When I first started standup comedy, I never meant for my title to become “Elsa Waithe, Comedian and Activist.” I didn’t set out to do political jokes or political comedy. I just wanted to get on stage and talk about the things that made me mad and the things I found weird. Come to find out that a lot of the things that made me mad were the government and social justice issues.
But once I started, I noticed something. After a show, people would come up to me and tell me how funny I was, but more importantly, that they never thought of a particular issue in the way I presented it. Way before trans bathroom bans were part of the national conversation, I used to joke about how difficult it was for me to simply pee in peace. Many people would tell me that they never imagined the public restroom was such a challenge. I soon came to realize that what I was doing was political comedy—or really, turning my comedy into activism. In fact, comedy and activism—or politics and jokes—are BEST FRIENDS because laughing at people is an easy and effective way to strip away their power.
When most people hear the word “activism,” they think protests, rallies, and marches—but activism can be defined as any activity that promotes or directs social, political, economic or environmental change designed to improve society.
So can that happen on a comedy stage? Of course it can!
The purpose of comedy is to make people laugh. The purpose of mixing comedy and activism is to get people to laugh and then … think! I like to think that a good joke about absurd differences between groups (white and Black, men and women, gay and straight and other) not only makes us laugh but makes us think about why those differences even exist in the first place. I like to say that blending comedy and activism is a good way to “add lube” to the socio/political conversation.
Political comedy and comedy activism are as old as time, past Shakespeare and all the way back to the ancient Greeks. We’ve all done it. The teacher is mean? You and your pals take the edge off his cruelty by mocking his weird voice. Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have spent decades holding up a mirror to American politics so we can truly see its ridiculous nature. Sam Bee, a Daily Show alum, hosts her own show, Full Frontal, which is a master class on comedy and activism. She introduces and informs her audience on the issues of the day, lets her stance be known, and then skewers idiot politicians and public figures.
A good joke about social ills can be an illuminating and galvanizing moment. It was an open Hollywood secret that Bill Cosby was a sexual predator, but it wasn’t until Hannibal Buress made a joke about it that over 50 women came forward to accuse Cosby. This was ultimately Cosby’s undoing. We often laugh at things that are, in some way, rooted in a painful truth; the laughter is the shovel that gets under the roots and brings that truth into the light.
So now, let’s learn how to write a political joke.
- Decide what grinds your gears.
You need not be a political tactician to write a political joke. You just have to be annoyed at something. Ever find yourself ranting angrily about a new bit of red tape? Or maybe upset with a seemingly incompetent Orange Gargoyle businessman turned “politician”? This is all fertile joke soil. Start with the very unfunny feeling that something makes you mad/sad/fearful of (fill in the blank politician/law).
- Take aim—at the right target.
A good political joke “punches up.” That means you want to go after the big guy with the power, not the small-fry. So if you’re writing a joke about homelessness, your target isn’t the homeless person, but rather the oppressive policies that cause homelessness. A good way to check if your are “punching up” is to ask yourself if you were part of the group/topic you’re joking about, would you feel supported by the joke, or would it leave you feeling even more powerless? And if your intent is to make someone feel bad, are you making the right person feel bad?
- Write it backwards.
Used judiciously, sarcasm is an awesome tool in the political writer’s toolbox. Good sarcasm can expose truth and ridiculousness. Think of how Stephen Colbert throws himself, without ironic detachment, into a character who’s a huge fan of the right wing. Maybe you write about how much you love Trump’s Twitter account because it make you feel smarter. Maybe you totally dig the new Nazi uniform of white polo shirts and khakis. Take that thing you hate; try to put yourself in the truth of loving it; see what happens.
- Make it personal.
Think you can do a better job than the idiots in Congress? Tell the audience how. Who would you ban instead of Muslims? Where do you think a wall should be built? Let the audience in on not just the fact of your outrage, but where it comes from, and where it can take you. Remember, you are one of many comics joking about the unjokeable in this weird world we find ourselves in. What’ll make you stand out is your unique take.
- Don’t expect a revolution.
Making a difference or changing a mind is a hard thing to gauge. So don’t go out on stage expecting to whip everyone into a frenzy, march out of the club, and storm the White House. Sometimes audiences will love your critiques, and other times your material will fall flat. Either way, stick with it. We often shy away from social and political issues because they are difficult to discuss but a good joke lowers defenses and offers a side door into challenging topics.You never know who’s listening.