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.

We could go further back, to Athens in 4 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.

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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 …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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