Does Stand-Up Comedy Hold the Key to Social Justice?

He Named Me Malala is a beautiful film, mostly because Malala Yousafzai is a beautiful person, courageous and full of positive energy in the face of overwhelming hatred. Although many may make the connection between the risk she took to tell her story, one which almost cost her her life, and the smaller risks we can take each day, many will not.

Unless we are confronted directly with a choice, unless there is a moment to protect ourselves or decide instead to protect others, many opportunities to better this world will pass us by. Furthermore, it is unlikely that anyone who isn't already part of the choir will shell out nine bucks to be preached at. So if an empowering, inspiring documentary can't do the job, what can?

After attending the Oddball Comedy Festival this past September, I was struck by how much of the comedy revolved around social justice issues--gay rights, gender and racial equality, poverty. And it wasn't just that poking fun at intolerance can earn a few laughs. The actual rhythm of the comedy routines seemed designed to change people's perspectives on these issues.

The below is a brief paraphrase of one of Aziz Ansari's bits:

1. Establish common ground. ("My girlfriend is finally on birth control, which is pretty exciting.")
2. Make the audience a tad uncomfortable. ("Which I thought would be great, except that it makes her a completely different person and destroys her libido.")
3. Re-establish common ground. ("But otherwise it's been great. It's been very freeing for both of us.")
4. Make the audience more uncomfortable. ("Sex is really a mess. My girlfriend says the stuff keeps dripping out of her for days.")
5. Establish new ground. ("Women get a raw deal when it comes to sex.")
6. Make the audience very uncomfortable. ("Did you know that most women can't come from penetration?")

And so on.

The audience laughs most when they are being made uncomfortable because something taboo is being discussed in public, or because the comedian is recounting a story where people did not behave as they should, or because despite trying their best to do the right thing disaster struck nonetheless.

What is most interesting to me is the moment where the comedian is able to establish a new point of view. After establishing common ground and testing the audience's limits, the comedian can assert a new perspective.

One of the acts at Oddball was a vaudeville performance by Bridget Everett, whose short-skirted, braless song and dance number involved smothering male audience members' faces with her breasts and sitting on the face of one lucky volunteer. Despite being a proud feminist, I must say I was uncomfortable at the beginning with this large woman imposing her sexuality on these men--I'm still searching my soul to figure out why--but after fifteen minutes all 30,000 in the Xfinity Center were on their feet cheering for her. She established new ground for me, and I feel myself changed.

Being made to feel uncomfortable--guilty, confused, offended--is the first thing that needs to happen before one's mind and behavior can be changed. Films like He Named Me Malala can be be inspiring, but they can also be didactic and you can sniff out their intent to permanently change you from miles away.

Stand-up comedy makes the discomfort pleasurable. The hard work of learning things about ourselves which we may not like, finding our prejudices and weaknesses, is done between laughs.

It might not be the kind of social justice project that will spark a movement, but it can build empathy. It can make us question cultural norms. It can make us braver, better people, one act of kindness at a time.