Conveying Pain Through Comedy

Minorities often have to employ forceful language, through rallies, protests, and campaigns to get their voice across and to affect change. Comedy, while more subtle, can equally underline societal issues, humor can be used a vehicle for change. By injecting humor into issues such as racism, feminism, and homophobia, comedians like Hasan Minhaj, Trevor Noah, and Hannah Gadsby communicate their community’s pain in a way which is indirect, yet effective. While serious attempts to deliver grievances by minorities through direct means such as speeches,  are frequently dismissed, comedy provides a means of influencing the audience. It serves to shrink the gap between the audience and those they view as the other. By inducing what Hannah Gadsby, calls “tension”, setting up a truthful, uncomfortable anecdote, and then providing “relief” through jokes, these comedians manage to provide not just an evening of laughter, but an experience that makes the viewer reflect on society’s norms and conventions.

Hasan Minhaj, an American comedian of South Asian descent, was a senior correspondent on The Daily Show from 2014-18. During this time, he also hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2017 and released shows on Netflix. Minhaj has used his influential platform to serve as a voice for Muslim, South Asian, and immigrant communities. His segments on the Daily show “Muslim Makeover” and “Punish a Muslim day” touch on the Trump administration’s policies against Muslims, as well as the rampant Islamophobia in America. In his Netflix special, Minhaj relays how his family was attacked for being Muslim in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, turning the disturbing things that he and other Muslims have experienced into humorous anecdotes.

Minhaj describes how his father swept up the broken pieces of glass after  a group of men smashed their car; his father was “sweeping glass like he worked at a hate-crime barber shop” he says, getting a laugh from the audience.  He belongs to a generation that believes they must pay a racism tax for the American dream. “ I was born here so I actually have the audacity of equality” says Minhaj. That’s the most direct that Minhaj gets during his routines. His anger and sadness are hidden behind jokes, which makes the audience empathetic,  inviting them into an alternative perspective. Minhaj’s side to the story may be one that the audience hasn’t heard before, but perhaps after understanding the sentiments that lie behind his stand-up, the audience will consider the perspectives of Minhaj and other Muslims in America. Minhaj is able to advocate for his community by, transforming anger and pain into comedy. In doing so he affirms to South Asian and Muslims viewers that their stories matter. At the same time lets white audiences into the reality of what being a South-Asian Muslim immigrant in America is like without causing them to feel like he is complaining to or targeting them.

A similar tactic is employed by Trevor Noah, a South African comedian, political activist, and television host on The Daily Show. In his book “Born a Crime,” Noah relates the experience of walking with his parents during the Apartheid. His father, a white Swiss man, and his mother, a South-African black woman, by law were made to walk on different paths. Noah, mixed-race, evidence of his parent’s crime, only walked with one at a time. Once, at the park, he began to chase his dad, yelling “Daddy! Daddy!” Fearing the law his  father ran away from him, and two-year-old Noah followed, thinking it was a game. Noah’s story may seem adorable and playful but it shines a light on a tragic time. The thought of a two-year-old running after his father thinking it is a game when in reality under a racially oppressive regime it was anything but, is incredibly bittersweet. Noah read the excerpt at Barnes and Nobles. He smiled and laughed as he told it. If he had spent three hours giving a speech about how horrendous living under apartheid was, it is doubtful that the two hundred people that gathered in the small space at the bookshop would have stayed. Through the comic delivery of this anecdote, Noah conveys the horrors of the apartheid implicitly.

Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, Nannette, is about just this: turning pain into humor. The riveting Netflix special came out late 2017. Prior to that, the comedian had enjoyed some popularity, but mainly within her native Tasmania. The special was critically acclaimed upon release, receiving accolades from the New Yorker, The Economist, Elle, Wired, and The New York Times, which called her special a “Comedy-destroying, soul-affirming act”. In contrast to Minhaj and Noah, Gadsby is more serious. The act isn’t memorable for simply its jokes, of which there are plenty throughout the one hour, but because halfway through, Gadsby changes her light, airy, tone completely, announcing that she is quitting comedy. She goes from making jokes such as “what kind of comedian can’t make lesbians laugh? Every comedian ever. Lesbians have to laugh, because if we don’t- it proves a point!” to "I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it's humiliation.” Gadsby explains that behind the jokes about her sexuality, her gender, and consequently her place in society, there is pain. Through comedy, she converts that pain into something that the audience would want to hear and has been doing so since 2006.

In her essay “The Site of Memory” Toni Morrison relays how in African-American literature, slaves often forwent writing about the pain they felt, their emotions, their sadness, and their depression, because the pain of slaves wasn’t something that the elite, white readers of the 18th century would have cared to read. Gadsby touches on the same subject. She makes jokes about how she was shamed, threatened, and beaten in Tasmania for being a lesbian. She makes jokes about how she was sexually abused and raped.

When women confront harassment, when LGBTQ people object to the ways they are treated, when people of color protest against discrimination, their issues are often dismissed. Little attention has been paid to the sexual harassment endured by women until very recently, the result of a movement initiated by Hollywood’s rich and famous. The decision of several NFL players to take a knee many simply dismiss the action as anti-national. The demands of the LGBTQ community are brushed off by those in power, who always have some issue that is “more important”. But enough is enough, says Gadsby during her Netflix special. “I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me,” she commands.

The balance between tension and relief is delicate. Viewers feel much more tension than they would expect from a comedy special. In this case, Gadsby makes her point not so much through humor; she is completely serious for much of the second half, jokes are infrequent and only garner light chuckles. She ends angrily, shouting into the mike about how society cares more about the reputation of men, than it does about the lives of women. She gets a thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Gadsby, more directly than Minhaj or Noah, uses her platform as a comedian to start a discussion about those who have been oppressed, and continue to be so. "This tension is yours,” she says. “I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like, because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all of the time. It is dangerous to be different."