Comedy and Its Social Influence—Maybe It Is More Than “Just a Joke”

Left image: Dick Gregory, the legendary American comedian and human rights activist speaking at a press conference at Northeastern University on December 25, 1977. Right image: “We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor.” Quote by bell hooks from the “Saved By The bell hooks” Instagram page.

A little over a year ago, during the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, I attended a live stand-up comedy show in West Palm Beach, Florida. The comedian, Ricky Velez, started his performance with the line: “I am not into politics, I don’t know about that stuff.” Among some of his sillier jokes (such as claiming he thought fracking was a sex position), he also joked about growing up in a poor, predominantly Puerto Rican community, and the cultural shock he experienced when he began to date his affluent, white Jewish girlfriend. He made jokes such as: “her family is so rich, they live to be so old—it’s wild,” as the predominantly white, non-social distanced, and mask-less crowd burst into laughter. I wondered if, among their big belly laughs, his jokes stirred their consciousness between the connection of his girlfriend’s race and class with her family’s higher life expectancy? Also, did he truly believe that his jokes were not political, or did he preface his bit to make the crowd more comfortable and open to such types of jokes? Indeed, many living in the U.S. continue to feel frustrated by our politicians and the hyper-partisanship in our country, so some choose to opt out and/or identify as apolitical. In this instance, whether intentional or not, he claimed this title while simultaneously discussing an issue that, while on its face may not appear outwardly political, is a result of our government’s inability to ensure healthcare access to low-income communities. Our political and legal institutions, which are often invisible, impact virtually all facets of our everyday lives and wellbeing—whether we choose to identify with them or not.

In this period of hyper-political polarization in the United States, there is one thing with which most of us can agree: we love to laugh. Comedy has been, and continues to be, one of many tools we can wield to approach discussions around social issues with our families, friends, and communities. But, while laughter can bring communities together, its broad reach can also be used as a tool for humiliation and alienation. When used as positive force, however, comedy’s ability to influence behavior and conventions may facilitate the cultural shift that our country needs.

Writer and comedian Keegan-Michael Key states:

“the Comic has become the truth teller . . . the person who pulls back the curtain . . . [and while] some people can be moved by a wonderful piece of rhetoric, some people can be moved by a stirring speech. But everybody can be moved by something that makes them laugh. Everybody.”[1]

I have participated in and facilitated various forms of anti-racist, interfaith, and other sorts of social discourse as a mechanism to expand or move others’ perspectives and preconceptions. Such discussions, speeches, and rhetoric certainly rocked (and continue to rock) my white, cis, middle-class world, awakening me to the injustices deeply rooted in our laws and culture. However, what I have found to be a recurring obstacle with such discourse is that those who are more resistant to, or feel apathetic towards, social issues will opt out and, even when present during such discussions, seem to cancel out perspectives that are contrary or decidedly irrelevant to their own. Specifically, I noticed this occurrence in some of my first-year law school classes. Required first-year law school courses often involve discussing case law related to race, gender, and sexuality. But, in my experience, often when a student attempted to share a critical perspective on a case due to its sexist or racist nature, a portion of the class appeared to glaze over in apathy, and some occasionally rolled their eyes. It seems that in these instances comedy may be one tool that can be used to bring these populations that feel disconnected from such discourse, or those who are exceedingly frustrated by the institutions that are meant to serve us, back into the conversation.

Comedy’s Influence on Society and Culture

Throughout history, comedians have used humor to push social boundaries by overtly transfixing traditional norms through social critiques of racism, power structures, and topics alike. Comedy encourages many audiences to lower their defensive boundaries and fully absorb content. In the late 1950s, 60s, and 70s, comedians such as Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor[2] developed the foundation for a contemporary incorporation of comedy and social justice.[3] Dick Gregory, famously known as the “comedic voice” of the Civil Rights Movement, “brought socio-politically charged Black humor to the comedy club mainstream” in the 1960s.[4] Comedians like Amber Ruffin, Margaret Cho, Lena Waithe, Derek Gaines, Hasan Minhaj, Roy Wood, Jr., Wanda Sykes, and Jamali Maddix continue this work through nationally-streamed sitcoms, stand-up comedy, and late-night shows. These and other comedians with local, national, and international platforms use their comedy to positively influence our world on a regular basis.

