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22 July 2021

Can comedy change the world?

Despots aren’t defeated by laughter, but the fundamental message of the comedian – “it doesn’t have to be this way” – threatens authority and disturbs the prevailing order.    

In his 2014 debut album, Waiting for 2042, the Indian American stand-up Hari Kondabolu bemoaned the political compromises that watered down “Obamacare”. What happened to the “public option” that would compete with private health insurance?

Kondabolu pitched his own healthcare plan: “Not a redistribution of wealth, but a redistribution of organs, from rich to poor… after rich people die. And after we kill them… ’Cause there’s a lot of poor people out there who need those organs, for transplants and, of course, for food.”

The conceit builds to a climax that blurs the line between ridicule and realpolitik: “And you’re thinking, ‘Hari, this proposal sounds so unreasonable’. Yes! And if we had started with it, we’d have the public option by now.”

Kondabolu’s bit is at once a comedic take on US politics and a meta-comedic comment on the relationship between satire and social critique. Have we reached the point at which satirical excess could pass for policymaking? (Imagine proposing that Mexico pays for a border wall with the US.) Or can we draw hope from the power of comedy to shake our complicity and complacency? Does satire effect social change? If not, what value does it have?

Politically subversive comedy has a noble history. Kondabolu called his proposal “modest”, nodding to the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift. Swift’s “modest proposal” addressed starvation in Ireland by advising parents to eat their children.

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We could go further back, to Athens in the fourth century BCE, where those comic philosophers, the Cynics, mocked society by living in the streets like dogs, masturbating and defecating in public. When their figurehead Diogenes was captured and sold as a slave, the auctioneer asked what he was good at. “Governing men,” Diogenes replied, “spread the word in case someone wants to buy a master.” In context, it’s a pretty good joke.

There are theories that identify a close affinity between jokes and social critique – especially the kind of critique that shows a practice deemed “natural” to be the product of contingent, often nefarious, social forces.

In an essay on jokes originally published as “The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception”, the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote: “A joke is a play upon form [that] affords opportunity for realising that an accepted pattern has no necessity.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way” is the message of both the comedian and social critic. It’s a message that threatens authority and disturbs the settled order. “Under the tyrannies of Hitler in Germany and of Stalin in the Soviet Union, humour was driven underground,” Arthur Koestler wrote in the 1970s. “Dictators fear laughter more than bombs.”

It’s an inspiring thought – that comedy is consequential, a clear and present danger to the despot. Alas, there’s not much evidence that it’s true. Do autocrats fear laughter? Or do they simply dislike being laughed at and have the power to put a stop to it?

There may be occasions in which comedy has a direct impact on politics. (The Albasheer Show in Iraq has influenced the protests there.) But I doubt it happens very often, and when it does, the effects may be vicious as well as virtuous. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have both made effective use of humour. Irony can equally disarm critique – “I was only joking” – allowing the previously unspeakable to be said.

Comics sometimes joke about their own inefficacy. “I’m not interested in laughs,” the comedian Stewart Lee deadpans after a bit about economic inequality. “What I’m aiming for is a mass liberal consensus… that dissolves on contact with air.”

In her essay on jokes, Douglas anticipates this charge: the social impact of comedy is superficial. Joking “is frivolous”, she writes, “in that it produces no real alternative, only an exhilarating sense of freedom from form in general.” We could paraphrase Karl Marx, in his 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “The comedians have only joked about the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

[see also: Why Donald Trump was the ultimate anarchist]

There are grounds for doubt, then, about the power of comedy to effect social change. But I don’t think that robs it of social value. We need to revise our expectations.

One of the most common complaints about political comedy is that it “preaches to the choir”. Satirical news shows such as Have I Got News For You or The Mash Report and The Daily Show in the US tell people what they came to hear and thus change no one’s mind. As the British comedian Simon Munnery quips: “If the crowd gets behind you, you are facing the wrong way.” But the metaphor of preaching to the choir is double-edged. After all, it routinely happens: preachers preach to the choir – and there’s value in that.

To focus solely on outward change is to limit the purpose of political address, which has much wider aims: to instruct and to console. The social value of comedy has as much to do with enlightenment and solace as reform.

The philosopher Stephen Yablo once called lecturing “stand-up with low expectations”. Anticipating tedium, students are grateful for almost any attempt at humour; and the form of the academic lecture is basically that of the 50-minute stand-up set.

Some of the best political comedians are extraordinary teachers. The point is less persuasion than depth of insight, the sort of close analysis one gets from the American comic Hasan Minhaj on Patriot Act, a Netflix shows that dives deep into a single topic in each episode, such as affirmative action, fast fashion, private philanthropy. Minhaj stands alone on stage, lecturing to an audience of mostly millennials, with animated slides that would be the envy of any academic.

Comedic pedagogy sugars the pill of painful truths – as the Roman philosopher Lucretius honeyed the bitter wormwood of philosophy by writing it in verse. (The metaphor is his.) Yet what comics convey is not just information but the practice of political critique. They make it fun to look beneath the surface of society and inspire us to follow them in doing so.

This alliance of reason and raillery was marked by the eighteenth-century philosopher, Lord Shaftesbury, in 1709: “men can never be better invited to the habit [of reasoning] than when they find pleasure in it. A freedom of raillery, a liberty in decent language to question everything, and an allowance of unravelling or refuting any argument without offence to the arguer, are the only terms which can render such speculative conversations any way agreeable.” Apart from the demand for “decent language”, this could be a motto for Minhaj and others like him. There is a bitter joy in critical thought.

Perhaps more profound than pedagogy are the consolations of the comic. To focus on change is to take an instrumental view of political life. No doubt change matters. But there is also community. And while communities, like effects, can be both vicious and virtuous, sometimes the choir needs communion.

Soon after the US election in 2016, I went to the Paradise Rock Club in Boston, where the comedian Aparna Nancherla opened for Eugene Mirman. She talked about her own anxiety and its relation to the moment: “If you’re an anxious person, it’s kind of like… this is what we trained for. This is our Olympics!” In the laughter that followed, the tension in the room was briefly dispelled, a collective exhalation.  

This moment may seem trivial; perhaps it was. But it would be wrong to underestimate the power of comedy to forge endurance and solidarity in appalling times – circumstances we can hardly grasp.

Otto Dov Kulka was a child in the “family camp” at Auschwitz in 1943-44. In Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, Kulka recounts the events that helped him survive. He was sustained by music and by learning Greek history. But the most astonishing episodes were comedic.

Kulka tells a joke that was repeated in the death camp: “Did you know there is a way to escape from Auschwitz? Through the smokestacks.” He describes a blackly comic skit, performed for SS officers, in which the dead ascend to heaven only to find “that in the world on high there were selections and there were crematoria”.

It feels almost obscene to transcribe these anecdotes. If poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric – as Theodor Adorno wrote in 1949 – what is comedy in a death camp? But the fact is that it happened and that it was the opposite of barbaric.

The Nazis were not defeated by laughter. But it would be an impoverished sense of social value that would not see meaning in Kulka’s comedy – and in the tiny moments of comic solidarity, of whistling in the dark, with which we face the ludicrous inequities and fascist possibilities of the 21st century.

Kieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at MIT in the US. He is the author of “Midlife: A Philosophical Guide” and is working on a new book, “Life is Hard”. He tweets @KieranSetiya.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, senior research fellow in philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.

[see also: Does the truth set us free?]

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