Monday, February 06, 2012

The Political Power of Humor

I should have put this up as a comedist post this weekend, but never got around to it.  I've been thinking about the political power of humor.  We've been discussing the legacy of the Occupy movement around the department and while I think there can be no doubt that questions of inequality and fairness in the economy are front and center in a way they have not been in probably forty or fifty years, I worry that the right has been able to minimize the impact that might have been felt by trying to paint Occupy as radical wackos.  When groups moved to shut down ports or take more strident disruptive actions, it only fed into the counter-narrative that kept the real message, the important message from getting through.  When the Occupy movement was at its strength was when coverage focused on the clever signs.  It was the handmade humor that I believe really led the positive reception.  Funny people are seen as insightful because you can get a message through to folks better when you say it in a joke.

Al Franken coined the term "joking on the square" to mean a joke that is meant to amuse, but also to carry a message.  I look back at Neil Patrick Harris' opening to last year's Tony Awards and wonder if any op/ed, any protest march could be a better, more effective commercial for the moral necessity of giving GLBT Americans fully equal rights under the law.Humor forces you to see things in multiple ways and that is a key for driving social change where we are fighting the impulse to cling to old ways that may be clearly unjust and immoral, but are comfortable.  We hate change, even when we know it is necessary and right.  Humor greases the skids like nothing else and allows us to see how absurd our current state of being is. This is, I believe, why liberals are funnier than conservatives.  There are not that many conservative humorists and those that are out there tend to be less funny -- defending the status quo.  Similarly, if you look at who becomes comedians, they tend to be groups on the verge of assimilation.  Think of the borscht belt Jewish comedians in the first half of the 20th century, African-American comics in the 70s-90s, and the rise of Latin comics in the last decade.  We're seeing more Asian-American comics on the scene now as well.

So, where are we seeing the best examples of liberation comedy today?