If They’re Laughing, They’re Listening
Comedy is more than just a balm; for women, it may just be the one way to get America’s ear.
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DAME talks with CLAWS star, comedic actress Jennifer Lyon, who has created one of the most searing viral videos about racist paranoia that came out this year. We discuss the power of comedy as a political tool, especially for women, whose voices are too often muffled or shut down entirely. If you get people laughing, it means they’re listening, and for women, this is crucial.
DAME: We’re in a moment right now where humor can feel elusive, even as it might be more necessary than ever. How do you feel about comedy acting as both an escape and a motivator?
Jennifer Lyon: Sometimes I feel like the further away it seems, the more I have to search, grab, and find it for myself and the world. Because the news is often such a relentless shit parade of suffering, we get desensitized, beat down, lethargic. That is a corrupt government’s greatest tool—to make you so tired of the fight that you give up. But if I can laugh about something or find the clever thing inside of the pain, that gives an opportunity for surprise or taking a breath. Then the breath gives life and space to the moment and allows us to get back in the arena. It’s a catharsis for myself and for so many because comedy is rage and pain and grief, but it lets the light in. I don’t want my eyes adjusted to the dark.
DAME: It’s clear that women comedians are leading this charge—from the women of Saturday Night Live to the writers’ rooms for Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, Baroness von Sketch, Broad City, 2 Dope Queens, Insecure, and standups like Michelle Wolf, Hannah Gadsby, and Janelle James. Who are some of the women in political/activist comedy who have inspired you over the years, and those you think are doing it best in this moment?
Lyon: Jesus, this is a hard one. Of course, Dorothy Parker shoots to the forefront of my mind first as well as Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Monique, Elaine Boozler, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Cho—these were some of the first women comedians that were in my worldview of brilliant joke-writing and changing the landscape of comedy. Now you have Amanda Seales, Jenny Slate, Aparna Nancherla, Sarah Silverman, Natasha Legaro, and so many other amazing, badass voices.
DAME: Also like activism, political comedy requires allyship. It can’t just be the Amy Schumers and the Lena Dunhams prescribing the commentary and solutions. You and Niecy Nash partnered on an incendiary—and viral—video to skewer the throng of white women who call police on Black people for doing things such as sleeping, walking, cooking … The BBQ Becky video that came from that was hilarious, however, it’s addressing an incredibly painful reality—one that quite literally puts Black people’s lives at risk. How did the two of you work together to ensure that truth came through, and it wasn’t just a throwaway parody?
Lyon: It’s motherfucking tricky to tackle an issue like this because I’m afraid of being accused of not taking it seriously. But when my man, Taige Jensen (who is also white), came up with the idea to do it, it was born out of the fury that it IS so dangerous and keeps happening and not changing. And it’s not like it was two white people telling a Black story. We are satirizing the white side of the story and sending up how outrageous and insidious it is. When we sent the script to Niecy, she was so wonderful and game and brought all the fire that is Niecy Nash to the table and we made sure to keep real statistics in—such as how much more likely it is for POC to be arrested, serve longer sentences, or be killed. So, yes, the form of the informercial allowed us to say a very painful thing in a palatable manner, but also we used all real stories—every instance you see in the commercial is an incident that happened and was reported. And it’s a real number you can call and leave a message on. So, none of it is dismissive; it is used to amplify the message that this needs to stop.
DAME: Do you think women use humor as a way to get men to listen? To make sure that they’re listening? We’d like to think that if people are laughing, presumably they’re listening. Do you think this is why so many of us have turned to humor to get the conversation going?
Lyon: This makes me cry. Yes. Absolutely. I know in my life, humor is a sword, a shield, a path, a warm casserole, a sweet kiss, a cold slap in the face—just so many things. I think we now know that it takes real smarts to be funny and so when a woman says something intentionally hilarious, it makes the room sit up and take notice of her point of view.
DAME: Do you find it harder to be funnier in today’s political climate, or easier?
Lyon: I find the lightness in things. I met my fiancé in improv—we’ll be lying in bed and he’ll say to me, “What are some of the great things about global warming?” and I’ll say, “Well, those animals dying out, some people are really into skeletons, they’re going to be stoked.” I just think that way. Comedy usually is taking something and twisting it to make it funny. Right now, we barely have to.
DAME: When you take on controversial subjects in your comedy, like race or misogyny, do you ever worry that your audience won’t like you? Does it matter?
Lyon: Oh God, all the time. I have a deep-seated need to be loved and liked. I’m up late at night, worrying over something I said weeks before. But when it comes to this stuff, I always say, “This is serious motherfucking stuff. There are countries in this world where satire is punishable by death.” Telling these stories, highlighting these injustices, is a fucking calling. Comedy is my chance to say, “Fuck you, I don’t care what you think.”
In this current climate, we’re quick to cancel people. If you make a mistake, if you’re working on something and someone doesn’t like it, you could just be cut off forever. It’s scary but what we’re doing is for the greater good. What I’m saying is more important than my fear.
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