Want to know what’s going on in the world? Ask a comedian.

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I know I’m not the only one to say I wouldn’t survive an election cycle without The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (mourning that loss already). There is a long history of comedians saying things others can’t or won’t say, analyzing our society in ways that cut more deeply than what we see in the news, while also making us laugh. Those efforts can reverberate in ways small and large, from Amy Schumer changing policy on the use of the word “pussy” to Hannibal Buress pushing the Bill Cosby allegations back into the spotlight. 

I spend hours listening to comedy podcasts, watching funny TV shows, going to live standup performances both because it’s just fun and healthy and energizing to laugh, and because hearing people find a compelling, amusing way to comment on injustice is cathartic and necessary. There are so many wonderful comedians out there who do this every day. Here is a small selection of some who have made the case for the value of comedic voices on these issues just in recent weeks. 

W. Kamau Bell on being a six foot four black male

Bell can always be counted on for incisive comedy to the word through his standup and his dearly missed show Totally Biased.  In the wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson, Bell wrote a moving piece in Vanity Fair about being a B.B.M. (big black male):

The fact is that being a B.B.M. has consequences. Being a B.B.M. is why I smile quickly. It’s why I don’t usually stand to my full height. I slouch and bend. When acquaintances haven’t seen me for awhile, I often hear, “I forgot how tall you are!” I know you did. It’s because I’m trying to make you forget. This is what being black in America has done to me, to others like me, and in some sense, even to you. It’s not that I think that I will be killed by a police officer. It’s just that if I am, it won’t be a surprise.

Cameron Esposito on how to joke about Bill Cosby

You can hear Cameron Esposito’s take on issues like LGBT rights, Ferguson, Hobby Lobby and more (plus a lot of great comedy) on the weekly podcast and live standup show she hosts, Put Your Hands Together. She also writes for the AV Club, and dove into the roiling debate about rape jokes with an insightful piece on how to joke about Bill Cosby:

But I do think that when a comic is in a group of people more often unaffected by a topic, that comic should understand they’ll need to do some extra work to make their jokes funny, relevant, and well thought out. If you are a white comic talking about dealing with racism, or a straight comic talking about being uncomfortable in a gay neighborhood, or a dude talking about rape, you are speaking from outside the community most affected by the issue you discuss. You’ll have to work harder to tell a good joke. You’ll be rewarded for the extra work, trust me. Look at Louis C.K.’s career. Taboo topics addressed personally. That’s his whole thing and he’s doing just fine.

Patton Oswalt on feminism

In interviews and social media posts, Oswalt has always struck me as a thoughtful person who is willing to adjust his viewpoint based on listening and learning. He displays this in an interview with Pete Holmes on his podcast You Made It Weird. It’s worth listening to the whole thing for their conversation about comedy, religion, progressive politics, and more, but his point about men and their relationship to feminism and rape culture jumped out at me:

You always, always have a long way to go. All that “not all men” and all that. Look, yes, I know that you’re…by the way, most feminists I know, they don’t think of themselves as fully evolved. They’re like, “I’m learning too, I’m exploring new territory,” so why the fuck don’t we? I don’t know why that’s a big, scary…If you’re so fucking secure, if you’re so fucking secure in your manhood and your place, then aren’t you open to going, “Let’s tear it all down and see if any of it’s wrong?” I mean, if what you’re saying is totally right, then you should have no problem questioning it.

Chris Rock on white progress

If you haven’t read Chris Rock’s fabulous interview with Frank Rich yet, the entire piece is worth your time. He offers great insights on race, politics, and Hollywood. One of the highlights was a comment that seems so obvious once you hear it, but is not at all the way racial progress is talked about in this country:

Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before…

…So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

Hari Kondabolu on facing racism in America

Another Totally Biased alum, Kondabolu constantly examines race and privilege in his cutting, hilarious act. A quote from his album Waiting for 2042 has been popping up on protest signs as a powerful rebuke for people who say that the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases aren’t about race.

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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