© Kate Copeland
Humor is able to make people laugh. But when used strategically, it can also eliminate stereotypes. Journalist Mary O’Hara, supported by experts from different fields, notices humor’s immense power to actively counterbalance bigotry (O’Hara 106). She postulates that humor can bring new ideas to society and correct mistaken stereotypes. However, psychologist Gil Greengross disagrees with O’Hara, proposing that whether comedy can eliminate stereotypes depends largely on the context of audiences (Greengross 144). While philosopher Simon Critchley admits that shared context is important, he concurs with O’Hara by applying incongruity theory, which states that humor changes people’s view through surprising them. He uses this theory to explain how humor reverses the audiences’ perception of stereotypes. Finally, while comedian Negin Farsad employs Critchley’s positions to shift people’s views about Muslims, she adds a more interesting interpretation of her pursuit. “What makes comedy so effective is that if you’re making them laugh along the way, they’re going to listen to the deeper cut stuff” (Farsad 13). Denying Greengross, she confirms O’Hara that humor can earn people’s trust, and eventually defeat stereotypes.
As social affairs journalist Mary O’Hara observes, humor can counter malicious stereotypes by conveying new ideas (O’Hara 105). To certify this observation, she offers a collection of comedians and scholars. For example, social activist and comedian Josie Long believes “Satire is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” (O’Hara 106). This belief signifies that through satire, humor can balance the feelings of all the individuals, including those who are labeled with stereotypes. O’Hara investigates further by visiting experienced comedian Stephen K Amos, who claims, “One of the singular properties of certain comedy ‘when done well’ is the freedom to explore ideas in an unconventional or counterintuitive way, to subvert society’s norms” (O’Hara 107). Based on Amos’ discourse, O’Hara asserts that comedy can provide new insights into social ailments – stereotypes – and cures them. She uses Amo’s action to validate John Fugelsang’s claim, “Humor can be a social corrective” (O’Hara 108). This sentence further proves O’Hara’s note that humor can bring different perspectives that help correct the mistaken stereotypes.
Though psychologist Gil Greengross agrees with O’Hara that comedy can bring unique information, he claims that humor does not change all the audiences’ biased views if they perceive these jokes differently. “The same joke can be funny or not, but can also be racist or not racist depending on who tells it and to whom” (Greengross 144). He implies that when people lack shared ideals with the comedians, the subsequent humor may fail to counter stereotypes. Drawing from experimental results, Greengross also concludes that comedy may not provoke audiences to hold against racists, who impose stereotypes on minority groups. “When we consider groups that most people discriminate against, and feel they are justified in doing so, disparaging humor towards that group does not foster discriminatory acts against them” (Greengross 143). He clarifies that humor can only show stereotypes rather than resisting them.
Philosopher Simon Critchley concurs with Greengross that shared context is essential for a joke to effect change. “There has to be a congruence between joke structure and social structure” (Critchley 123). However, he disagrees with the point that jokes do not effectively attack stereotypes. Based on the premise that a common identity is established, Critchley uses incongruity theory to explain how humor alter people’s perception about stereotypes. This theory states that the discrepancy between reality and the audience’s expectation generates laughter. Through making audiences laugh, Critchley asserts, “The incongruities of humor both speak out of a massive congruence between joke structure and social structure, and speak against those structures by showing that they have no necessity” (Critchley 126). He suggests that when a comedian jokes about stereotypes, the audience is informed and expects a joke that mirrors their stereotypical view. He then declares that as the comedian unveils the joke in an unconventional style, people’s expectation is popped, and they will break into laughter. “By laughing at power, we expose its contingency, we realize that what appeared to be fixed and oppressive is in fact the emperor’s new clothes” (Critchley 126). Critchley implies this moment as a shift in people’s view about stereotypes. When comedians lead audiences to this moment, these stereotypes, set up by the powerful, will seem to be ridiculous.
