Forget punching up. If you really want to speak truth to power, and you’re a comedian, what’s the best way to go about it?
Sarah Silverman has produced several videos on her own or for various non-profit organizations to advance causes she believes in, including election issues on the ballot and equal pay for women. HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver already has a remarkable track record of raising important global and domestic issues, and seeing almost immediate results. Just in the past few weeks, Oliver went to Russia to interview Edward Snowden and changed the political discussion in Congress about the Patriot Act, and shone such a bright light on FIFA that its corrupt leaders have since resigned. President Obama also called for demilitarizing local police forces, within weeks of Last Week Tonight devoting an episode to it. Whether you want to credit Oliver or the show for the cause/effect, the results are demonstrable.
Not every comedian enjoys as large or as influential a platform as Silverman or Oliver, of course. Nor does every comedian want to go that far beyond the simple joy of making audiences laugh.
But some do.
Ted Alexandro has devoted thousands of hours over the years to join marchers in the streets and parks of New York City and beyond — and also effectively petitioned the city’s comedy clubs back in 2002 to raise spot pay for stand-ups. Just last night, Alexandro and his mother were among throngs holding vigil at Rikers Island in tribute to Kalief Browder, who recently committed suicide after being held without charges at the Rikers Island jail for three years.
Earlier this spring, Alexandro was joined by Judah Friedlander (pictured above) in the marches through NYC to support protests in Baltimore following the April death in police custody of Freddie Gray.
They’re both expected to participate in Sunday’s Lady Parts Justice Carnival in Long Island City. Other celebrity attendees, including Ally Sheedy, Kathy Najimy and Frank Conniff, will support the cause at The Creek and the Cave for Lady Parts Justice, which is a national movement employing humor to combat lady-hating politicians. Among its founders: Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show for Comedy Central, who toured America in 2011 with comedy shows on behalf of Planned Parenthood.
This weekend also sees the Apollo Theatre in Harlem play host to WOW, the Women of the World festival — among the musical performances, fashion talks and more, there’ll be a comedy panel on Sunday afternoon there.
Winstead isn’t one to shy away from controversial positions, online or onstage, saying: “I can’t be afraid that I’m going to get yelled at constantly, because I would never leave my house.”
Here’s a documentary shot of her on that Planned Parenthood tour.
“It’s always tricky when you’re taking on touchy subjects,” Winstead told the audience assembled for a “humor in the news” panel in December for Blue Nation Review called “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For A Lecture: Why Humor Matters.” She explained her philosophy on it then:
“When you put stuff out there, you want to have thought it through, so you that a) you know you can defend it, b) it has a moral purpose, and it’s something that needs to be addressed with how the power structure has fucked over somebody in any…That’s why every topic is on the table. It’s: Who are the people who are profiting from it? Using it to damage other people? Those are your targets.”
“The other thing to remember when doing sort-of risky humor that involves politics and stuff, is the second information passes your lips, your fingers on the Twitter, everybody else gets to own it in eternity. That’s the biggest thing that you have to remember. So you don’t get to have a take-back – ‘No! I really meant!’ Everybody gets to decide what you meant. And you can try to explain it, but sometimes you just got to…”
“The biggest reason to use humor would be to re-engage people who feel a little bit disenfranchised, but also to enfranchise people who feel like all things are the same.”
Silverman got bit this spring when one of her videos fell short, but only because she chose an ill-fitting example from her past about equal pay. It didn’t change the larger facts about employers paying women less than they pay men for the same job.
Shaina Stigler, who co-founded a Bad Assery campaign this spring with a full weekend of shows, panels and workshops for women and comedy in March, said Silverman “should be the rule, not the exception” when it comes to comedian using their fame to advance social causes. “As a performer or entertainer or anyone who has access to a wide breadth of people, you have an opportunity and a responsibility to do something good with that platform. Especially as a comedian who is gifted with making difficult issues more digestible through humor, you should use that power for good, for empowerment, for enrichment,” Stigler said.
Alexandro, for his part, applauds Silverman for being “funny, smart and articulate and does a really good job of discussing issues that matter and creating dialogue around those issues. And she also makes it entertaining.”
Whether other comedians can learn from her example, though, Alexandro isn’t so certain. “I think it’s personal,” he said. “If you are moved to speak out in such a way, go for it. I guess her example can let people know that it won’t necessarily hurt your career and it can even help.”
“I’ve learned that it’s helpful to put the frustration, anger and disillusionment someplace constructive. I feel better for having participated and also being around like minded people who are involved and doing good work.”
Are there any dangers in comedians delivering a serious message without also including jokes? “Danger might be a strong word but sometimes people expect comedians to be funny, and nothing else,” Alexandro said. “For a comedian, and a woman, to venture outside of those prescribed roles, some people take offense. But who cares? I say “Bravo” to Sarah and anyone who takes the time to voice a well thought-out opinion, whether expressed comedically or otherwise. If people can sit and watch comedians roast Justin Bieber they should be able to listen to a comedian essentially roast gender pay inequality.”
Apollo WOW Festival: 1 p.m. Sunday, June 14, Apollo Theater. Just Take the Mic: The Power of Feminism in Comedy, with Phoebe Robinson, Liz Miele, Emily Schorr Lesnick and Amanda Seales
Lady Parts Justice Carnival: 3-8 p.m. Sunday, June 14, The Creek and the Cave. Carnival games, food and celebrity guests. 8 p.m., “An Evening of Sexual Storytelling with Lady Parts Justice” featuring Corinne Fisher, Sara Benincasa, Shalewa Sharpe, and more. $15 discount tickets here.