You Can't Joke About That

You can't joke about that.

Have you ever hear someone say that? Or said it yourself? I hear it all the time. And I understand it. If you are horrified by an injustice, it can be difficult to see the possibility of using humor while confronting that injustice.

What so funny about racism? Or the destruction of nature? Or poverty?

Those of us who bring comedy to causes are confronted with these questions. When I meet with a potential client for the first time, it's one of the first things they ask. Because they like comedy; really, they LOVE comedy. But they just aren't sure it works well with "their" issue.

After reassuring them that comedy may not always be the best approach, I suggest a few reasons why comedy can be so effective at shifting the public conversation around an issue.

1. Racism isn't funny. But racists can be hilarious. Often we use comedy to lampoon the bad guys. No one likes to be ridiculed. No one wants to be a punch line. Comedy can help stigmatize bad behavior or beliefs.

2. Punch someone in the face and the conversation is over. Tease them and the same person will usually remain engaged. Humor, even biting humor, is a door opener. A conversation starter. Society gives us permission to laugh at ourselves. It doesn't give us permission to hate ourselves.

3. The world is heavy. We can only carry it for so long. Then we get tired. People often disengage from challenging issues because they burn out. They get depressed. If we want people to stick around, we need to let them smile. Even help them smile. Humor is good for our longevity. And we'll need it if we're going to win.

4. The media loves funny. And it loves controversy. Comedy done right can give you both. If you want to shift the public conversation, you have to be part of the conversation. And through the media (social, earned, paid, whatever) is how those conversations are shaped.

In 2012, I worked with Sarah Silverman on three videos to support President Obama's reelection. We had met in 2008 when we collaborated on The Great Schlep, an effort to mobilize (mostly) young Jews to convince their grandparents (mainly) in Florida to put aside prejudice and fear to vote hope. When we connected again four years later, I asked her what she wanted to do. Our shared challenge was to find an issue that both of us thought was important and a joke that was good enough to build a video around.

We were both outraged at Republican attempts to make it more difficult from certain people (Cough. Obama supporters! Cough) to vote by passing laws limiting the franchise to those able to show a valid photo identification. Sarah also had a great joke: we should encourage seniors to get gun licenses (and guns), since in some states the licenses were considered valid ID at the polls (while student IDs in some states were not). So we moved ahead. This microsite and web video was the result of this collaboration. In part due to the public outcry around partisan disenfranchisement, many state voter ID laws were struck down in the courts. And Obama is still President.

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report each did hilarious pieces about these insane voter ID laws. But the civil rights and civic organizations on the front lines kept it serious. There was plenty finger wagging and outrage. And some of it was very effective. At the same time, Let My People Vote generated more than 3 million views and a ton of media coverage. For many viewers, it helped them better understand the issue. And visitors to our microsite could easily learn about the rules in their state so they wouldn't be denied the right to vote.

Both approaches are critical. They compliment one another. But right now social change movements remain too reliant on serious content. They need us to bring the funny. Game on friends.