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It’s Never ‘Just a Joke’: The Political and Cultural Power of Comedy

Image via Mathieu Bitton/Vulture

On October 5, 2021, Netflix released a comedy special starring Dave Chappelle entitled The Closer. Throughout the special, Chappelle made a number of transphobic statements that quickly garnered backlash. Among other things, Chappelle stated that “gender is a fact” and that he is on “team TERF,” referring to trans-exclusionary radical feminists who assert the belief that trans women are not “real women.” 

After years of building controversy, Chappelle’s comments in this special seemed to be a tipping point for the comedian—and for the willingness of the trans community to tolerate him. Just a few weeks after the special’s release, trans Netflix employees and their allies staged a walkout over the company’s defense of the special, in which Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos stated, “We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”

Sarandos’ comments are reminiscent of the age-old defense, “It’s just a joke.” Many are inclined to believe that harmful rhetoric is excusable—or even scrubbed of any wrongdoing at all—the moment it is delivered in a comedic package. However, for a community currently experiencing widespread political and physical attacks, Chappelle’s inaccurate and unscientific claims about trans identity and anatomy reinforce the transphobic sentiments fueling this violent onslaught. But none of this is unique to Chappelle or the trans community. 

For centuries, comedy has been used as a powerful form of political speech. It has a tendency to captivate and disarm audiences, making them more susceptible to unfamiliar and contentious ideas. When utilized responsibly, comedy challenges the status quo, encouraging audiences to respond to systemic issues and re-evaluate preconceived notions and biases. However, if comedians aren’t careful (or if they’re downright malicious), comedy can further cement oppressive ideologies within the hegemonic narrative by reinforcing damaging stereotypes, delegitimizing marginalized voices, and normalizing attacks on marginalized communities. With such an incredible ability to influence the public, we must be willing and able to hold comedians accountable.

So, what is it about inducing laughter that can evoke such a wide variety of social and emotional responses? In his book Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems theorizes that humor is a coping mechanism that allows us to process difficult messages and situations. It’s why people might joke about tragic events, or why a knee-jerk reaction to hearing bad news might be to smile or laugh. It’s also part of what makes humor such an effective political tool; it allows people to better absorb and dissect complicated and uncomfortable subjects.

Humor’s ability to improve psychological processing is not its only superpower. Another study suggests that humor increases attention span because listeners need to follow the thread of a joke. As a result, humor can make political conversations more palatable, especially for those who typically find them uninteresting. The researchers also found that when political satire is constructed in a way that appears realistic, audiences may accept it as fact. As articulated by the study’s lead author Jason Coronel, “People actually have a hard time figuring out whether satirical information is true or false.”

With the capacity to disarm, engage, and educate, humor can be used as a force for good. Comedians from marginalized groups have used humor as a way to make light of their communities’ shared struggles and challenge the systems that oppress them. Recently, activists have used increased access to sketch comedy through social media as a means to advocate for solutions to pressing issues. 

In 2016, activist Amanda Nguyen collaborated with the sketch comedy platform Funny or Die to produce a video that highlighted the absurdity of sexual assault laws at the time. The hope was that the video would generate support for a Senate bill titled “Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights Act.” The video helped amass 100,000 signatures on a petition that was later presented to the Senate. The bill passed unanimously.

Clearly, there is room for comedy in the fight for social justice. But comedy is a double-edged sword. Its ability to disarm can make people more open to ideas, but it can also make them more willing to accept offensive rhetoric. And while humor can help people cope with difficult circumstances, it can also trivialize serious issues and reinforce harmful stereotypes. 

Dave Chappelle recognized the risks that come with political comedy. His big break came in 2003 with the release of his sketch comedy program Chappelle’s Show, where Chappelle satirized anti-Black stereotypes in order to highlight their absurdity. However, after seeing a white crew member laugh as Chappelle performed in Blackface, the comedian realized that white audience members may be laughing at him, rather than with him. Without realizing it, Chappelle had been playing into and reinforcing racist stereotypes, and he would go on to cite this realization as part of the reason he took Chappelle’s Show off the air. 

This incident reflects a long history of comedy as a device to maintain an oppressive culture. “Blackface,” or the act of painting oneself black in order to portray an anti-Black stereotype, was first introduced to the American public through minstrel shows in the early 19th century. These shows, which portrayed enslaved Black people as lazy, unintelligent, and hypersexual, were intended to amuse white audiences. 

The first commonly-known minstrel character came along in 1830. His name, Jim Crow, would inspire the name behind the era of racial segregation in the South. It is difficult to see how comedy has no real-world impact when the period of American apartheid was named after a popular comedy character. Though it might have been a show intended to entertain, Blackness was its punchline, and generations of anti-Black stereotypes were its legacy. 

Black Americans have not been the only group to see themselves stereotyped in American pop culture. Movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and television shows like The Simpsons have infamously featured Asian characters donning exaggerated features and a heavy accent. These characters and others like them turn whole communities into nothing more than comic relief, trivializing their struggles, invalidating their experiences, and suppressing their voices. These stereotypes are both symptoms and supporters of white supremacy. 

In more recent years, the internet has proved fertile ground for spreading oppressive sentiments under the guise of comedy. Memes have been utilized by far-right groups to spread extremist ideology. In arguably the most significant instance, pro-Trump memes flooded social media platforms in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, which was instrumental in shifting public opinion in favor of the Republican candidate. Scholars have even attributed the success of political memes to their humorous nature, suggesting they “lower the barrier for participation in extreme ideologies.” 

Across generations and mediums, comedy has been used as a weapon to cement discrimination in dominant social narratives. From minstrel shows reinforcing anti-Black stereotypes to memes spreading fascist ideology, there is no denying the social and political impact of humor and those who use it. Though some fret over the supposed dangers of “cancel culture” limiting free speech by criticizing right-wing comedy, attaching actions to consequences allows the public to hold comedians accountable for speech that reinforces oppression. So long as white supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of systemic oppression exist, there will always be a way to garner cheap laughs by punching down. And if we continue to excuse such actions as “just a joke,” those at the punchline—the marginalized—will be the ones to suffer the consequences.