In recent years, stand-up comedians in the Western world (and increasingly in other parts of the world) are providing biting comedy that is cutting through issues that are dominating society. Hannah Gadsby made an excellent point in her Nanette special back in 2017, winning an Emmy and beating Beyoncé in the process.
This sort of social commentary as comedy is not unique. Comedians have been doing it for years – in fact, it was studied in 1985 in American Quarterly. Observational comedy, as it is often called, seeks to disrupt conventional assumptions while providing useful insights into society at the same time.
Jim Jefferies is a highly controversial figure in Australian stand-up comedy due to some of his content about sexual assault. What he is best known for is his position on gun control.
At the time of writing, this video has had over 15 million views and his podcast “I Don’t Know About That with Jim Jefferies” tends to be interesting – although it’s a bit sweary.
It’s also easy to look at people like Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Jimmy Kimmel (maybe – there aren’t many decent clips), James Corden (okay, maybe not so much him but he’s good for a rant on occasion) and previously Jon Stewart for their willingness to work with their writers and cut through to the meat of an issue.
However, there is a question about the responsibility they hold for their comments. They are not necessarily experts on the topic at hand. At the same time, is anyone really an expert on society?
It’s not unusual for politicians to say to their supporters that these stand-up comedians speak only for the “metropolitan elite,” and that they do not speak for everyone.
The thing that stand-up comedians do extremely well is point out the hypocrisy in politician’s speeches. Here’s a great example.
I think the best way to look at stand-up comedians is that they are excellent communicators. They may not be the best social commentators due to a lack of knowledge – but what they do have is the understanding of the points that will attract attention from an audience and a greater freedom from party politics to discuss their point.
They also tend to understand their audience better and are able to float around changes in society, understanding why these changes are happening. Political parties and their supporters may be significantly slower to adjust and thus, appear more unwilling to change.
In many cases, traditional social and political commentators that operate within the media landscape have chosen their point of view or ideology – they have decided their audience and their fans will turn from them in the event of a sudden shift.
At the same time, some commentators can shift public opinion, but it must be done carefully. They struggle to do so with humour – something that comedians can do far more effectively. A perfect example is Jimmy Carr, in the lead up to his comedy special on Netflix.
His approach to comedy tends to be quite scientific in that he knows an awful lot and is not afraid to dissect things to get to his point. He is also prepared to take his audience apart. Many hecklers have tried, and failed, to wind Jimmy up – this is the perfect example.
However… stand-up comedians aim to punch up and speak to power. That means they tend to sit on the left of the political spectrum. As a result, this see them painted as urban elites, out of touch with society by conservatives and their supporters. In my opinion, this misses the larger point. They are taking apart the issues that are affecting many and explaining better than the political parties and their focus groups can. It’s why they are more popular than political leaders. They are better communicators, they cut through better.
This is the reason why stand-up comedians may not be better social commentators… but they are definitely more effective at it.