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Not just for giggles - the bigger impact of comedy

We all love to laugh. Whether it is a real-life story, a tv show, movie, or a funny post on social media, comedy has the ability to improve our mood and make our days better.

Comedy can also be a useful vehicle for discussions of important issues and can have a real social impact. With the explosion of social media, everyone has the ability to create comedic content that can be viewed and appreciated around the world. Topics such as coronavirus, social issues, media and social norms all become the focus of comedy material that fill our timelines. ‘Humour can be the best way to engage people with difficult, and sometimes controversial, social issues’ (Shetty). Comedy can be a tool to discuss social issues such as race, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights and class. Comedians are using their voices and platforms to ‘assert their cultural identities and call out oppressive power dynamics’ (Borum Chattoo & Feldman).


In ‘The Role of Comedy in Social Justice’ the argument is made that comedians act as ‘social justice influencers’ as they are ‘calling for remedies to social problems, re-framing news issues, asserting cultural identities, sharing experiences of discrimination and othering, and unmasking taboo topics.’ One example of this can be seen in the viral video ‘AIB: Rape - It’s Your Fault’. This comedy video looks at rape and uses humour to critique those who blame women for sexual assault. The video has had a huge reach with more than 7 million views on Youtube. G Khamba, one of the comedians involved in this video states that comedy “provides an easy way in” to difficult subjects and that “people tend to get put off when you’re talking about a social issue in a preachy or a top-down way.” (Shetty). Arguably this video would not have had the same reach, or impact if it was a traditional campaign-style video.


Comedy can be a way to re-frame current events. Satirical news shows are a source of news and information as well as entertainment and have the ability to attract audiences who may not engage with traditional news outlets or publications. Topical shows such as Mock The Week, The Last Leg, Mash Report and SNL in the US all take current events and use them as the basis of sketches, comedic discussions or prompts for improvisation. By discussing serious subjects and politics in a way that is funny, informative and engaging, these shows can actually influence and have an effect on peoples behaviour. Political comedy encourages young people to ‘seek out additional news information’, ‘follow the course of political campaigns, 'feel better about their own ability to participate in politics’, and feel ‘more inclined to participate in lower commitment oriented acts of political expression’ (Amy Bree Becker). By using comedy and celebrity guests they break down the stories into easy to digest talking points and sketches which helps open up conversation and allow viewers to reflect on their own opinions and viewpoints.

Comedy has a huge impact on our mental health and wellbeing. Humour is used a lot as a coping mechanism. It is seen that 'if we can joke about something, it makes it less threatening in our minds' and that dark humour builds community and helps you to survive (Medium). This is especially true during the coronavirus pandemic. During the pandemic, many of us have focused on media and entertainment as a way to distract from the situation, whether that is reading, music, painting, cooking or comedy. Humour was one of the most frequent and widely used strategies as a way to keep perspective, deal with the seriousness of the situation and make the day-to-day more bearable. (Cancelas-Ouviña). Coronavirus has been the topic of many comedic memes, videos and tweets/status updates. A study conducted found that a healthy sense of humour related to lower degrees of negative emotions around the pandemic and as a result, these participants reported engaging in more protective behaviours advised by health officials. Although there are many positives to comedy and humour, it can also be very harmful. Disparagement humour is defined as 'any attempt to amuse through the denigration of a social group or its representatives' (The Conversation). With these jokes, prejudice is disguised as 'just having a laugh' or 'just having fun' but studies have shown that those who tell or are exposed to these jokes are more likely to display prejudiced behaviour. For example in this study, it was shown that exposure to sexist humour promoted prejudice against women and even more concerning, in this study, they found that males exposed to sexist jokes reported higher levels of rape proclivity in comparison to males exposed to non-sexist jokes. Comedy is deeply ingrained in our society and culture as a form of entertainment, information, activism and survival. It can impact and influence our society and our actions. It's so easy to get swept up in the 'fun' of comedy, but it is so important to take a step back and really think about what you are laughing at and how it is influencing your judgement, opinions and actions- comedy is more powerful than you think.