In an era of increased tensions, people with strong opinions find themselves gravitating towards extremes rather than finding middle grounds. America has bifurcated, not united, and the issues seem to be worsening. The University of Missouri, known colloquially as Mizzou, has reported that enrollment has tumbled 35% because of the racial tensions on campus, but that 35% is comprised of both black and white students who feel that they just don’t need to be bothered with dealing with the other side.
There are precious few places where groups of people with wildly different realities can occupy the same space, not only without fighting, but actually amicably — and one of them is comedy. Unlike more serious spaces that inflame passions and raise blood pressures, comedy proves accessible to everyone by its light hearted nature and the permission it gives participants to laugh at themselves and otherwise-instigating circumstances.
First, of course, there are the sitcoms. ABC launched Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat as a part of their diversity initiatives. Aziz Ansari recently released season two of Master of None. And perhaps the reigning monarch of diverse sitcoms is the Fox show Brooklyn 99, which follows a gender-balanced and racially diverse police squad on their misadventures and whodunits. All these shows touch on different parts of a minority experience in the US — some with immigrants, others with being caught in between identities, and still more with gender and sexuality. And while all of them deal with some hot-button topics like immigration reform, LGBTQ issues, and race relations, they’re all really funny. Families can tune in, and enjoy themselves and opt into deeper conversations if they so choose.
Even stand-up comedians have taken up the mantle. Daily Show host Trevor Noah has spoken at length about his experience growing up biracial under Apartheid in South Africa and the ensuing confusion when he, a light-skinned African, came to America and had to figure out an identity. Hasan Minhaj has also talked openly about the difficulties he faced as an Indian immigrant and the racism that he endured in school, romantic relationships, and job interviews. Though these stories in certain settings are heartbreaking and potentially divisive, these gifted comedians allow their listeners to step into their worlds and appreciate the absurdities of the injustices.
Ever the party pooper, though, Malcolm Gladwell made it clear that comedy is not, in fact, the panacea we all hoped it would be. In an episode of his smash-hit podcast Revisionist History, Gladwell explores the real effects of comedy — specifically satire — on audiences. One particular study had viewers of varying political affiliations watch a clip from The Colbert Report and analyze it. No matter where someone self-identified on the political spectrum, each viewer felt that Colbert’s satire was meant to poke at the other group. Gladwell goes so far as to call many of the politically-inspired Saturday Night Live skits “toothless” because the actors failed to fully endorse what the satire “meant” — they took it as a funny skit.
If any arena will rescue political discourse from the minefields of internet comments, it’s comedy, but we have to act with caution and self-awareness in order to preserve it.