What’s So Funny? The Role of Comedy in Social Change

Current Oxford MBA student Marina Nuri gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘What’s So Funny? The Role of Comedy in Social Change’.

Marina Nuri

Marina Nuri

The last day of the Skoll World Forum treated the audience to likely the most fun (and yes, funny!) session this year. The session started off as a comedy show with all four panel members, and the moderator, Jess Search from BRITDOC Foundation, diving into sexual humour involving bananas and nuts, making the whole audience laugh within the first five minutes of the programme.

Despite the silliness of the tone, the session was covering an interesting issue – how can we change the views, principles, habits and beliefs which inhibit progress and that are embedded so deeply into certain societies that most of the standard behaviour-change methods are not working? Humour has long been among the handy tools used by artists from Plato to modern day practitioner days to expose society’s vices and strive towards positive change.

The members of today’s session have also embraced the power of laughter to change lives. Bassem Youssef uses political Jon Stewart-style satire to expose government in Egypt, help people start thinking critically about what is happening and enable them for action. Surgeon by profession, Bassem said he was admiring the Daily Show for years and dreaming to see something like this at home in Egypt, where TV was more Fox-news style with constant brainwashing. In 2011, the Arab Spring brought media revolution. Bassem started recording short satirical videos for YouTube that instantly went viral. This popularity helped him get his first serious TV offer. However, this style of programming was unusual for Arab audiences. Bassem’s satire was projected from specific personalities towards the society roots and religion. Bassem was called a CIA spy “trained by Jon Steward himself” and was kicked off TV several times, each time moving back to the online space. According to Bassem, when a country is politically charged, what people need is the outlet for their concerns and fears and a way for them to feel their own strength and the power to change things.  There are many dark stories behind satire, but satire is not afraid of power; power is afraid of satire.


What’s So Funny? The Role of Comedy in Social Change, L-R: Jess Search, Caty Borum Chattoo and Bassem Youssef.

A different take on humour was demonstrated by Machai Viravaida and Jack Sim, or, as they called themselves during the session, Mr. Condom and Mr. Toilet. The humour they use is more ironic and even juvenile. The reason? The topics they tackle are kind of embarrassing and not discussed in some societies.

That’s how Machai goes about tackling the problems of unsustainable population growth in Thailand. Through humour accompanied by more robust education efforts, he is striving to make contraceptives available and, more importantly, actively used throughout the country. How to make people actually buy them – first, make it easy for them to buy them, or even get them for free. What about encouraging policemen, taxi drivers, hairdressers and the like, instead of the regular crowds of volunteers in the streets, distribute condoms? Second – change views on using them. Why not to ask a monk to bless contraceptives with holy water, and then make the pictures of it ubiquitous in all the villages? Why not organise a condom-blowing competition in schools, or ask Bill Gates-Sr. to endorse condoms? Or why not make funny pictures around the condom theme, using well-known images like Mona Lisa or Churchill, to attract people’s attention, make them laugh – and through laughter, open their eyes and show them that contraceptives are normal.

When Jack Sim decided to ‘make a toilet the happiest room in India’, he realised he could not change behavior at village level without humour targeting people’s in-depth habits that have not changed for generations. First – understand why people are not using toilets. It’s because defecating outside is more fun and offers “fresh air, nice view, and the ability to chat with neighbours”. So Jack’s objective was to make a toilet an even more fun place to visit. Playing on Indian villagers’ desire to have a status and brag about cool possessions to others, he made a toilet seem ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’ – something to be proud of owning and using.

Caty Borum Chattoo told the audience about her project Stand up Planet, funded by Gates Foundation. This project focuses on sanitation in India and HIV in South Africa, and tries to advance social issues through the use of stand-up comedy.

More importantly, Caty shared some facts from her recent survey on the impact of comedy on the audience. Among key takeaways – people like entertaining format, easy and inspiring messages, connection to their own lives. At the same time, even people who are usually skeptical about the social messaging reported being moved and more concerned about social issues after watching comedy.

It partly explains the success of using other types of humours as well. Laughter can help people not only to ‘learn’ but also to have an emotional response. And from emotion to action, the path is very short.