A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
What’s got four legs, a wet nose and can help us laugh through the crisis?
It took an adorable talking dog to shake me from my gloom.
Ten days into the Great Pandemic Shutdown of 2020, I was still scrolling my phone for increasingly grim statistics, epidemiological forecast models and horror stories from the medical front lines of COVID-19.
Then I stumbled onto her: Pluto the Schnauzer, in a ridiculous Facebook video, offering counsel “on the internets” about how we humans might re-frame our anxious quarantined existence.
There’s always something to do, says Pluto. Straight to camera like a doggy newscaster, she reminds us that “we (four-leggeds) curl up, we wander around, we play with a tennis ball.” She offers wisdom about the humans’ curious toilet paper “crisis” and advises us to avoid sniffing crotches until social distancing is over. Pluto for president, I say – she’s giving it to us straight.
There is plenty to laugh at, it seems, in a crisis moment when the world’s shared destiny has become breathtakingly clear. This doesn’t mean that we’re trivializing the suffering. We’re trying to cope. Beyond the obvious illness, we’re facing economic and social devastation, which will be felt most acutely by vulnerable communities. Many of us are experiencing the emotions of grief and trying to figure out some kind of routine in the stressful, uncertain new normal. It’s hard to fully contemplate the ripple effects of the loss and anxiety, or the enormity of the task that befalls us when we finally come out of hiding to repair our communities.
But humor can help.
As Lauren Feldman and I wrote in our new book, “A Comedian and An Activist Walk Into a Bar: The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice,” comedy plays an important societal role when we are working through dire, complex social problems. It offers catharsis, resilience and a source of civic imagination that invites play and helps us imagine the future. It can also provide a vital and biting wellspring of social critique that can point out injustice in accessible ways that can be hard to convey even through traditional forms of serious information, like journalism.
Not so much A Night at the Opera, more a month in the bedroom.
We need comedy. And homemade “coronavirus comedy” is everywhere – videos, memes, tweets, re-written music lyrics, parody music videos. Sure, there’s plenty of funny stuff from the expected professional media sources, even while they’re on lockdown – “The Daily Show,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “Saturday Night Live” – but the inventive creativity coming from us ordinary folks is really killing it. In the participatory media age, we can access the production tools and distribution channels to share our expressions of hope, play and silliness through YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The whole world has been given a license to be funny and deviant, and it turns out, we are really, really hilarious.
But is it OK to giggle about hard times? Are we wrong to seemingly make fun of something so serious? I would argue that these aren’t the right questions.
Look closely. In the age of COVID-19, we’re making comedy that punches up, not down. It is aimed at ourselves and at institutions of power that need to be held accountable. Through our comedy, we invite each other to see our shared experiences through much-needed playfulness – even across ideological divides.
The humor is found in the absurd dystopian reality of our weird new lives: Being stuck inside our homes with these irritating other humans, even the ones we love, is “Groundhog Day” tedium. We parents never really wanted to to spend a full nonstop 24 hours with our elementary- or middle school-aged children for weeks at a time, did we? (I’m sure my kids won’t read this.)
Italian mayors clearly aren’t impressed by everyone’s social distancing efforts.
We are fighting over toilet paper at Costco and challenging our kids to dance-offs on TikTok. And then there are the many adventures in Zoom, our new conference room and college classroom. Suddenly, we have discovered the humor in your mic being off, your mic being on (oops), floating in the New York skyline or hosting a serious budget meeting while oversized cats appear over your shoulder – thank you, Zoom background graphics.
Meanwhile, stressed-out professors are singing about teaching online. Even a sidelined sports commentator got in on the comedy game with a hilarious series of sportscaster-narrated everyday life scenes. None of our current experience is – or should become – normal (except the dance-offs, perhaps), and comedy lets us say that.
Comedy serves crucial cultural functions as we deal with tough challenges: sharing and amplifying messages, addressing taboo topics in accessible ways, and inspiring us to feel emotions of hope and optimism, which motivate us to engage in social problems. And, not least, comedy helps us to bolster individual and collective resilience we need to re-imagine and re-build the post-COVID-19 world.
Beyond the silliness, much of this “coronavirus comedy” is functionally reminding us what to do – wash our hands, stay home, and practice social distancing. It’s also providing scathing and needed critiques of official government responses. We know from research that we are much more likely to remember and share messages that are funny, which means we are amplifying the information across networks and individuals. And when we spread comedy wildly, we communicate our identities and communal experiences with one another, even while we are physically separated.
Comedy really matters. Through its generative, disruptive, deviant energy, humor can help us to engage and find tenacity, resilience and cathartic release during these trying times.