Stand Up Comedy
Undoubtedly the primary function of humor is to entertain but when the audience laughs together with a standup comedian it can get other positive features of humor. For example, people who came to see a standup comedian’s performance can take a detached view at themselves and society they live in. In the article “Comedy and Democracy: The Role of Humor in Social Justice,” Nancy Goldman argues that humor is “a powerful communication tool and potential change agent and expands its value far beyond its common role as entertainment”. Standup comedy can border on insulting but it gives a fresh perspective on things people get used to and take for granted. Given many controversial issues of modern society I see as one of the functions of humor its ability to subvert reigning ideologies and negotiate individuality as well as collectivity.
Personally one of the instances when I use humor is when I want to steer my friends from having a low regard for me because of my drawbacks. I mean that when I know that a particular habit of mine may show me in a bad light I try to prevent the implied negative reaction by showing my awareness of it. I guess it can slightly influence a person’s opinion of me when he or she spots a particular trait of mine I am not very proud of. For example, I am not the cleanest person in the world and often my flat is a mess but I do not view it as a pretext not to invite my friends over and encourage them to drop by if they are in the neighborhood. However, I try to soften the blow of stepping into a messy flat by joking about it. I usually say that I live by the motto “A clean house is a sign of a ruined life” or “A clean house is a sign of Internet down today” or I can shove the blame to my partner and say, “It was clean before my partner woke up.” So my point here is to show that I know about my negative trait but I try to reduce a negative reaction to it.
This function of humor – to reduce negative reaction – is used by standup comics in order to change the public’s attitude towards different issues of society. Goldman writes about humor as “social corrective”. For example, minorities can draw attention to their differences from the majority and humorous remarks would soften the audience and show that differences should not necessarily divide and create tension. All minorities in the US have their comedy clubs in order to counteract racial stereotypes. African Americans, African Mexicans, African Asians and others organize comedy shows to validate experience of their racial groups. However, comedian performances can target not only ethnic groups but also class, gender, and their combinations. For example, after 9/11 when a negative reaction to Arabs and Muslims intensified in American society, American comedian of Pakistan origin Dean Obeidallah started the New York Arab American Comedy Festival in order to promote tolerance towards Arabs by revealing how many similar points Americans share with them. Similarly other groups, such as gays and lesbians, can be united under the aegis of humor.
However, it works this way when jokes are made by a member of a minority group. Otherwise, instead of subverting the status quo humor can be used to humiliate. We all know how people of untraditional sexual orientation and gender identity can be made fun of or how racial minorities can be bombarded with racial slur. It can hardly be called funny and in such cases humor is used in a very negative manner. There are “countless routines and performers that use humor to reinforce a conservative, dominant, or regressive ideology”. It only emphasizes that the mocked minority is an outsider.
In any case, this strategy of using humor to unite makes a stress on collectivity. A certain culture or a group has several objectives: first, it unites against the mainstream ideology and attempts to subvert it; second, it shows to its members that they are fine and should not worry. For example, Alex Barnet targets the mixed-race audience as he is a white Jew married to an African American who talks about his family and their son of mixed race; it is a growing audience as more people agree to bi-racial relationships. Another example is Kristina Wong who targets Asian American women who suffer from mental illnesses. Using humor Wong initiates discussions of difficult topics and it suggests to the audience that their problems are not a taboo and they can and should find help.
At the same time humor can serve as a means to negotiate an identity of eccentric rather than a community. Standup comedians often choose this form of humor and play up with unusual characteristics. For example, Maria Bamford relies on her talent to speak in different voices and often centers her monologues of everyday subjects such as interactions with her family, friends and distant relatives. Zach Galiﬁanakis acts as a not very likeable goof with a deadpan facial expression. His humor is focused on outright insults celebrities and the discrepancy creates a comic effect. Also he makes intentionally unfunny jokes to mock the concept of comedy. As many eccentric comedians, this type of eccentric, unusual standup comedians make fun of their very distinct and peculiar looks, characters, love life, etc. but at the same they appeal to many people. “Their performances work as a communal celebration of rebellion and individualism”. In this regard, humor does not reinforces community because the fact that both Bamford and Galiﬁanakis are white and the latter is male makes their experience universal. However, bits and pieces of their performance can appeal to people with weight issues or psychological insecurities or mental illnesses or any other topic they mention in their standup.
Therefore, humor is important because it can give a voice to those who were not heard before. By drawing attention to different issues standup comedians can “change the national discourse through social justice comedy”. One of urgent issues is environmental pollution and even though the USA has many initiatives directed to it, there is still pressure in specific areas experiencing the effects of pollution firsthand. To this effect, comedian Laura Cunningham wrote a satirical play called Frack You about gas drilling and consequences it involves such as water pollution, illnesses, etc. Thus Cunningham’s play not only allows people to vent their anger at drilling companies but also gives information and increases awareness about the issue.
Summing up it can be said that beyond its simple entertainment value humor can armor those who use it against negative attitudes towards them. Minorities can use humor to initiate dialogues about themselves and relieve tension in society by increasing awareness. Standup comedians can draw attention to important issues in society and revealing hypocrisy of the ideology and the ruling class. It can be done drawing upon collectivity or relying on individuality and an eccentric character. Overall humor is important to help people stay open-minded and point out weak points of society.