Comedy and Social Change: A Brief Interview

Modern Times With Chaplin

Adam Krause is a musician, activist and carpenter from Milwaukee. He is author of Art as Politics, and has just published The Revolution Will Be Hilarious. We had a brief talk about this provocative new piece.

— Admittedly, the title of your new pamphlet does seem like a joke: What’s so funny about politics? And in what way will “the revolution” be “hilarious”?

— The title of this pamphlet is a joke, and is certainly meant to be funny. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t mean it. Some jokes are supposed to be taken seriously, and this is one of them.

Democracy involves accepting otherness and dealing with a variety of vocabularies, and the psychology of humor works incredibly well as an analogy for the sort of multi-planar thinking a democracy requires. Behaving democratically necessitates an ability to navigate and interact with a wide variety of worldviews, while making or comprehending a joke requires the ability to simultaneously process at least two separate perspectives on a single thing. As an example, here’s an admittedly very dumb joke. Q: What has four legs but can’t walk? A: A table! Seeing how different types of legs and their functions conflict and converge requires a peculiar type of thinking that has numerous interesting corollaries outside of comedy. It is the same type of “seeing” it takes to step outside of one’s personal perspective and understand other viewpoints. (Which is not to say “accept” these other viewpoints. Some worldviews are dangerous and detrimental.) But to sum up, a careful look at comedy can show us a lot about the wider perspective democracies require. A mind that only sees from one “correct” perspective is going to have a lot of trouble with both democracy and comedy.

— Let’s be frank about it: humor is not always progressive and is often used to reinforce status hierarchies and social marginalization. What, in your view, is progressive about humor?

— True. Jokes can be mean. But “humor” is ethically neutral. It is more a blanket term for a mode of thinking and communicating that can be filled with just about any content. Humor is often used to mock, malign, and exclude. But humor can just as easily express and convey viewpoints in memorable and surprising ways, thereby helping us see one another from new perspectives and  in more effective ways than through more “ordinary” forms of communication. And by laughing together at our common plight, we can come to better understand, appreciate, and relate to one another. Seeing why a strange someone thinks something is funny makes that someone significantly less strange. Comedy, and comedic thinking, can remove the barriers between us like nothing else.

After finishing The Revolution Will Be Hilarious, I encountered an article I probably would have discussed if my deadline hadn’t already passed. It’s about an art installation in which two people sit across from one another and a video image of a Chinese factory worker is projected onto the person across from you—a Chinese factory worker with nerve damage sustained from manufacturing iPhones. What struck me about the article, and why I’m talking about it now, is the author’s claim that she was really surprised that Jia Jingchuan, the projected factory worker, spent so much time laughing and smiling. This seems really shortsighted. Was the expectation that this “other” human being from another part of the world would be a mere receptacle of suffering, an unsmiling statistic in a news report whose sole function is to make you reconsider the ethical implications of your telephone? Why should it be surprising that this person is as complex and as capable of soldiering through suffering with good humor as anyone else you might know? Understanding why Jia Jingchuan laughs is a major facet in understanding him as more than just “a factory worker with nerve damage.” We all need to read widely, travel widely. The type of thinking modeled by comedy is important for learning how to do this and understanding how this type of thinking works.

— What prompted you to write The Revolution Will Be Hilarious?

— One of the first “serious” nonfiction books I ever read was Arthur Koestler’s Act of Creation. My older brother was reading it for a class and I picked it up and read it mainly because it was there.  Koestler’s account of comedy and creativity kind of blew my mind and stuck with me pretty hard. So in a way, the seed for this essay has been gestating since I was maybe twelve or so. And comedy and politics have been two of my biggest interests throughout my life. So after that initial seed was planted, a steady diet of Chaplin and Chomsky further primed my mind to conceive this essay.

Once it was conceived though, the scant attention comedy generally receives from academics and other “serious” writers compelled me to follow through with it. On a related, but significantly more petty level, so many teachers throughout my life have told me that although they liked my writing, I really ought to include fewer jokes and stop choosing comedians as my subject matter, that publishing exactly the sort of thing I’ve been encouraged to get away from is something of a vendetta. Embarrassing but true.

— Why do you think comedy and humor are relevant to activists struggling for a better world?

— Throughout the book, humor is used as an analogy to explain democratic thinking, and  it’s helpful for activists to periodically step back from their work and think about thinking—to consider the psychology of a better world. A new world will require a new mindset, and I think my comedy analogy is very useful for elucidating certain aspects of that mindset. Luckily, it’s a short book—a booklet really—so activists will only need to step back and think about thinking for a little bit. After that, they can get back to work. But the ideas in this book should definitely help them better frame and direct their activities.

However, this book is potentially useful for anyone. As I said, The Revolution Will Be Hilarious is designed to help us think about and improve our thinking. I hate to admit it, but what I’ve really written is a thinly disguised self-help book. That’s why I say in the preface that it can “serve as a useful guide for developing empathy, understanding, and creativity—both out in the world and in your own mind.” I really believe that The Revolution Will Be Hilarious could help just about anyone analyze their thinking and learn how to adopt a wider, more democratic perspective.

Thanks! Check out The Revolution Will Be Hilarious.