How Does Comedy Impact Society?

comedy makes for tried-and-true weapon against corruption, social inequities

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Humor has influenced society for several centuries with wit and satire. Comedy as commentary on page and on stage has had an effect on public perception and even official policy. Why do comedians discuss politics?

Stand-up comedian performing jokes at a comedy show on stage.
Comedians’ use of humor to touch on social commentary allows uncomfortable truths to be addressed. Photo by Parilov / Shutterstock

Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, targeted the corrupt New York politician known as Boss Tweed. Nast’s comics were so sharp and poignant in highlighting Tweed’s illegal activities that Tweed at one point offered him a bribe to stop publishing them. Eventually, the cartoons helped lead to Tweed’s downfall and arrest in the 1870s.

More recently, a comedian in China found himself in trouble last week when he likened the sight of two dogs chasing a squirrel to the Chinese military slogan “Maintain exemplary conduct, fight to win.” Officials fined the company that employs the comedian, Li Haoshi, roughly $2 million.

Comedy has long skewered social inequities, the rich and powerful, and other current events of the day. Why? In his video series Take My Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor, Dr. Steven Gimbel, who holds the Edwin T. Johnson and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, explains the overlap of humor and social commentary.

Why Is Comedy So Often Political?

In the 1950s, Jewish comedian Mort Sahl revolutionized stand-up comedy and used social commentary to do so. He got much of his material from the newspaper, inspiring acts like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and others. Meanwhile, African American comedians like Dick Gregory used comedy as a tool for civil rights, making jokes about racism and bigotry.

“What comics like Sahl and Gregory launched was the expectation that the art form of comedy would be used as an instrument for progressive social change,” Dr. Gimbel said. “From the next generation of comedians, including George Carlin and Richard Pryor, through the likes of Bill Hicks, Margaret Cho, and Dave Chappelle, right up to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, comedy became an accepted means of ‘punching up,’ that is, exposing the social and political problems that plagued the nation.”

According to Dr. Gimbel, social change requires three things. First, society must see that there is a problem that needs fixing. Second, it needs to see how society could be different; it needs for someone to imagine it in a different light. Third, that change needs to be fomented and brought to life.

Why Is Humor Effective?

“Society is a collection of institutions and institutionalized rules and ways of seeing the world that come with enforcement mechanisms,” Dr. Gimbel said. “By being a member of society, you are acculturated to maintain that society: The society protects itself and its structure. All social change, no matter how positive or morally necessary, is seen at some level as suspect, as subversive, as something to be pushed back against.”

One of the reasons that humor is so effective is because although it voices the possibility of social change, which is frowned upon in and of itself, it makes uncomfortable truths funny, palatable, bearable. We’re able to enjoy subjects that would otherwise upset us. Humor allows us to remove ourselves from the societal structure and its rules to discuss change in a lighter setting.

“Shakespeare knew this; this is why it is often only the fool in Shakespearian plays who is capable of speaking the truth to power,” Dr. Gimbel said. “For example, in King Lear, it is only the fool who can tell the king that which he does not want to hear about the conniving tactics of his beloved family. Humor seems to be able to grease the skids, to make acceptable talk of things we should otherwise not talk about.”

Take My Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily