Sarah Illingworth: The importance of funny

Comedy is political. Comedians get away with saying things many people couldn’t, or at least deliver them in a way they can be received. It’s like this Bermuda Triangle in which anything goes, and I think it’s a really special, crucial part of our world. Like certain genres of music are associated with periods of social change, and music generally speaking can do so much to pull people together or shift our thinking and perspective, it can be way easier to connect with ideas when they’re delivered candidly.

Life can be hard, and it can be boring. Comedy, and entertainment generally speaking, offer a measure of escape, and that’s so valuable. I lost the love for the entertainment world after writing about it for a while, but after going back to school to study humanitarian development, and doing that full time for a year and a half, there were days my brain just needed to watch things like this, and this.

I was on a long-haul flight around that same time, and the guy across from me watched episodes of Modern Family back-to-back for its duration. At that point I’d never really seen the show, but whenever I looked up this guy was still watching it, and I realised I knew what was happening — and found it hilarious — even though I couldn’t hear the dialogue.

It reminded me how much of comedy is communicated through visual cues, and in playing off accepted stereotypes. It also made me think about how effective comedy can be in altering our outlook, sometimes without us even realising it. Specifically, I wondered about how much of a role this show has played in shifting perceptions around what constitutes a ‘normal’ family, particularly through presenting an example of a homosexual relationship as being just as valid as the ‘normal’ family unit of mother, father and kids.

Characters like Cam and Mitchell — as Ellen Degeneres has also done in her career — confront and humanise stereotypes and prejudices we may not even realise we hold. I think all forms of entertainment have a special power to do this, but comedy is unique in its ability to prod at us in a way that’s simultaneously confrontational and not. By encouraging us to laugh at ourselves, it also in a weird way allows us to allow ourselves to change.

Comedy doesn’t have to be overtly political or pointed to stir things up — and that can get wearisome in its own way — but take an example like Sascha Baron Cohen, who so ruthlessly uses satire to hang stereotypes out to dry. Again, I never really valued his skill at this until I watched The Dictator. There’s this great speech he gives at the end where he essentially equates democracy with fascism. If you did that in any other context people would switch off because it would feel like an attack, but in the context of the movie you engage with the idea, because he’s pointing the finger and saying ‘hey humans, we’re ridiculous!’

Similarly, Aziz Ansari‘s Buried Alive sees him tear apart the notion that marriage and babies need to be the path for everyone; Jon Stewart, Louis CK, Chris Rock… I know I’m using mostly American, male examples (sorry), but these are some of our modern jesters, and I mean that as a compliment. They have the licence, and the balls, to push at the uncomfortable stuff, to hold it up and say ‘THIS IS WEIRD’, or quite simply wrong. They expose our stereotypes and prejudice, and they do it while laughing at themselves. Very little is off-limits in comedy, perhaps nothing.

We have to make light of things sometimes, or we’d spend all our time in the dark. So even though, as I talked about in my last post, I think it’s important to be conscious of how we interact with the media, it’s equally important to play. It’s also one of many reasons I think it’s important to support creatives of all kinds.

Art is a portal through which we work things out in our heads, and its creators help us do that — often for little reward, and at their own financial and emotional expense. Not everything can be solved via the ‘intellectual’ route; sometimes one song lyric or a sharp one-liner can pack the punch of a lengthy news article. There’s a place for both, and I think a combination of the dense and the ‘light’ is the best way. It’s healthy to exercise but it’s good to treat ourselves too.

Even though, on the one hand, I do a lot of ‘guys!!! This serious, heavy thing is important!!’ I don’t think it’s helpful to spend all our time intellectualising stuff, and being mad that the world isn’t a better place. Balance is good; being totally goofy sometimes allows us to be serious when we need to be, and vice versa. The crappy things that happen in the world are sometimes too ridiculous to take seriously anyway.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.