Comedian Negin Farsad’s jokes fit well with Critchley’s incongruity theory. She also refutes Greengross’ conception, demonstrating that joke tellers can accommodate people, dissolve the social barrier, and finally change people’s views toward stereotypes through surprising them. Viewing comedy as “a platform for advancing social justice” (O’Hara 106), Farsad bravely sets off on a grand mission to alleviate a stereotype regarding her own identity: Muslims do not denounce terrorism. To fight against this stereotype, Farsad, in her movie, The Muslims are Coming!, holds a comedy performance in Birmingham. At the beginning, she brings the audiences delicious foods. As people are attracted to the delicacies, Farsad identifies with these audiences, mockingly appreciating their tastes for foods (Farsad 17). When she brings people closer to her, she shifts the topic toward correcting the Muslim stereotype through the “name that religion” game. As she mentions a quotation that involves violence, people will expect it to come from the Quran. However, Farsad reveals that it comes from the Bible (Farsad 18). The audience, out of surprise, breaks into laughter. They come to realize that not all terrible things come from Islam. In this way, Farsad succeeds in reducing audiences’ stereotypes about Muslims.
While Critchley and Farsad agree that humor can fight against stereotypes, Farsad has a more specific interpretation. “Comedy … makes you laugh. And when you’re laughing, you enter into a state of openness. And in that moment of openness … comedian can stick in a whole bunch of information” (Farsad 14). This explanation well serves as the philosophy for Farsad’s pursuit of justice: As she breaks audiences into laughter, they are more open to listen to the positive messages that Muslims are as good as anyone. Her method for eliminating stereotypes also verifies O’Hara’s quote from Sophie Quirk: “If you’re getting people together and talking about views that in the broader social context are quite marginal, and we’re all laughing together at those, then you’re kind of affirming them” (O’Hara 107). Therefore, Farsad ensures that when she identify with audiences, she can eventually disintegrate stereotypes.
To sum up, a meaningful humor is not just about making people laugh; it should have profound social effect. The conversation about humor’s ability to fight against stereotypes goes favorably. O’Hara, with her stakeholders’ support, concludes that humor can correct mistaken stereotypes by delivering ingenious thoughts. Greengross flips the conversation, noticing that common social identity is necessary for a joke teller to change people’s mind. Critchley mediates the controversy between O’Hara and Greengross, proposing incongruity theory to explain how humor alters people’s views about stereotypes based on shared context. While Farsad tells a joke that supports Critchley’s theory and counters Greengross’ points, she also confirms O’Hara’s belief in comedy’s social functions. Still, though we have understood that humor can fight against stereotypes, we should consider if humor can effect real political change in the same manner.
Critchley, Simon. “Did You Hear the One About the Philosopher Writing a Book on Humour?”
Think, vol. 1, no. 2, Autumn 2002, pp. 103-112, doi.org/10.1017/S147717560000035X.Rpt. in The Essential Guide to Analytical Writing with Humor Readings. UC San Diego Bookstore, 2017, pp. 122-131
Farsad, Negin. “Can Humor Fight Prejudice?” TED Radio Hour from NPR, 24 Mar. 2017,www.npr.org/2017/03/24/520942852/negin-farsad-can-humor-fight-prejudice.
Greengross, Gil. “Does Racist Humor Promote Racism?” Psychology Today, 18 July 2011, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/humor-sapiens/201107/does-racist-humor-promote-racism. Rpt. in The Essential Guide to Analytical Writing with Humor Readings. UC San Diego Bookstore, 2017, pp. 142-144.
O’Hara, Mary. “A Serious Business: What Can Comedy Do?” Mosaic, 23 Aug. 2016,www.mosaicscience.com/story/comedy-humour-jokes-political-satire-taboo. Rpt. in The Essential Guide to Analytical Writing with Humor Readings. UC San Diego Bookstore,2017, pp. 104-111.
I greatly acknowledge the AWP program director and my instructor Dr. Karen Gocsik. She gave me comprehensive feedback in revising my first draft and second draft throughout the course, especially facilitating clear representation of the course readings. I am grateful for the curriculum coordinator Sarah Baker, who viewed my third draft, corrected citation errors and advised better synthetic strategy during the community office hour. I appreciate my mentor Sarah Ardell for raising suggestions about grammar and style in meeting sessions. I also thank my groupmates Flory and Shuli for enriching me through common reader response and group conference. The response helps me a lot when polishing the final paper.