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A Laughing Matter: Comedy’s Role in Social Change

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Professor in front of white screen, with the Onion and CMSI written on the wall.
Caty Borum Chattoo is director of the Center for Media & Social Impact. In leading "The Laughter Effect," she's probing the intersection of comedy and social justice.

After a long day of classes or work, catching up on news is often filtered through comedy. You’ve got highly political commentary from late-night TV hosts Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers. Jimmy Kimmel can update you on health care deductibles. Trevor Noah gives clever, revealing insights on The Daily Show, and Samantha Bee hilariously skewers the patriarchal political establishment. But despite the onslaught of jokes, it’s possible we’ve only scratched the surface—or started the opening monologue—of comedy’s influence on society.

Over the summer, Professor Caty Borum Chattoo and American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) launched “The Laughter Effect,” a creative and research initiative that features a series of investigations about how comedy can play a role in social change. While there has been plenty of research on “The Daily Show factor” in politics and political engagement, Borum Chattoo is probing the untapped intersection of comedy and social justice.

“We don’t fully know what it looks like to examine social justice issues with really funny comedy,” says Borum Chattoo, the CMSI director and an executive in residence at AU’s School of Communication. “With our work, we will not only synthesize the research and literature that’s published, but look very deeply at the creative process of comedians who work on social justice topics.”

The Gut Level

As part of “The Laughter Effect,” SOC will bring in comedy writer, showrunner, and performer Bethany Hall as a full-time comedian in residence next year, funded by an external fellowship with Atlantic Philanthropies. Hall is currently featured on truTV’s The Chris Gethard Show, and she was a character on 30 Rock. Borum Chattoo is also writing a book, along with co-author Lauren Feldman, called A Comedian and an Activist Walk Into a Bar: The (Serious) Role of Comedy in Social Justice, which will be published by University of California Press.

“The Laughter Effect” concept germinated about six years ago while Borum Chattoo was producing a TV series on eradicating poverty. In discussions with other producers, they started wondering if there was a better way to communicate with audiences. “We thought, ‘Is it possible that we’re telling the story of global poverty the same way over and over?’ Not just the producers, but all kinds of storytellers,” she recalls. “The films were long-form and explanatory. They may have had lovely production value, but you’re not going to watch them on a Friday night.”

They considered ways to reach more young people and other viewers outside the international development community. They turned to comedy, producing Stand Up Planet with Hasan Minhaj—who’s now a correspondent on The Daily Show. For another research project, Borum Chattoo and Feldman examined how audiences responded to the funny documentary, Stand Up Planet, compared to a serious, explanatory documentary about the same topics.

“People learned more about the global development issues by watching the traditional somber documentary, but they felt more watching Stand Up Planet,” she says. “That’s meaningful, because if we want people to believe they’re agents of change, an emotional response is actually more important in getting people engaged.”

The Human Imperative

While this work isn’t exactly apolitical, Borum Chattoo doesn’t want it to be viewed through any partisan lens. When confronting issues like climate change or famine, a comedic style can connect with larger numbers of people of all political persuasions.

“When we get traction on really important social justice topics, it’s not because one side agrees and the other side doesn’t. It’s because we see the human imperative,” she says.

She mentions the viral clip of Michelle Obama singing carpool karaoke with James Corden, a gregarious—and nonpolitical—talk show host. During the segment, Obama spoke with Corden about her work for girls’ education. “That video was shared millions of times. That’s reaching so many more people than a policy issue brief about global girls’ education,” Borum Chattoo explains.

Classes with Norman Lear

Before wading into comedy and social change through research, Borum Chattoo learned from a master. She spent about a decade in Hollywood working for producer Norman Lear. It’s hard to overstate his importance in shaping funny but socially progressive television. He helped introduce an indelible portrait of the white working class with All in the Family’s Archie Bunker; an early interracial couple on The Jeffersons; a pioneering transgender character on All That Glitters; strong, independent women in Maude and One Day at a Time; and a loving, working-class African-American family on Good Times.

“I benefited from watching a professional person who was able to accomplish so much, not only through comedy as an art form, but comedy dealing with social justice as an art form,” she says.

In their book, Borum Chattoo and Feldman will examine why some comedy breaks through the fog and grabs your attention. She says there’s a paucity of research that analyzes differences between various mediums, such as sketch comedy, stand up, or satire. She also says comedy can’t overtly try to “message” the audience.

“For comedy to be engaging around issues that matter, it has to be great comedy. It has to be great art,” she notes.

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

This raises a frequent question from mission-driven nongovernmental organizations. Given that the best comedy is provocative by design, what if a comedian goes too far? Borum Chattoo remembers an illuminating discussion she had with high-level communications officials on this subject.

“I was pretty emphatic that if you’re going to meaningfully work with comedy, you have to let the comedy be funny. You have to give the comedian real creative freedom,” she recalls. “After I finished the talk, the very first question was, ‘How do you know how to not cross a line?’ And I said, respectfully, ‘You’re already not doing it right, because that was your first question.’”

Nonprofit groups worry about seeming blasé about life-and-death issues like human rights. Borum Chattoo remembers the challenge of explaining a comedy campaign to anti-poverty activists in India.

“I think it’s hard for serious NGOs to say to their boards, and their funders, ‘We’re going to use comedy.’ But our point is that comedy is actually a serious strategy, and maybe we’re not taking it seriously enough.”