There are different types of laughter. There’s groaning laughter at overbearing puns. There’s a brief shout of laughter after a joke takes a shocking turn. There’s full belly-ache laughter when realizing something you’ve always thought but never said. There’s disgusted laughter in dismissal. There’s poignant laughter in solidarity. And there are plenty more.
I’ve been thinking about the recent movement in solidarity for groups who have been victimized by humor. Some have come to a realization that comedy has been used to propagate antiquated and offensive ideas about racism, sexism, homophobia and every other evil. And I think that comedy, like any other medium, has been used like this. However, I also think this realiza-tion has resulted in a distrust toward stand-up comedy as a medium for opinions on controversial subjects, and I don’t think that’s totally fair.
Many who have been wronged by comedy find that most comedians who address a controversial subject do it poorly, because to laugh is to make light of, and some subjects should never be made light of. Many other people have a different perspective, but I’ve had some conversations recently that show some people do take the stance that I’m describing. I view comedy differently. I think stand-up is a rare art form (I called it an art form, bite me) in that each work changes entirely based on the reaction from the audience in the moment.
The following are just my thoughts about stand-up, as someone who has done it for a little while and has seen how it exists in our community. I’m not speaking for all comedians, and I’m not exploring the topic comprehensively. This is just how I see comedy, and what it means to me.
I’ve always felt that observational comedy can be a constant poll of the group in a space. Every thought and opinion that we have, as people who have been raised in a society entrenched in racism, sexism and homophobia, should be expressed on that stage. And our laughter or absence of it should be an indication of how we feel about the approach the comedian took to address those parts of our lives and minds. Comedy is a mode of expression, not just for the person on stage, but for the whole group that’s listening and responding. That’s why studio comedy albums are so weird – we don’t hear the response part of the piece. To me, stand-up only feels whole when it includes the audience’s sincere response.
At the stand-up nights here (everyone in this school should perform at least once, so message me), we’ve had incredibly supportive audiences who are great for welcoming new comedians. But I think the group’s response to certain jokes is sometimes more guarded than it needs to be. In one instance, people didn’t laugh at a joke because they were afraid that their laughter would imply a certain type of approval. My friend who, like me, is mixed race, made his first stand-up set about the problems that mixed race people face in America, and how our society is often dismissive of the mixed race identity. His punchline to this set up was, “All things considered, I can’t say I support interracial marriage. I mean, think of the children.” Personally, I think this is a great joke, but everyone stopped laughing. Not because they didn’t want to laugh (I checked afterward to make sure I didn’t have a weird sense of humor), but because they weren’t comfortable laughing at a controversial statement that they don’t explicitly agree with.
This response makes sense if we don’t consider different types of laughter. If the only type of laughter someone is capable of sounds like “HAHAHA HE’S SO RIGHT! RACE-MIXING IS WEIRD! KEEP IT PURE, PEOPLE!” then yeah, why would they laugh if they don’t believe that? But my guess is a non-racist (like yourself, I’m sure) would laugh more like, “HA! That’s a ridiculous response based on what’s been said. What an irrational thing this evil racism is. Thank you, kind comedian, for giving us an example of how ridiculous it is.” Both are laughing at the joke, but each sounds different, and each contributes something different to the overall art piece that is my friend’s set.
When someone laughs at a joke, they’re admitting something about themselves, both to themselves and to the group around them. They’re admitting that they associate with the view that the comedian shared in some way, and the way they associate can be revealed in what their laughter sounds like. Consciously not laughing doesn’t change how a group thinks; it just changes what we know about the group. If we all laugh honestly, we’ll know a lot more about the people we’re laughing with. Whether you want to know might be a different question, but I would like to.
Chris D’Silva ’18 is a philosophy and math major from Scarsdale, N.Y. He lives in Carter.