The Academic Context

Authors of A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar, Caty Borum Chattoo, a media producer and scholar, and Lauren Feldman, a media scholar, claim that “humor requires a visual or linguistic cue that shifts us into a playful, rather than serious, state of mind—at least momentarily; it is only in this playful state that we are able to enjoy humor as opposed to being irritated, threatened, or offended by it.”[5] Further, the authors claim four social-change influences of comedy on audiences: increased attention; disarming audiences/lowering resistance to persuasion; technology’s ability to share and discuss; and the contact hypothesis.[6]

Comedy seems to be uniquely situated as a conduit for sharing perspectives and ideas with which many might not normally engage. It is distinctively positioned from mere problem solving due to its playful, nonthreatening context which signals that the content is meant for pleasure. One effect of humor that studies have found to be extremely consistent is the promotion of attention and ability of listeners to recall information.[7] When comedians take up serious issues and/or integrate such content among their less-heavy jokes, it reduces the muscle energy associated with absorbing political information by relating it to less onerous and more socially enjoyable entertainment.[8] Chattoo and Feldman also argue that comedy provides a promising way to disarm audiences and make them less resistant to threatening or ego-challenging information, stating: “with humor, our attention and interest are directed at ‘getting’ the humor; we process the joke more deeply, not the persuasive arguments, thereby reducing our motivation and/or ability to counterargue.”[9]

Left image: The official “Welcome to Florida The Sunshine State Governor Ron Desantis” sign located at the Florida-Alabama state line in Jackson County, Florida. Right image: Advocates from Miami Workers Center organizing to oppose a new ordinance that criminalized homeless encampments on public property. Miami Workers Center’s accompanying tweet states: “We’re at Miami City Hall in full opposition of attempts to criminalize houseless tenants. We organize daily alongside renters struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Instead of demonizing poor people, we want SOLUTIONS that keep us safe & housed!”

Two Steps Forward and Three Steps Back

While comedy may have the potential to move our society two steps forward, I also believe it can shift progress three steps back. The famous “Florida Man” phenomenon is a potential example. The Florida Man is a viral joke, now both on and off the screen, based off of wacky, Florida-themed crime stories and mugshots featured on television and online with titles like: “Florida man sent back to jail after not paying for taxi ride home from jail”; “[i]nmate insists syringes pulled from rectum aren’t his”; “Florida man tries to rob store to prove to his mother he’s ‘independent.’” If you type Florida Man into your search browser, the list continues. The vast majority of the memes involve poor individuals with mental health issues and/or people who use drugs. One individual who was arrested for drug trafficking and was branded a Florida Man was even defended by the sheriff’s office, who asked the public to stop ridiculing him.

As someone raised in Florida and who returns regularly, I have had no reason to suspect that fellow residents are disproportionately more outlandish than in other states I have been to or lived in. However, Florida, known as “the relapse capital of America,” does have some of the most expansive Sunshine Laws in the country, and the state’s lack of support for the poor, mentally ill, and drug/alcohol dependent is well-documented. Housing in Florida is also extremely expensive compared to Florida’s minimum and average wages, and around 25% of Floridians struggle to pay for housing. Between 2016 and 2017, there were around 75,000 homeless students in the public education system. Due to a recent “surge of demand from out-of-state buyers” paired with a short supply of middle-income homes, Florida residents are increasingly struggling to maintain a roof over their heads.

Florida is also in the midst of an ongoing mental health crisis. About 70% of the people in Florida who need mental-health treatment are unable to access it due to lack of resources and/or due to challenges navigating the system of potential resources. In 2012, Florida was ranked the second lowest state for money spent per person on mental health resources. While Florida dedicates around $718 million per year on mental health programs, it spends about $1 billion per year on jails and prisons, many of which house and medicate mentally ill people. Further, Florida’s Baker Act allows people of all ages—including children and the elderly—to be taken into custody against their will for an involuntary psychiatric examination. It is well reported that the Florida Baker Act is overused and misused against many suffering with mental health conditions who are unable to access long-term health care and/or have no place to go. The recidivism rate is also extremely high: between 2004 and 2013, around 350 individuals were involuntarily committed 36 times or more, per person, with the most times a person was committed being 69. In 2018, 200,000 people were committed, with less than 1% of them receiving long-term treatment. Florida is likewise not an easy place to navigate alcohol and drug-related dependency. Investigators have found that many Florida “treatment centers” prey off of vulnerable patients, causing many to become entangled in an “insurance fraud mill.” Many of the treatment centers overlook drug use, and others even encourage it, as the goal is not related to sobriety, but rather is driven by profit.

