Comedy and Serious Matters

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Illustration by Seun Ajibola

If you asked me what I think about the use of comedy as a medium for discussing serious matters to influence the masses 24 months ago, my unquestionable response would be that is a genius approach. I have since changed my position because I do not think it works in practical terms.

There are several methods that are being used by comedians or cable networks to pass the medicine through the candy. Many critics and television personalities use the cliché noted in the first sentence to highlight the fact that many individuals simply do not want to deal with difficult political and social topics, therefore, the information should be delivered through comedy or satire.

I cannot take credit for this new stance that I am writing about because Malcolm Gladwell has addressed this topic on his podcast. In his final podcast of the first season of Revisionist History: The Satire Paradox, he discusses the use of comedy on several shows specifically Saturday Night Live (“SNL”) and Stephen Colbert Report. SNL focused their satire on Sarah Palin and her lack of political and geographic awareness. He argues that the audience laughed and forgot about the implication that the show hoped to communicate to the viewers.

Likewise, Stephen Colbert, who I thought was a left-wing show host is really not. It made no sense to me, given that all I ever saw him do was attack the right. However, what the how does brilliantly is that it does not take any sides politically. A right-wing person will see him attacking the left-wing and this also works in the opposite direction. What Gladwell concludes is that these methods simply do not change the narrative for the individual because it never changes their discourse or actions following the show.

In his series on Netflix, Dave Chapel addresses several political and social issues, but the one that stood out was his joke about Bill Cosby. In it, he describes Bill Cosby as a villain and a hero. How do you come away with that and have any strong change in discourse or actions going forward? The answer is rhetorical. He doesn’t take a position and that is what makes him a genius comedian. A vessel for forcing you to change your views, definitely not.

This brings me to very respected comedian out of Nigeria by the name of “Alibaba”. Alibaba is the best comedian at using his satirical and comedic genius infused with political and social commentary about the state of Nigeria. He does his work on Instagram through story-telling and straightforward commentary. He has discussed topics of infidelity, contentment, economics, and politics. I love the story-telling he does on his page, however, I believe his method also fails to address what I think it is meant to do – that is change discourse and maybe get someone to act.

This is not an attack on Alibaba, as much as it is a change in my view of how satire or comedy and serious matters work at the individual level. I came to the conclusion that the message can only be impactful to the individual if (1) it comes from an individual with authority on the information or (2) the person being communicated to is already invested in the particular topic at a deep level.

An authority on a topic should be allowed to come from any individual with deep knowledge of the subject matter. I do not think there is an issue with a comedian shedding light on these topics, however, I don’t believe we take comedians regardless of clout as seriously. Their words still pass through our ears as a joke. The public idea of an authority has a barrier of entry that I feel is unnecessary but at this point, the authority tends to be someone who has devoted a significant portion of their lives to providing conclusions based on empirical data. Since comedians are more observatory than they are data collectors and testers, the public will never afford them the level of respect that they probably deserve.

This backs the idea that if I an individual is already invested in a particular topic, they might be amenable to receiving new information from any source because they can reject the ideas that are not proven much easier than someone who has not taken the time to learn more about the particular topic.

The next time a comedian is telling a joke infused with political and social issues, try and determine how the message impacts you. You will likely be surprised that the message will be neutral in changing your opinions unless you see them as an authority or if you have a deep interest in the particular area of discourse.

Ideas, ComedyFemi Adeyinka