fracking and aging.
I happen to live above one the largest natural gas deposits in the world – the Marcellus Shale Formation. This was not news to me, because I spent much of my childhood on my grandfather’s farm on the banks of the Chenango River. It was a lot of fun. Especially when Grandpa lit the tap water on fire. As a little kid, I thought: wow! This is really cool. We can actually light our water on fire. It didn’t occur to me that we were also drinking that same water. Maybe that’s why I turned out the way I did. A bit on the wonky side.
So we always knew there was gas. Like lots of farmers, my grandfather leased his property to gas companies for pennies an acre. But nobody ever drilled any wells because it was located in pockets of shale and couldn’t be extracted at a profit. Fast forward fifty years and south of the border, in Pennsylvania, wells are being drilled for that same shale gas. What has changed? Fracking.
At the moment, there’s a moratorium on fracking in New York. But there’s no moratorium on the debate about fracking. It’s a highly polarizing topic, predicting either economic boom or environmental doom. A lot is at stake but it’s impossible to move past talking points and shouting matches to a civil discussion of the issues.
Then I had a “what if” moment. What if I could write a comedy about fracking that didn’t take sides? You see, I believe that humor can connect people in a way that lawn signs and bumper stickers cannot. So I wrote a play about fracking. The title was a no-brainer: Frack You!. My first two characters flung themselves into my laptop: Frick and Frack. I was fearless – had no clue what the story would be – didn’t even have an ending – but how could I go wrong with Frick, Frack, and a catchy title? Read the rest of this entry »
It’s the future, bitches. And the future needs figuring out. It needs parsing and unpacking because it’s…ugh… so complicated and booooring. Where there used to be two dudes at a table having a conversation, there are now algorithms spitting out preferences. Where once upon a time we could count on social responsibility and public good, we now count on public shaming and seemingly irrefutable made-up factiness.
Where do we develop a sense of social justice in a climate like this? How can we see things for the bags of dog pooh that they might actually be? The journalists, they have a heckuva job because they’re supposed to understand everything and type it out in palatable but non-partisan high-traffic news posts. The commentators have to churn out really narrow talking points, so they’re booked. The prose writers have to save novels from vanishing. The philosophers are trying to get paid more than their adjunct teaching jobs so they can focus on philosophizing. The poets never made any sense. So who’s left?? Who’s going to help us FIGURE IT OUT? Read the rest of this entry »