Sunshine Laws (of which every state has a version that varies by breadth), is a term for legislation, regulations, or constitutional amendments that allow public access to government information and documents. By ensuring access to government affairs, Sunshine Laws make governance more democratic and transparent. However, Florida’s Sunshine Laws allow the public to access many agency materials, which has created somewhat of a “cop-to-media-pipeline.” This allows journalists to access arrest records just by sometimes calling or emailing police departments, thus clearing the way for “Florida Man” clickbait to be generated the same day of an individual’s arrest.

Florida’s Sunshine Laws, along with Florida’s lack of institutional support and the 1971 Baker Act, have, in my opinion, enabled Florida’s most marginalized populations to endure public humiliation as the punchlines to jokes. I am not shaming anyone who has partaken in this—I certainly have —but I do think it is important to think critically about the content we consume, what we are doing when we click share on such mockery, and what sort of cultural forces are at play that make this clickbait go viral. Whether conscious or subconscious, I believe it influences our behavior, values, and understanding of the world. Our reliance on forms of humor like the “Florida Man” jokes demonstrates humor’s substantial impact on our society, and its potential both for progress and for harm. But, just as the phenomenon of comedy has become popularized as a tool for humiliation and alienation, it has potential for satirical value so long as the jokes are aimed at challenging those in power rather than shaming and criminalizing the poor.

Political identity, for many, is about more than the personal opinions of political leaders. It can include views on a wide variety of aspects of life, including the state of the nation and personal circumstances. Rising hyper-political polarization in the United States has made it difficult to engage in thoughtful, nuanced policy discussions with colleagues, family, and friends who hold conflicting ideologies. Due to its disarming qualities, comedy may be one approach to encourage such discussions. But its disarming qualities can also cause many—myself included—to overlook the painful underpinnings of legal decisions which give rise to stark socioeconomic divides.

Sarah Eve Rosen is a third-year law student at Northeastern University School of Law with a concentration in Poverty Law and Economic Justice. She is broadly interested in civil and constitutional litigation as a tool to expand individual rights and liberties. She has co-oped with Proyecto de Ayuda para Solicitantes de Asilo (PASA), the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). At Northeastern, Sarah is a member of the National Lawyers Guild and Queer Caucus, and is a Constitutional Law Teaching Assistant. Currently, she is also a part-time Case Manager with Maverick Landing Community Services (MLCS), where she assists residents in East Boston experiencing housing insecurity to gain rental assistance. Upon graduation, she will be joining the South Florida office of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel (CCRC) as a Staff Attorney.

[1] The History of Comedy: One Nation, Under Comedy (HBO streaming broadcast July 16, 2017).

[2] See generally Jonathan P. Rossing, Critical Race Humor in a Postracial Moment: Richard Pryor’s Contemporary Parrhesia, 25 How. J. Commc’ns 16 (2014).

[3] Caty Borum Chattoo & Lauren Feldman, A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar 713 (2020).

[4] Id. at 735.

[5] Id. at 850.

[6] The contact hypothesis is a prominent theory in social psychology, claiming that “positive interactions between members of diverse social groups can reduce prejudice, by providing the opportunity to learn more about the other group of people.” Positive media portrayals, referred to as a type of “parasocial contact” is also said to have the ability to improve viewers attitudes toward minority groups, especially when their in-person interactions are limited. Researchers found that in a study “among heterosexual college undergraduates, more frequent viewing of Will & Grace . . . the first popular TV sitcom to feature two gay male characters in leading roles—was associated with lower levels of sexual prejudice toward gay men as a result of viewers’ affective bonds with the gay characters on the show. The relationship between viewing and lower sexual prejudice was especially strong for those who had few gay friends or acquaintances in real life.” Id. at 1032-40.

[7] Id. at 896-97.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 975.