Looking for the Punch Line

Posted by Joanna Chin On December - 9 - 2013
Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

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.

Changing Habits With Humor

Posted by Caroline Ceniza-Levine On December - 6 - 2013
Caroline Ceniza-Levine

Caroline Ceniza-Levine

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 Enabling Healing to Create Space for Social Change

Posted by D'Lo On December - 5 - 2013
D'Lo

D’Lo

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 »

Humor Me Some Social Change

Posted by Jamil Khoury On December - 5 - 2013
Jamil Khoury

Jamil Khoury

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 »

Angry? Ask Your Doctor About Satire…

Posted by Marlene Cancio On December - 3 - 2013
Marlene Ramirez-Cancio

Marlene Ramirez-Cancio

“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 »

Nancy Goldman

Nancy Goldman

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 »

Laura Cunningham

Laura Cunningham

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 »

Dirtbag Comedians Shall Inherit the Earth

Posted by Negin Farsad On December - 2 - 2013
Negin Farsad

Negin Farsad

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 »

Humor & Social Change: An Introduction

Posted by Joanna Chin On December - 2 - 2013
Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

When I talk to friends who are not in the arts, or show them my creative work, the most common response by far is some variation on: I could never do that. I’m not artistic. I’m so not creative. Which, of course, cannot be true. Mostly because my career is predicated on the belief that participation and access to the arts and creative outlets are both a human right and also a basic need. However, when I hang out with my friend who does stand up or anyone with a talent for the perfectly timed punch line, I empathize with my (so-called) non-artistic friends. In the same way that Michelangelo’s work was deemed mysteriously divine, so comedy has this unattainable quality to it (divine comedy, anyone?) that makes its power to poke fun and change perception equally hard to pin down. Although I think of comedy and art in parallel, in many of the circumstances where humor is used for social commentary and as an agent of change, humor also IS a form of art.

Animating Democracy’s December blog salon seeks to explore how artists, comedians, and other cultural commentators employ humor in the heavy work of social justice. As articulated by Dr. Nancy Goldman in her Animating Democracy trend paper about the role of humor in the work of social change, comedy – from satire to parody to slapstick – has a long history of calling attention to and commenting on the ways in which we live in the world together, socially and politically. From the days of Old Comedy in ancient Greece, and for centuries since, humor has provided a largely acceptable means by which to hold ideologies up to the light for inspection and critique. Join us as our bloggers apply their wit and irreverence to fundamental questions associated with this work: How does humor work?  When is humor a strategic choice and toward what social effects? What are examples of projects that have applied the power of “funny” to take up difficult issues and seen positive social change?  What is over the line?

You’ll hear from the Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising Jamil Khoury, whose post unpacks how humor contributes to success measured in the “parallels and knowing moments;” political cartoonist Liza Donnelly on being a culture sponge; artist and co-founder/director of Fulana Marlène Ramírez-Cancio’s examination of satire as a tool for “protest with punchline;” comedian Negin Farsad  as she explains how dick jokes will change the world, and many more.

“You Know Your Film is Making a Difference When…”

Posted by Ellen Schneider On September - 25 - 2013
Ellen Schneider

Ellen Schneider

“I cried after my first big film was released,” she admitted, in hushed tones over the phone.  This was no traditional case of post-partum blues. This was an award-winning filmmaker, who had spent years of her life, thousands of her own dollars, and probably a relationship or two to bring her poignant, hybrid, social issue documentary to the light of day (or in her case, a night on PBS following a limited theatrical release). “I wanted to change the world with that film. But even though the critics liked it, and people saw it, I had no proof that anything changed. Silence. I still don’t know if it had any impact at all.”

I had phoned my friend (let’s call her Maya) because I wanted to see how the indie crowd at the Sundance Film Festival would respond to my question: “You know your film is making a difference when…” I first attended Sundance in the late-80s when I was a script reader in Hollywood, and participated during the decade I was at the PBS series POV. But this year in my current role leading the Active Voice Lab for Story & Strategy I did more listening than screening. As a lifelong believer in the power of story — and other creative work – to advance social change, these days I’m spending a lot of time trying to prove it.

I can admit it now: early in my career when I wrote the “Evaluation” part of grant proposals I would wince, concoct a few bullets about the kind of change I wanted to see, and keep my fingers crossed that the funder would be so dazzled by what we were actually able to accomplish programmatically that they wouldn’t feel compelled to go back and reconcile it with our originally-stated objectives. During the first 10 years at Active Voice we commissioned outside firms and social scientists to give us qualitative feedback about our process and our partners’ satisfaction. We weren’t trying to impress funders; we simply couldn’t afford to repeat mistakes. But it wasn’t until Active Voice brought on a full time evaluator that were we able to identify and actually measure the kind of shifts we think films can contribute to. Read the rest of this entry »

Can Public Art Play a Role in Public Health?

Posted by Sara Ansell On September - 23 - 2013
Sara Ansell

Sara Ansell

What is the Porch Light Program?

Does art have the power to heal? The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program thinks it does. Through the Mural Arts Porch Light Program, a partnership with the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), we mine the social power of art to not only address a community’s physical environment but ultimately the community’s health. The program strives to catalyze positive changes in the community, improve the physical environment, create opportunities for social connectedness, develop skills to enhance resilience and recovery, promote community and social inclusion, shed light on challenges faced by those with behavioral health issues, reduce stigma, and encourage empathy. Through participatory public art, we have tackled issues such as trauma, faith and spirituality, homelessness, immigration, war, and community violence.

