Salon.com writer Sean McElwee recently slammed comedian Russell Brand’s widely successful and otherwise well-received world tour, Messiah Complex. Brand, who has challenged millennials to abstain from voting and critiqued politicians and political systems in past routines, continued to provoke with Messiah Complex. He craftily examines current social injustices and calls upon his audience to join him in solving these problems. McElwee unfairly dismisses Brand’s comedy routine as a “popular radicalism” that shouldn’t be seriously considered because it isn’t academically rigorous. McElwee extends his criticisms to comedy in general by saying “comedy is not a vehicle for radical social criticism at all.” Bullshit.
McElwee, and other Ivy Tower dwellers that ignore popular radicalism, don’t seem to understand the merits of artistic expression. Quality art takes complicated abstract ideas and makes them digestible and attractive to the audience. Comedy, like other art forms, can certainly be a tool to address social and political issues. In fact, comedy has had an astounding ability to shift social norms through satire and unabashed rhetoric throughout history. Here are six famous counterexamples to McElwee’s argument.
This bit proves that a single homophone can start a revolution. Bruce’s performance of this sexually charged skit at the Jazz Workshop in California would lead to his first arrest for obscenity (pictured above). Bruce would continue to be tried on obscenity charges in several states for years, tirelessly working to overturn state laws to give rise to the free-speech rights Americans enjoy today.
Pryor transformed the cultural understanding of African-Americans, especially African-American males in post-Civil Rights America. He deliberately abandoned a “clean act” for a blunt, sometimes vulgar, critique of institutional racism and the prevailing White attitude towards Blacks and was one of the first popular Black figures to do so. He is credited with paving the way for others like Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock to continue to candidly address racism in comedy. This bit, in particular, was one of the first instances in popular culture where racial slurs are redefined and “reclaimed.”
Carlin’s obscenity filled critique of public decency standards, hypocrisy, and American’s attitudes toward taboo subjects was the impetus of a Supreme Court case, F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, which helped to shape broadcasting regulations and indecency standards. Besides setting legal precedents, the nationally performed and televised Seven Words routine altered the public’s perception of words and well-intentioned authorities. Seven Words marks the beginning of popularizing counterculture ideals in mainstream America.
Saturday Night Live’s political parodies have undoubtedly altered electoral politics in America, especially presidential politics. Shortly after the first presidential debates were televised, SNL beget a series parodic reenactments that have become more popular and widely discussed than the actual debates. In the past, SNL’s skits have shaped the political discussion so much that they actually affect polling statistics.
Izzard pioneered a discussion of gender identity in popular culture. One of the first and few cultural icons to perform in drag, Izzard used humor to challenged stereotypical beliefs of masculinity and sexual identity. In this very popular skit, Izzard provides a helpful and hilarious explanation on transvestism. Personally, my first lessons in gender identity came from Izzard’s bit, and I’m sure many others would say the same considering its commercial success.
El Bernameg, otherwise known as Egypt’s Daily Show, proves just how impactful satire is in other parts of the world. Although he was arrested for his critiques against President Mohammed Morsi on the program, host Bassem Youssef still believes the impact his show has on Egypt’s social conscious is worth his personal sacrifices. Receiving 30 million views per episode, Youssef firmly believes that his show directly inspired youth to reject Egypt’s militant propaganda.
After listening to these routines and remembering all of our other favorite bits, the benefits and power comedy has seem obvious. Remember this the next time someone calls the Daily Show “the news for stupid people.” Just because comedy is entertaining doesn’t make it dumb, unimportant, or unworthy of deeper examination.