The Pitfalls of Activist Humor

                It has seemed to me that those of us who study humor are an optimistic group on the whole.  I am no exception.  I have lain awake at night thinking about how standup comedy can pretty much save the world.  This belief came from noticing a phenomenon in the fight for gay and lesbian equality;  gay and lesbian identified standup comedians doubled as social movement leaders.  I’d like to throw a stick in my proverbial bicycle wheel and examine the pitfalls that I’d rather not have observed in my research on lesbian comedian activists, using Margaret Cho and Wanda Sykes as case studies.

The internet is amazing, isn't it?

The role of humor in social movements, though powerful, straddles a fine line between productivity and hindrance.  Humor theorists like Harry H. Hillar consistently warn that humor “not only refreshes its participants, but contains a vision of change that attacks an oppressive social system.  In sum, humor can make a strong instrumental social declaration that is useful in creating and sustaining conflict” (Hillar 257). Majken Sorensen argues, however, that humor can easily backfire in a high-stakes situation: “Potentially the humor can become too aggressive and focus on the oppressor instead of the oppression.  If it is no longer based on wit and intelligence but too much on provocation, it ceases being funny, and the general public will lose sympathy” (Sorensen 184). While Sorensen in this argument refers mostly to street theater and high-danger situations where grassroots activists use humor to undermine the authority of street officials, the observation should not go unheeded as it applies to stand-up in the United States.

Several instances of hesitance to accept these women as innocuous humorists have arisen.  Margaret Cho is certainly controversial. She is aggressive and pointed in her attacks against the dominant culture.   In 2008 she engaged in politics beyond her standup and became a surrogate for the Obama presidential campaign. In Beautiful (2009), she claims that they fired her from that position after she made offensive jokes about John McCain and Sarah Palin.  (There were no news reports of this dismissal).  In 2004, there was an official, newsworthy renunciation of Cho and her controversial comedy when the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) disinvited her from speaking at the LGBT Unity Event at the Democratic National Convention (“Margaret Cho Disinvited”).  In a radio interview, Cho accuses the Democratic Party of being unwilling to be “outspoken about what they believe in.”  She criticizes the party for being too “cavalier, and having kind of a machismo through their actions.  There’s just this weird reasoning behind the Democratic Party to begin with, [about being] ethical and, like, polite, and we’re playing by the rules, and that’s how we lose elections, and that’s how we don’t gain support of the American public” (“Margaret Cho Interview”).  The point of contention among the leaders within the LGBT Unity event, the HRC, and the DNC is whether or not seemingly radical or overly challenging approaches for enacting change push too hard and too far.  The liberal establishment finds Cho’s approach too aggressive for her to be included among the ranks of progressive leadership, and she finds their approach to be too apologetic to influence voters.

Sykes also was invited into the inner circles of political influence when she was invited perform at the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner, an event where stand-up comedians are traditionally guest speakers.  Sykes cited a news report which quoted Rush Limbaugh saying that he hoped America failed under President Obama’s administration.  Sykes casts Limbaugh as an extreme anti-American in her response: “Maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker, but he was so strung out on Oxycontin he missed his flight.”  The next day, the Press Secretary Robert Gibbs issued a statement supposing that President Obama would agree that: “There are a lot of topics that are better left for serious reflection rather than comedy. I think there’s no doubt that 9/11 is part of that” (Terkel).   The use of humor does not grant these performers free passes in the eyes of the United States government or even in the eyes of national human rights organizations.  In fact their aggressive, point blank humor forces them outside of the realm of respectability and mainstream leadership.  If these women are unable to join forces with national organizations put in place to achieve or guarantee civil rights for all United States citizens, where might their role as change-inspiring social movement leaders lie?


As you can see, she got a few good jabs in.

Humor, though its greatest potential lies in its ability to solidify a community and create a sense of solidarity and belonging, can also emphasize negative stereotypes within the group fighting oppression.  Janet Bing in her discussion of humor within the feminist movement observes that some jokes “may reinforce social stereotypes about what is ‘normal’ behavior for males and females…and may even allow women to better tolerate an intolerable situation” (24). In Notorious C.H.O, Cho discusses her two best friends in high school: drag queens with a flair for drama.  She impersonates their response to homophobic attacks against them: “I do not need nobody tellin’ me who I am! I know who I am!  I be walkin’ down the hallway, they call me names. They call me ‘faggot,’ they call me ‘sissy.’ I say, ‘Oh yeah? Well, you forgot, I’m also a model and a actress, so fuck you too!”  This bit can be interpreted as the celebrated reclamation of derogatory words by the queer community and self-ownership and acceptance of those who challenge gender norms.  For Cho’s queer and “insider” audiences, this is likely the case.  To an outsider, however, this license to appropriate or reenact stereotyped behavior may encourage negative perceptions.

I have explored this topic mainly as a reminder to myself that there is a risk and a dark side to the benefits of an activist culture of humor, and as with any tactic, it’s myriad upsides must be taken with a grain of salt.

Works Cited

Bing, Janet. “Is Feminist Humor an Oxymoron?” Women and Language 27 (2004): 22-33.

Hillar, Harry H. “Humor and Hostility: a Neglected Aspect of Social Movement Analysis.” Qualitiative Sociology 6 (1983): 255-65.

Sorensen, Majken. “Humor as a Serious Stategy of Nonviolent Resistance to Oppression.” Peace and Change 33 (April 2008): 167-90.


4 responses

  1. Humor can be a two edged sword. It is also quite subjective. How many of us recall Lenny Bruce? He straddled that line between acceptability and over the edge. I guess some must be sacrificed in order to push the envelope, kill the sacred cows. The world need iconoclasts just to maintain some perspective. Politics and Religion remain dangerous ground for comedians, all the rest is fair game.

  2. […] This on the pitfalls of activist humor, by Bonnie Applebeet. […]

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