In the darkest times, laughter can serve as the best medicine. But it’s also a powerful tool for making people listen.
Author and comedian Quinn Cummings often turns dark-and-twisty realities into humor in her writing–from three published books to her viral Twitter account. Here, she weighs in on how funny women might just save the world.
What I remember about Election Night 2016 is the horror I felt, so deep and unmanageable it had become physical. I lay in bed, very still, because if I moved even slightly it felt like I had been burned over my entire body. At some point, I fell asleep. I awoke a while later, unbidden, thinking, “I can’t buy these people away and I can’t wish these people away but I can mock the everloving shit out of them until they’re gone.”
There’s a line in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises where he writes, “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” History does that a lot. There were always women who were political, if for no other reason than “political” can also be pronounced, “Deciding who gets the stuff.” And there have always been funny women, even before they were allowed on stage. Nell Gwyn had enough moxie and humor to become a favorite of King Charles II. There were women who were funny and political, though fewer of them had a public voice. Stand-up comedy—where most political comics hone their craft—was a nearly completely male world until recently and is still mostly a boys club.
And then came The Election. For a great many women, it felt like an assault and for a great many others it reminded them of an actual assault in their past. To talk about the gaping wound this election created would have been a completely reasonable response, but there was a problem. Men tend to find a woman’s pain and anger very, very unmanageable. And even though we comprise 51 percent of the population, men are still, more often than not, the gatekeepers of discourse. If we cry, if we show rage, we run the very real risk of being mocked, ignored, scorned. But women are done being ignored; we’re demanding attention. We’re marching. We’re canvassing. We’re calling our representatives. We’re writing and we’re performing, both live and online. We’re making people laugh. We’re making people think. And we’re demanding that they listen to us. Comedy, done right, is the spoonful of sugar around our rage.
Last year, the women comics and writers who mastered the art of self-deprecating humor suddenly looked around and realized that minimizing yourself is a luxury and these are not luxurious times. Michelle Wolf stood in front of a group of journalists at their clubby little White House Correspondents’ Dinner and told them they were complicit in our current political crisis. The media screamed and carried on about a joke about Sarah Sanders’s eye makeup because they couldn’t admit what really bothered them: that Michelle Wolf had told the truth. Even worse, she didn’t apologize. When Trump recently crowed that the Correspondents’ Dinner would be hosted by a historian this year, not a comic, Wolf shot back, “I bet you’d be on my side if I had killed a journalist. #BeBest.” She is as precise as a sniper and uninterested in being loved. Her comedy works because it is based upon the truth, then boiled down to its purest essence.
For the past three years, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee has taken no prisoners. Bee and her writers take on the hard topics and mine the most precious ore. The result is a comic alloy that is both illuminating and entertaining. Bee is incredibly knowledgeable, doesn’t pander to her audience, and has a way of enlightening viewers while making us laugh. As when she went to a Syrian refugee camp to meet the “people we’re incoherently yelling about,” and summed up her conversation with one refugee perfectly: “You sound like someone who really understands the principles that America was built on. You are going to stick out here like a sore thumb.”
On the small screen, the women of Broad City, Baroness von Sketch, and Saturday Night Live are weaving the horrific realities of living in a MAGA State into plotlines and punchlines that offer both searing commentary and spit-take delivery, effectively pulling us out of our collective funk, even for just 20 minutes at a time.
And then, there is Hannah Gadsby, whose Netflix standup special, Nanette, broke our hearts, gave us hope, and exploded the traditional comedy framework. I have heard men complain this isn’t stand-up. But women understand acknowledging pain isn’t the opposite of humor, it’s woven in the in the fabric of humor, it’s a catalytic agent, the starter yeast. When women write and talk about their assaults, their rapes, their losses and gains in life, and the horrors happening around them, they will find the humor, if you give them room. It’s how we survive. Women are now demanding that room.
Women are using laughter as a tool for communication and commentary on every platform—we have to, it’s the only way people listen to us. Comedians like Claws star Jennifer Lyon, demonstrates how effective humor is with the viral videos she writes and creates with her partner, award-winning film editor Taige Jensen, which take on the body ideal, sexual harassment, and most recently and powerfully, the realities of racism and racist paranoia when they took on the meme of BBQ Becky for the New York Times. She could write a thousand earnest and passionate essays online and sing to the choir until she died. By framing difficult things with comedy, Lyon is sneakily sliding past the defenses in the brain and possibly changing a few minds. She’s also really fucking funny.
How have women come to telling the truth?
Gradually, then suddenly.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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