Comedy can be, and often is, critical. But when a person pursues a career in comedy, they are also devoting their life to making people laugh, and that’s making people feel good, in ways both big and small. The best comedians make us laugh by revealing a truth in a way that is surprising, that makes us see something, in that instant, in a different light. The force, the impact of that truth makes us erupt with joy. With laughter. Comedy is no less than a calling to service, and its impact on our lives is significant.
It is not surprising then that some comics are using their craft to channel the greater good. But when comedians get nicer, are they still funny? A skilled comic can make us laugh by connecting with both that part of us that is inclined toward less noble impulses, and that part that knows we can and should do better. Here are 5 comedians who are doing just that – imparting a positive message within some damned fine comedy.
Louie is a smart comic who is skilled at zeroing in on the crux of an issue in a way that makes it instantly understandable and accessible, and brilliantly funny. The F/X series Louie, which he writes and produces (and edits and stars in), is chock full of poignant, bittersweet set pieces about the beautiful difficulties of life. In the episode opening Season 2, Louie has a family emergency and decides to trust and accept help from his next door neighbor, whom he has never met. The episode explores how isolated many of us are, and Louie is both profoundly grateful at this stranger’s kindness, and sad that he could live a few feet from someone without knowing his name.
When he hosted SNL in November 2012, he opened the show with a hilarious monologue about helping an old lady at the airport. The underlying message: we don’t usually connect with strangers, but maybe we should, was handled so subtly within the context of his own everyman-style reluctance, that the audience could identify without feeling preached to. And it killed. “She said a bunch of stuff that changed my life and I’ll never forget her . . .” he says as a quick throwaway at the end, letting us laugh at his superficiality while at the same time understanding that this is, indeed, the point.
Whip-smart comedian, writer, performer and actor Sarah Silverman has sometimes been known as a controversial comic, perhaps because she addresses controversial subjects with a deadpan, logical irreverence that might be mistaken for callousness. In her special “Jesus is Magic” Sarah takes on blood diamonds by gleefully coveting a jewel that she says only grows at the base of an African baby’s spine. This bit goes right to the heart of a serious issue by ramping it up a notch or ten, and shocked laughter gives way to recognition of a truth – that something enjoyed by millions is inextricably linked with the pain of others. The humor is only subversive in that it makes people think about an important social issue by making them laugh at its most heightened and absurd representation.
In her latest special, “We are Miracles”, Sarah talks about her obsessive porn watching in the context of a joke about porn website search-terms. The joke is not that she watches porn – this is the premise, said matter-of-factly, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. And isn’t it? When Sarah talks about why vaginal deodorizing products are unnecessary (and prey on a woman’s greatest insecurity: “smelly vagina”), she captures the ridiculousness and shame-based marketing of these products with a killer line: “Use whatever you wash your asshole with. Surely that’s strong enough for your disgusting vagina.” When Sarah says “Stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up”, the audience laughs, perhaps a bit shocked – then she delivers the message: that it otherwise would not have occurred to girls that they couldn’t. She exposes the head-patting condescension that often accompanies well-intentioned messages of empowerment. By accepting as a given that women routinely watch porn and it’s no big deal, that our bodies are nothing to tiptoe around, that religions are all weird to those who don’t practice them, Sarah skillfully drives home powerful messages of tolerance and acceptance, of ourselves and others.
Colin Quinn is a successful and well-regarded comedian, writer, performer and actor whose career spans three decades. His recent material has broadened into deeper territory, addressing subjects ranging from the development of humanity to the establishment and legal framework of the United States.