The Porch Light Program builds a team of artists, service providers, program participants, and other community and city-wide stakeholders to collaborate on a transformative public art project over the course of a year. During that year, artists are embedded within a provider agency and work closely with service recipients, staff, and the surrounding community. Through the weekly workshops, community meetings, and Open Studios, the artists forge meaningful relationships and explore the issues most pressing to the community. After months of dialogue, brainstorming, and art activities, the artists delve into the mural creation process with program participants. The participants help design the mural and then move on to the most exciting phase of the work: painting the mural. At the end of a program year, we celebrate and honor the completed mural at a highly anticipated “Mural Dedication Ceremony.”

Through this collaborative creative process, individuals and communities are not simply beneficiaries of public art or recipients of treatment, but co-creators of the work as they learn new skills, gain knowledge among peers and community members, and play an active role in improving their physical environment. National foundations, health leaders from across the country, and universities are looking at the Porch Light Program closely as an example of progressive public health promotion: the consideration that our physical and social ecosystem impacts our health as much as a visit to the doctor. Read the rest of this entry »

Then and Now: Arts Practice and the Civic Rights Movement

Posted by Barbara Schaffer Bacon On August - 28 - 2013
Barbara Schaffer Bacon

Barbara Schaffer Bacon

As the nation commemorates the 1963 March on Washington, Americans will be reminded of the power the arts bring to movements for human rights. The music and singing that day played a critical role in inspiring, mobilizing, and giving voice to the civil rights movement. ‘‘The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,’’ said Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘‘they give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours’’. [1]

Theater also played a critical role. The Free Southern Theater (FST), was formed in 1963, same year as the March on Washington, to be a cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement—“a theater for those who have no theater.” The FST “used art to support the Civil Rights Movement through a professional touring company, a community engagement program and training opportunities for local people interested in writing, performing and producing theater.” The FST was a major influence in the Black Theatre Movement, using theater “as an instrument to stimulate the development of critical and reflective thought among Black people in the South.” FST Artistic Director, John O’Neal, was a co-founder and a guiding force throughout the organization’s existence. Americans for the Arts has been privileged to learn from and support John O’Neal and Junebug Productions as part of our Animating Democracy Lab for the Color Line Project.

Read the rest of this entry »

Artists of Change

Posted by James LeFlore On July - 23 - 2013
James LeFlore

James LeFlore

The types of cultural district that I like best are those that are the hardest to define. They’re not the type that is bolstered by a fine arts institution or even have organized events that you can rely upon for your evening and weekend pleasure.  I’ve always been drawn to the artist-made hot spots that evolve over time and transform areas of town known as a “dud” into a “hub”.

Why is it that artists are so good at being able to do that? What do artists know that is so potently effective at revitalizing old buildings and empty neighborhoods where others coming beforehand have failed, given up, and left ruins to slowly fade into darkness? The answer to artists’ effectiveness at environmental change is not a secret, but it does involve magic. First, the power they wield comes directly from their ability to harness the power of unbridled creativity. The illusion they achieve is due to their capacity to suspend reality just long enough for cool things to start happening – as if they can animate the dead. Artists are the best-trained professional I can think of in the art of improvisation; and when the chips are down we all must know how to improvise, right? Read the rest of this entry »

John Eger

John Eger

President Obama has said repeatedly that “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” According to Forbes Magazine, “If there was a central theme to the president’s remarks, it was innovation.”

Yet, although everybody is talking about how innovation is what we need and will solve our jobless dilemma, few people know what innovation is or how we get it, or critically, what our communities must do to meet the challenges of the new age.

It is becoming clear that art and culture districts are vital to ensuring vibrant economic activity in our cities. They are foreshadowing a whole new economy based upon creativity and innovation.

Fortunately, Americans for the Arts (AFTA), who as early as 1998 researched the emergence of such districts in which the arts were used as part of a strategy for revitalizing cities, has now launched an even more ambitious effort:

A plan to produce an update of the earlier report, and more importantly, a three year effort – inviting mayors and other city executives, architects, city planners, and experts in the field to “blog”, and to participate in webinars and conferences to help cities and towns across America to reinvent their community for the new age, this rapidly emerging age of  “creativity and innovation.” Read the rest of this entry »

Wendy Hawkins

Wendy Hawkins

It is hard to imagine a more visceral and impactful medium for connecting to an audience than film.  And if our goal is to bring about social change, what better medium for getting people to step up and take action than a well-made film?

I had the pleasure last week of participating on a panel on the topic of storytelling for social change – particularly around documentary films – at the 2013 CECP Summit.  There Joe Brewster told of the 13 years he and his wife spent filming their own son and his best friend as they embarked with great anticipation on the journey of their elementary and high school education – a journey that took them to some darker places and greater challenges than they had ever anticipated for this much loved son of a middle class African American family in New York City.  American Promise is deeply moving and delivers tough messages about the role of assumptions and biases in defining the world in which these boys grow up – beyond the ability of their parents to shape and control.

Rashid Shabazz of the Open Society Foundations and Program Officer for Black Male Achievement told of the process by which he and his foundation decided that this film had the potential to move audiences in ways that other, more traditional grants might never reach. Read the rest of this entry »

Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.