Comedy and Democracy: The Role of Humor in Social Justice
In this paper, Nancy Goldman explores what is humor, what is funny, and the power of using humor in areas of social justice. America’s most popular humorists, including Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, have a long tradition of critiquing the dominant forces in society and ridiculing those in power. Since American society was built on the ideals of democracy but is awash in the realities of social and political imperfections, comedy can bring awareness to these discrepancies in a way that we can hear.
Humor is a social corrective. Through many examples, Goldman illustrates how humor can validate experience, help us to think more flexibly and reframe situations, illuminate the ways in which we live in the world politically, and be used to critique social injustice. Humor can diffuse the tension around controversial topics, such as in Laura Cunningham’s play and film about fracking, “Frack You.” Goldman discusses how satire can subvert authority and expose hypocrisy, highlighting comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert who obscure the lines between news and comedy. In stand-up storytelling, D’Lo uses his sense of humor along with his body to confront society while making a safe space for people to be open and absorb information. Goldman looks at the relationship between humor and stereotypes and the impact that humor about race and ethnicity plays in society. Examples include Alex Barnett, a comedian who is broadening the scope of audiences’ thinking by his alternative perspectives about race, and Kristina Wong, who takes topics that are often taboo, such as mental illness and mail-order brides, and shines a light on them, making the invisible visible. Humor engages audience members in thinking, feeling, and speaking about the ways that we live in the world together, all of which can inform change.