Just Kidding? Humor as a tool for social change

The animated series, The Simpsons, was recently embroiled in controversy for their portrayal of the character ‘Apu’. He is an Indian immigrant, a convenience store-owner with a distinct accent and the subject of many jokes on the show. The person responsible for starting the debate was comedian Hari Kondabolu. In his documentary ‘The Problem with Apu’, Kondabolu used humor to highlight the constant stereotyping of South Asian characters on American television.

Today, society is trying to tackle social issues and discriminatory practices that were previously overlooked. Through social media activism and ongoing debates on race, sexuality and several other issues, we see that people are standing up for what is right. One method through which people seek to express their views is with the use of humor or comedy. Quirky hashtags, funny videos and memes are now being used widely to convey important social messages. But can the use of comedy help in combating stereotypes and prejudices? Does humor help in delivering social messages more effectively?

In his book Personality & Sense of Humor, Professor Avener Ziv ponders the function of humour as a ‘social corrective’ in society. When discussing the role of comedy and satire in reforming society, he writes, “The satirist is not content with the world as it is; or, more precisely, he is not, content with certain things in it, which to him seem black. In his attack he blackens them yet further, in the hope that after blushing with due shame they will turn white.” Philosopher Henri Bergson theorized the ‘educational function’ of humor. He spoke of laughter as a societal reaction that condemns deviant elements in man’s behavior. If a person’s statements or actions are subject to laughter or mockery, they are less likely to repeat them. Thus, laughter or mocking behaviour can act as a deterrent to certain social behaviour. These theoretical perspectives substantiate the argument that humour can be used to correct social attitudes.

It is not uncommon to see humor being used when discussing politics in a country or in election rhetoric. In a study of contemporary political humor, the authors found that humor was associated with greater source liking, closer information processing, and reduced counterargument. This could indicate that humor plays a role in shaping our opinions of people or issues. However, the study also noted that humorous messages were more readily discounted as irrelevant and may not be processed very critically.  

Humour is also effective in securing a person’s attention before delivering important messages. We also see humor being used in the domain of advertising. Are we not more likely to recall a brand with a funny tagline or an advertisement that made us laugh? Most research involving commercial advertisements has shown that people’s attention is spontaneously attracted by humor. When testing the effects of humor on preventive health advertisements , a study found that compared to non-humorous health ads, those using humor received prolonged attention, were judged more convincing, and their messages were better recognized. Another study involving responses to humorous Super Bowl advertisements investigated humor’s effect on memory and attitude and revealed a close correlation between humor on retention and attitudes. Popular comedian Papa CJ said, “People have limited attention spans now. Humor is a powerful way to get people to listen while subconsciously educating as well.”

Therefore, it seems that humorous messages can have a persuasive effect on us. This insight can be applied to use humor for good and bring about social change. In recent times we can see popular media using comedy to talk about social problems. Television shows such as Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat address issues of race with a sense of humor. An example closer to home would be of filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani’s movies. Known for portraying society through a unique lens, he uses comedy to highlight the reality or irony of practices and prejudices we unknowingly submit to in our everyday lives.  Stand-up comedians have also adopted social issues as material and proceed to take a stand on such issues through their jokes. In many of these cases, we as the audience do imbibe the underlying message in their jokes.

The ‘Apu controversy’ is an apt example of the many functions of humor in our society. In one instance, comedy was derived from furthering stereotypes and biases. But humor is also being used to bring awareness about the same. We unwittingly circulate funny Whatsapp videos and memes but such humorous content eventually becomes a part of our culture. Whenever someone cracks a joke, we say ‘Good one!’ or label it as lame or unfunny. But maybe we should consider how jokes can do good or bad as well. Although the primary role of humor is to entertain, it can be used to challenge the dominant discourse on sexuality, race, religion, disability and several other issues. From public service advertisements to film & television, humor could find wide applicability. Thus humor can prove to be a useful tool for progressive change.

Smriti Natrajan