Professors and scholars are in a unique position to guide the next generation in reshaping our values to be more equitable and just. During the National Communication Association conference last week in Dallas, it was clear that social justice communication is not simply a topic for a course but an overarching educational goal that shapes how students, scholars, and citizens communicate. #NCA17 

We spoke with Caty Borum Chattoo and Lauren Feldman, authors of the forthcoming A Comedian and An Activist Walk Into a Bar: The (Serious) Role of Comedy in Social Justice, part of the Communication for Social Justice Activism Series. Here, Caty and Lauren share how they hope students, scholars, and citizens will learn how comedy encourages activism for social justice.

What inspired you both to write the book?

Caty Borum Chattoo

Unquestionably, mediated comedy is a powerful contemporary source of influence and information. In the still-evolving digital era, the opportunity to consume and share comedy has never been as available – both in the United States and around the world. At the same time, socioeconomic and other inequities continue to widen. The need for public engagement in social justice issues is crucial, and it can be challenging to encourage audiences to pay attention to dire problems. Humor, by offering frames of hope and optimism, may help encourage participation in social problems.

And yet, despite its vast cultural imprint and potential for public engagement, mediated comedy is a little-understood – and perhaps under-appreciated – vehicle for social change.

Our book addresses this challenge and timely opportunity, asking and answering new questions about the intersection of mediated comedy and social justice: What works, what doesn’t, and why, when it comes to leveraging comedy for social justice efforts? When can comedy effectively challenge problematic norms, and when does it merely reinforce them? How do social change comedy projects balance key tensions between creative processes and strategic goals?

What is the role of comedy in social justice and activism?

Lauren Feldman

Around the world – in places that face daunting social challenges, including gender-based violence, institutional racism, extremism, and political corruption – comedians are speaking truth to power and reaching millions. Intentional social-change and public engagement campaigns from humanitarian and advocacy organizations, such as global poverty group Comic Relief, increasingly leverage comedy to raise awareness, encourage public donations and more.

Here in the U.S., the present-day comedy ecology includes a heavy dose of social-issue consciousness, ranging from TV comedy sketch programs that delve into topics like gender politics, gun control, and social class, such as the Peabody-Award-winning Inside Amy Schumer, to scripted entertainment shows like Modern Family, Black-ish, and Master of None that take on gay rights, race relations, and gender equality. Satirical news programs like The Daily Show and HBO’s Last Week Tonight continue their dominance as media agenda-setters and sources of viral social commentary – and, in some cases, fuel for policy change. Online, comedy sites like Funny or Die churn out short-form sketches, faux public service announcements, and other humorous treatments of the news and social issues of the day.

Across these distinct forms, mediated comedy can engage audiences on serious issues by attracting attention, reducing cognitive resistance to persuasion, offering a way into complex social issues, re-framing issues, breaking down social barriers, and encouraging sharing. But fostering intentional efforts between comedians and social justice advocates is its own creative and strategic proposition, and one we plan to unpack in the book.

What do you hope audiences—from communication professionals and advocates to scholars and students—will learn?

Our book will include a rich synthesis of existing theory and research across disciplines, along with dynamic case studies and interviews with comedians and social justice leaders around the country and the world. We hope that by highlighting the opportunities and challenges inherent in using comedy for social change – and by doing so through a joint scholarly, practical, and creative lens – our book can facilitate engaged teaching, research, and social justice strategy, and help to foster synergies between the scholarly, creative, and activist communities in the service of social justice.

Caty Borum Chattoo is Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), an innovation lab and academic research center at American University and Executive in Residence at the American University School of Communication.

Lauren Feldman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University.