In his one man Broadway show “Colin Quinn: Long Story Short” he presents the behavioral history of civilization in a way that is conversational and very funny. He likens England to a foppish and superficial spurned lover, obsessed with France’s sexy, irresistible indifference, and compares a gathering of the bejeweled clerics of the Holy Roman Empire to “a Death Row records release party from 1997”. The references fly fast and furious, parallels are drawn to modern society, politics and culture, and his accents are charming and hilarious. Barely audible gasps of surprise at some of the deeper cuts precede bursts of laughter, as he skillfully weaves both micro and macro aspects of human history into a framework of modern-day behaviors and mores. Whether or not you come into this show with a knowledge of, for example, the colonization of the African continent or the relationship between Africans and Arabs, the jokes land perfectly within a masterfully constructed and accessibly modern context.
Colin’s current show, Unconstitutional, deconstructs the establishment of the U.S. Constitution, a document oft relied upon in political and cultural discussions, which, he points out, most of us have not read or fully understood. Colin continues to dissect and distill human nature, undermining the reverence with which we treat the wisdom of our forefathers by pointing out that they were just like us – sometimes self-involved, and always searching for happiness.
Crowned as the Queen of Mean, Lisa Lampanelli is considered one of Comedy Central’s most harsh and unapologetic (and funny) Friar’s Club roasters, while also being known as a warm-hearted, kind and generous person. While Lisa was getting standing ovations in previews of her one-woman show “Fat Girl Interrupted,” a deeply honest account of her life and struggles, she noticed that audiences were not responding to her standup material with the same level of enthusiasm. Following her father’s death early this year, and with the painful end of her second marriage, Lisa devoted herself to the work she had done on herself since becoming a comic, to being kind, understanding and accepting of herself and others.
As a result, her standup is experiencing a shift in perspective. Lisa says her new act, which she feels is a reflection of the personal work she has done, is “super funny and hard core” but with deeply personal and revealing self-reflection at its center that is really resonating with audiences. She says the funniest material is an unflinchingly honest inventory of her faults and how they contributed to the end of her marriage. Friends who have seen it tell Lisa that she still has her hilariously raunchy edge, but that “there is a warmth and a light coming out of you that is so real.” She’s played to regular standing ovations in these shows, which are the precursor to a new standup special that will likely tape in February 2015. When Lisa talks about herself now, she says “this feeling of contentment and peace is something I always wanted, but didn’t know how to go about getting it until recently.”
Todd Glass was a successful comedian for over two decades before he talked (publicly for the first time) to Marc Maron on the WTF Podcast about being gay. He points out the ridiculous aspects of bullying and marginalization in a way that is intelligent, illuminating and very funny. His message is rooted in acceptance and kindness, delivered in a very intense and direct style. He has no patience with mean-spirited comics, and he scrutinizes his own act for stereotypes or assumptions that could be harmful to others. To those who don’t understand why they shouldn’t use common slur-based expressions in conversation, he says: “don’t use someone’s being as an adjective.”
While Todd has always had strong words for those who are unkind, especially to those in a position of weakness, he advocates educating people instead of ostracizing them. He believes in speaking up, strongly, whenever someone is being bullied, and he doesn’t shy away from these confrontations in his own life. One of the reasons Todd is so passionate about speaking up is his feeling that casual, anti-gay conversations and their general acceptance delayed his coming out. He is grateful to those over the years who spoke up in rejecting these types of comments, and devotes himself to being that voice for others. Above all, his rants on calling people out on treating others poorly are smart, funny, and entertaining to listen to.
A great comedian can play the part of hero, the antagonist and foil of his own story, all at the same time, making us laugh at him and at ourselves. A greater understanding of and empathy for human nature can allow a comic to tell a story in a way that connects with and moves the audience, that makes them laugh for real, and leave with a different perspective.
Jaimee Campbell is a producer of Hawkeye Tonight with Jenny Hawk. Hawkeye Tonite is a comedy/improv talk show where the guest does not know the character he or she is to play until introduced. Jaimee produces the show entirely on her own, from making the sets, to creating graphics, bumpers, and booking the guests. She says “I found the guests from improv venues around LA and begged them to be on my show.” Watch a clip from Hawkeye Tonight below.