January 08, 2015

Satire Can Be a Powerful Message for Nonprofits

Lucille Clerc

Editor's note: The opening line of this piece has been revised to reflect the news of the additional violence that erupted in Paris after this article had been posted.

The horrific attacks in Paris this week broke hearts around the world, and all the world's prayers and sympathy go out to the victims.

The massacre targeting the weekly satiric paper Charlie Hebdo, which has run cartoons lampooning Islamic terrorists, chillingly came on the heels of a cyber attack believed to have been launched by North Korea recently against Sony Pictures, which was about to release the comedy "The Interview," mocking Kim Jong-un.

The terrorists and the North Korean dictator didn’t strike when serious critical articles concerning them had frequently appeared before. But they apparently recognized that comedy has a unique power to affect how people think and act.

Comedy, indeed, matters. This past summer, for example, the ALS ice-bucket challenge, which went viral amid turmoil in the Middle East and the shocking events in Ferguson, Mo., got people to laugh while raising awareness and funds to fight a devastating disease.

It is clear that comedy can be a powerful tool in conveying a message, be it social, environmental, political or otherwise.

As nonprofits plan their communications activities for the year ahead, they would be smart to infuse comedy into their messages. Not only will humor help imprint their arguments on the minds of the masses, but comedy’s demonstrated "share factor" will help them spread their ideas to a wider audience.

For those who think their causes are too serious to joke about, I encourage them to think again: Comedy uniquely possesses the uncanny ability to broach serious topics with apparent lightness. Humorous sketches make audiences laugh at society’s challenges, no matter how complicated or grim, while at the same time causing them to rethink their notions of right and wrong, social justice, and more.

In June, comedian John Oliver drew unexpected attention to the important but poorly understood topic of net neutrality by discussing it on his popular comedy show, "Last Week Tonight." Mr. Oliver explained the concept of net neutrality and emphasized its importance to the average citizen but peppered it with his trademark jibes. In the days following, the FCC site received thousands of comments—enough to cause the site to fail the day after Mr. Oliver’s broadcast. A few months later, President Obama issued a statement in favor of net neutrality, mentioning that millions of people had expressed their concern for the issue already. Mr. Oliver’s comedic presentation on the matter clearly succeeded in bringing it to the forefront of many more people’s minds than ever before and inspired them to act.

President Obama’s own calculated use of comedy in the political arena drives the point home. In a number of unexpected moves by a U.S. presidential candidate, President Obama appeared on both "The Daily Show" and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" to discuss real campaign issues leading up to the 2012 elections.

In his second term as president, Mr. Obama has continued using the comedy air waves to promote his messages: In 2014, he appeared on the comedian Zach Galifianakis’s "Between Two Ferns" to plug his health-care plan; and last month, the president sat with Stephen Colbert for an alternatively serious and light interview about immigration, Congress, and more. Thanks to these and other hilarious stunts, the president has been able to reach millions of viewers with messages that otherwise might not have caught their interest.

These engagements on political-satire shows were not arranged without forethought. President Obama’s team clearly knew that through the lightness and humor offered by these platforms, the president’s messages would be better conveyed, remembered, and spread by audiences worldwide. No less important, they knew that young people today are avid watchers of the late-night satire lineup: As Mr. Obama sarcastically declared on his recent Colbert appearance: "Young people don’t watch real news shows like this one. They watch comedy shows."

Ultimately, whether comedy as a legitimate and effective tool for social change is a mere fad or the new frontier, the rest of us would do well to jump on the bandwagon. Like President Obama demonstrated, we must meet people where they are.

Unsurprisingly, in the cutting-edge fashion of the millennial generation, a number of young social activists have begun making intentional use of humor in the social-action realm. I have seen this begin to take root within ROI Community, the global network of young Jewish activists that I lead.

Most recently, Omri Marcus, a Tel Aviv-based creative director and comedy writer, spearheaded Comedy for a Change, an international conference that took place right before Christmas, aimed at helping social-change agents sharpen their messages using comedy.

Beyond arming activists and nonprofit leaders with a comedy toolkit, Mr. Marcus’s work proved in real time the power of comedy to change the status quo. In a particularly controversial session, "The Non-Diplomatic Peace Talks," Mr. Marcus invited two Israeli comedians and two Arab comedians to discuss—humorously—how to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. All four comedians willingly agreed to talk (often the first hurdle in real peace negotiations) and laughed together with the audience over one another’s ridiculous suggestions for how to overcome each side’s animosity toward the other.

As British actor and comedian, Peter Ustinov, says, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” With the horror of the Paris attacks still fresh in our minds, let us take Mr. Ustinov’s words to heart and seek to use comedy as a way to make the world a better place.

Justin Korda is executive director of ROI Community, a project of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and a partner in JJJ: Comedy for a Change, an international conference on the ability of comedy to drive social change.