Each year the Skoll Centre invites a small number of Oxford students to the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Each year they share their unique perspectives of the sessions and events that unfold during this magical time in Oxford.
The promises and limitations of using comedy as a tool for social change
What do you get when you cross social
impact with jokes? At the risk of burying the punch line – some good things!
But it’s complicated…
This morning, participants at the Skoll
World Forum explored the power that comedy has to highlight social issues and
drive behavior change. Caty Borum Chatto, Omri Marcus, Erika Soto Lamb, and
Fenella Kernebone led us in a discussion of when comedy has supercharged social
movements, but also touched on challenges that merit further attention.
Comedy is a foundational element of drama,
and as we all know, drama captures public attention and imagination. While
activism has long highlighted the tragedies around us, the panel showed us that
comedy is an underutilized tool. In fact, it’s a tool that allows us as
changemakers to stir some of the most important emotions for action – hope and
optimism – in our target audiences. Comedy also serves as a gateway to talk
about serious, and sometimes taboo, topics. In an age where there are ever
increasing demands on our attention, comedy holds real potential for getting
people to pay attention to the most important issues.
Yet like with any tool, comedy must be
deployed carefully and strategically. As the panel pointed out, using comedy
effectively in social change work requires a collaborative give and take
between comedians and activists. Lean too heavily on the comedy, and while the
result may be entertaining, it won’t help solve a social problem. Lean too
heavily on the social problem, and what’s supposed to be comedy will no longer
However, I think there’s an even more important consideration changemakers must keep in mind with using comedy, and that’s clarity on target outcomes. The panel touched on the point that there are different genres of comedy that are best suited to different outcomes. For example, Borum Chatto pointed out that satire has been very successfully used to coalesce identity and solidify a base. Political satires like the Colbert Report immediately comes to mind, but here’s the thing: in a world of increasing divisions and identity politics, is solidifying into separate bases really the outcome we need to create change?
In contrast, Borum Chatto lifted up
episodic narratives as a more effective genre for changing people’s hearts and
minds. She pointed to the example of Modern
Family and other sitcoms featuring gay characters playing a role in changing
mainstream social opinion about gay marriage in the US. Such “edutainment” is a
powerful contributor to behavior change, but I think it can also magnify differences
that already exist; according
to the New York Times, people in American cities, where gay marriage is
generally more accepted, watch Modern
Family, while Duck Dynasty, whose
star is vehemently against gay marriage, is far more popular in rural areas.
As an enthusiastic (amateur) improv actress, and an aspiring social entrepreneur, I found myself shouting “yes, and!” in my head at the end of the panel discussion. Comedy is powerful, and it is underutilized in social justice work. And…we need to do more experimenting with comedy, to make sure we’re not solidifying a base, but also connecting with the people whom we find incredibly hard to convince.
About the Author
An aspiring early child education social entrepreneur, Laura’s career has focused on empowering young children and their families. Before joining the MBA programme at Saïd Business School, “Ms. Laura” taught three and four year-old students as a preschool teacher for the District of Columbia Public School.