Finding humor in a sometimes-unfunny world

by Andrew Sosanya | 1/25/17 2:20am

Harambe. The 2016 election. El Chapo. Brexit. The list goes on. A look back at 2016 tells us that humor is the most prevalent when there is a pervading sense of discomfort about current events. Memes filled Twitter feeds, and late-night comedy shows never ran out of material. While some may not admit it, comedy has the power to make us laugh during the hard times.

Film and media studies professor Joanna Rapf, a visiting professor teaching Film and Media Studies 7.15: “Women and Comedy in Film,” said that comedy makes bad news easier to digest. Rapf’s research is in silent film comedy, and she’s a fan of political comedians like Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee because they put current events in perspective in a way that makes audiences laugh and question society simultaneously. She said that the comedic angle gives them a space to think analytically.

“It allows comments to be subversive and critical without alienating the subject,” Rapf said.

After a long day of classes, Sam Kocen ’19 often turns to comedy shows to destress after a study break. He loves to watch cheesy sitcoms such as “Fresh Off the Boat” and “New Girl.” When he watches TV, he would rather not get too involved, saying that he likes to just take some time to laugh.

“A lot of people take themselves and society too seriously,” Kocen said. “With that constant negativity, humor and comedy’s role is to fight back against it.”

Sophie Palmer ’20 works three jobs, rows on the varsity crew team and studies engineering. She grinds day and night to get her daily tasks done, but there are times when she just needs a good laugh. After one calculus session, she recalls feeling the need to watch a new episode of “New Girl.”

“I need time to do brainless activities,” she said about watching her favorite show, “Parks and Recreation.”

English professor Christian Haines loves watching classic stand-up and is a fan of comedians such as Richard Pryor and George Carlin. But he takes a special comfort in comedic sitcoms, where the plot is resolved by the end of each show.

This past summer, Haines taught English 54.02: “Arts of Laughter: Comedy and Criticism,” which discussed contemporary and antique comedy and its role in society. Haines’ discussions would sometimes prompt students to relate the subject material to aspects of their experiences at Dartmouth such as racism and sexism.

“Comedy allows us to acknowledge that some things around us are actually broken,” Haines said.

During times of self-doubt and angst, comedy can be remedial and self-reflective.

“We use it to reassure ourselves, to laugh things off,” Haines said. “Comedy allows us to interrogate our values.”

The results of the 2016 presidential election spurred a flurry of Facebook rants and protests. Jokes were so prevalent that it sometimes seemed like President Donald Trump had little chance at winning the election. Gabe Jenkinson ’20 felt that the election was trivialized too much.

“A lot of these jokes, especially memes, made issues seem more inconsequential than they were,” Jenkinson said.

A sense of humor is a desirable trait for a candidate, but Jenkinson felt that the humor exchanged between the two presidential candidates themselves was not well-received.

“Both candidates’ use of humor was not very tasteful, as it revolved around bigotry and attacking one another,” Jenkinson said.

Although moods were often more somber after the election, it didn’t stop comedy-powerhouse shows like “Saturday Night Live” from cracking jokes. Zohra Aslami ’18 says that jokes should be directed elsewhere.

“[Jokes] were quite hilarious before,” Aslami said. “After the election, I think the humor is a bit misplaced.”