Comedy breathes new life into the stories that we tell; it can take tragedy or trauma and make it into something informative and easier to understand. I turned to satirical news shows over the summer to supplement my education of racism in the United States and the current Black Lives Matter movement. Education should not be left in the hands of those who experience racism. Shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, (we really need more female hosts and greater diversity in this field) and Saturday Night live use satirical monologue as a means to grasp and combat the issues we face. Satire has moved citizens to become more politically aware and therefore more active.
Humor has the ability to reinstate enthusiasm for activism. Its informal tone appeals to a large audience, easily spreading important news stories. In order to create serious change, there needs to be long term commitment to a subject. This requires strategies to sustain optimism. Jon Stewart, the predecessor to Trevor Noah of the Daily Show and creator of “soft news,” engaged an audience that was previously expected to be uninterested in politics. In his promotions for his series “Indecision 2000” covering the 2000 election, Stewart addressed his initial audience: those who had just finished watching South Park. He begs his viewers to “Please, put down the bong, we are living through history.”
Soft news “paints the complexities of politics as a function of the absurdity and incompetence of political elites, thus leading viewers to blame any lack of understanding not on themselves but on those who run the system” (Baumgarter and Morris 362). The fault was in the political system and not in those who were not active participants in that system. I find it easier to grasp larger issues when a comedian on Saturday Night Live finds a way to break it down into jokes. Or I can send a clip of John Oliver making the history of the policing system and the reasoning behind defunding it to my family because I can't quite say it as eloquently as John can in his British accent.
There is great fatigue that comes with addressing topics as grand as the structural change that is begging to be made in the United States. Issues often feel insurmountable and hopeless. We watch as Breonna Taylor’s murderers are left uncharged amidst public outrage and as Donald Trump rushes to appoint Amy Coney Barrett mere days before an election. The system feels hopeless when an officer is charged for shooting through walls instead of shooting an unarmed innocent black woman. The system feels hopeless when a president refuses to take responsibility for the mishandling of a virus with over 200,000 dead.
Humor is a way to rethink how we educate ourselves and act on what we may perceive as lost causes. It “is an effective means of promoting a sense of hopefulness, arguably a key factor in sustaining long-term engagement in global justice advocacy” (Cameron 279). Humor can help us address the uncomfortable. It is a coping mechanism in response to moments we are uncertain about. It is a means to educate. Satire has the ability to create a community where an audience is able to self reflect and discover a common goal to strive for (Branch 13).
We should not limit ourselves to serious commentary on serious subjects when it is clear that humor is a powerful tool in breaking the barrier between inaction and action on the greatest societal issues. Humor does not contaminate serious work. Satirical monologues provide a new approach to issues that have been repeated to exhaustion.
The global community is facing the greatest issues of its time. The United States population is both extremely politically involved and exceptionally divided. One would think that national outrage would lead to policy change, but the government is run by individuals who prioritize re-election over the lives of citizens. In turn, the country as a whole lacks a sense of urgency to act on problems that threaten our existence.
Satirical monologues are a means to create a new vision within our world and inspire people to act. These monologues have been used to inspire conversations surrounding the current political system. Activists and comedians alike should work to incorporate Jon Stewart’s unprecedented humor into their social commentary. Satirical humor is one of the most powerful forms of dialogue, and it should be utilized to create action towards greater structural change in the United States.
Tune in to laugh and tune in to act.
Some of my top picks.
John Oliver on School Segregation
Trevor Noah on Breonna Taylor
SNL on Election
Baumgartner, Jody, and Jonathan S. Morris. “The Daily Show Effect.” American Politics Research, vol. 34, no. 3, 2006, pp. 341–367., doi:10.1177/1532673x05280074.
Branch, Michael P. “Are You Serious? A Modest Proposal for Environmental Humor.” Oxford Handbooks Online, 2014, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199742929.013.021.
John D. Cameron (2015) “Can poverty be funny? The serious use of humour as a strategy of public engagement for global justice,” Third World Quarterly, 36:2, 274-290, DOI:10.1080/01436597.2015.1013320
Stewart, Jon, director. Bush v. Bush. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Comedy Central, 2003, www.cc.com/video-clips/3e83yu/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-bush-v--bush.
Tracy, Dale. "Sincerity, Selfishness, and Comedic Timing." Mosaic: An interdisciplinary critical journal, vol. 51, no. 3, 2018, p. 161. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link-gale-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/apps/doc/A556694957/AONE?u=duke_perkins
&sid=AONE&xid=219f48dd. Accessed 17 Feb. 2020.