If you see people with clown #NosesOn today, it’s because it’s Red Nose Day, the British humanitarian organization Comic Relief’s day dedicated to ending child poverty. The organization harnesses comedy and entertainment (like tonight’s Red Nose Day Special on NBC) to combat one of the world’s most pressing issues.
The world is rife with social woes in need of redress. Millions of Syrian refugees are living in limbo throughout Europe; Chinese and Russian girls are routinely trafficked to the sex trade; North Korea and Iran are posing greater nuclear threats; and fiercer storms are endangering global coastlines.
At home, Donald Trump is pushing for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and calling several nations “sh*thole countries”; people of color are targeted as threats in their own communities; high school students are dying in their classrooms at the hands of armed peers; and decades of sexual harassment and assault are surfacing through #MeToo.
Thousands of humanitarian organizations like Comic Relief take on these issues to raise awareness and support for them. But comedy itself — in its many forms of films, sitcoms, standup, cartoons, skits, ads, blogs, videos, social posts, and jokes between friends — also advances our understanding and action around inequities and hypocrisies.
As social injustice and unrest explode, comedy flourishes. The harsher the conditions and reality, the more fodder there is and the greater the need for comic relief and social change. In the past year, late night comedy viewing is way up in the U.S. — attributed to the Trump-effect.
The Role of Comedy in Society
Comedy is simply the flip side of tragedy, but is much more transformative. From Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Norman Lear’s All In The Family, humor has always played a seminal role in shining a light on society’s thorniest issues. Comedy can influence public discourse and advance flashpoint equality issues of race, religion, gender, and class.
In the U.S., the First Amendment allows us to speak out using humor, protest, and other means, creating a more open and accountable society. Comedy, satire, and parody are integral to a thriving democracy and offer profound social impacts:
Because humor empowers and breaks through social mores and it’s the most highly shared content on social media, comedy is truly a powerful force.
Punching Up vs. Punching Down
One of the most potent aspects of comedy is its ability to point out the foibles of those in power and the inanity or injustice of the status quo. It’s always been okay for the jester to poke fun at the king. In fact, jesters were employed by the court to do just that. The Ancient Greeks, Moliere, and all the late-night talk hosts are masters of this. In the world of comedy, this is called “punching up.”
We value societies with the freedom to punch up and disdain those that censor free speech. Every good leader accepts being criticized as part of the job. That’s the point of the White House Correspondents Dinner in D.C., the Saint Patrick’s Day Breakfast in Boston, Saturday Night Live, and the roast of any person or institution in power. We love leaders who are self-deprecating and take their hits with a smile. Being the comfortable butt of jokes makes for a funny and secure leader.
It’s not okay to “punch down,” which is when someone in power makes fun of someone less powerful. This is the definition of a bully. Donald Trump constantly lodges ad hominems against the disabled, the poor, immigrants, women, and anyone who criticizes him. He stokes the controversy because that's the only potency he can feel. Being a thin-skinned bully makes for an unfunny and insecure non-leader.
Comedians and Audiences As Change-makers
Comedians are constantly pushing the envelope on what’s funny and what’s acceptable. That’s because they’re operating on the chaotic frontiers of social change. Sometimes they provoke a knowing giggle. Sometimes they deliver shock and awe. Almost every time they tell a joke or write a skit, they’re taking a risk: the risk of their own success or failure and the risk of uncovering our human failures. But it’s in the great reveal of a smart joke that the truth shines through and social change can advance.
Wittingly or not, comedians are agents of social change. They bind us together in our humanity; they soften the beaches for discussion; they catalyze moral outrage; and they engage and inspire audiences to act. Every social issue they flay with their humor is one of their causes.
So, the next time you watch a Charlie Chaplin film, a GEICO ad during the Super Bowl, or a local standup act, remember, as a participant in the social contract of comedy, your reaction and your subsequent actions are also integral to the progression of social change.
If you’re so tickled, head to Walgreens, buy and don a red clown nose, trigger a laugh, watch the star-studded Red Nose Day fundraiser, and join the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in donating to The Red Nose Day Fund, which allows grantee partners to help children living in poverty be safe, healthy, and educated.