By Anthony Galliano
The people seated at the long, draped table on stage at CU Boulder’s 71st Conference on World Affairs are not all what you’d expect. They’re part of a panel discussion titled “A Laughing Matter: The Role of Comedy in Social Change,” and you could swear there’s a joke that starts out just this way. You know, instead of a priest, a rabbi, and a minster walk into a bar, it’s…an astronomer, a former deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, a psychologist, and a comedy writer walk into the UMC Center Ballroom…
The former deputy assistant attorney general and present-day activist and journalist is Lisa Graves. Seth Shostak is senior astronomer at the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The psychologist, known for his studies of social awkwardness, is Ty Tashiro. And Mike Reiss, veteran writer of “The Simpsons,” is the only person whose being here makes obvious sense.
The question for the panel is whether comedy inspires more than laughter, and actually changes our world. It seems like as pertinent a question as any to ask at the Conference on World Affairs. Other panels cover populism and obesity and the melting arctic and addiction and loneliness, these very somber topics. But in 2019, when marquee comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have stopped playing college campuses citing too much political correctness, and the U.S. president has said there should be a federal investigation of “Saturday Night Live,” when jokes don’t always inspire laughter as much as contempt, maybe comedy has fallen into crisis too.
Seth Shostak explains the evolutionary foundation to humor. He points to those videos we’ve all seen of chimps being tickled and laughing, and says this is merely a physiological reaction. “How did that turn into humor?” he asks. “Well, eventually because of our bigger brains we were able to cause the affect of laughing without having to actually tickle people.” And because laughter has been maintained in our species, there must be an evolutionary benefit. Shostak says that research suggests this benefit may be mate selection—humor, like musical talent, is an indication of intelligence, and intelligence indicates “that the genome is wired up correctly.”
Mike Reiss says he was on a panel just like this years ago at The University of Chicago with Andy Borowitz, Jordan Carlos and Lizz Winstead, all giants in comedy. When the moderator asked if humor can change American politics, everyone on the panel said no, no, no, no. “The moderator went white,” Reiss says. “And I mean she was Nigerian, but she went white.” People laugh but also gulp nervously and glance at the person next to them, checking what they should do. “Oh, I’m offending all the black people here,” Reiss says to a mostly elderly and white audience. “You guys walk out into the snow — you’re lost.” The room rumbles with laughs. He tells a few more jokes and says, “I wish comedy could change politics, I wish it could change people’s minds, but it really doesn’t.”
Still, Lisa Graves thanks comedy writers for helping her cope with two years of the Trump administration, and says, “I do think that the power to capture someone’s personality, their identity, whether it’s in an editorial cartoon or a Saturday Night Live skit, can really cement things people think about that person’s character.”
This may be the power of a joke, its repetition. Politicians spend millions broadcasting advertisements designed to establish a reputation in the public mind. A joke has that same aspect of repetition, but a joke isn’t told over and over because of money. It’s only repeated if it’s funny. And it will only last as long as it’s funny. Thus, the power and endurance of a joke escapes the traditional control of money. Yet, the panel is in complete agreement that humor can only effect very limited social change.
Ty Tashiro says, “When it comes to reducing tension and trying to find tiny steps forward, I think there is evidence that it can help.” Tashiro references psychological data which shows that fearful and angry emotional states reduce our cognitive focus, while positive emotional states expand it. In a positive emotional state, he says, we are more open to unusual ideas and able to process these ideas more creatively. So perhaps in this era of populism and obesity and the melting arctic and addiction and loneliness, when people are more and more panicked about the world, humor can expand our focus beyond just the dismal things. Or it’s possible that the opposite is true. Maybe humor is just another crisis in modern life, something else that’s collapsing.
It’s near the end of the hour when Mike Reiss tells another story. “I’m dead serious,” he says. “I’m not going for any laughs here.” Reiss says that after doing years of public speaking, he finally wrote a speech that was perfect. It made audiences laugh across different countries, universities, churches, synagogues and so on. And then three years ago people stopped laughing. “I know I wasn’t offending them,” he says, “but they would just sit there in the audience going ‘this might offend someone I know.’” And he says that he couldn’t blame it on the usual depressive things like Donald Trump or climate change. “These are my people. These are the liberals,” he says. “The people who vote like me are just suddenly not wanting to have fun anymore, not getting context on a joke, focusing on a word in a joke instead of the bigger picture.”
And then right on cue the moderator reads an audience question: “What is wrong with you people? Don’t you know that the Conference on World Affairs is a serious quantum physics endeavor?”
Then, laughs and sighs and people shaking their heads.
Lenny Bruce said, “The only honest art form is laughter, comedy. You can’t fake it.” Because people can study the most spectacular art their whole life, and write essays and essays about it. Devote college degrees to it. Impressionist paintings and operas and great novels, oh, there’s so much to say about these things. But you don’t have to say anything about a joke. You laugh or you don’t. And when people laugh together, they share something honest. But this has all changed when Mike Reiss’ perfect speech doesn’t work anymore. People aren’t laughing like they used to. So, maybe comedy can change the world. Or maybe the panel is right, and it can’t. Either way, it seems like the world has changed something fundamental about comedy.