Because of the pandemic, this year’s Just for Laughs festival has been moved to the fall. If it had been able to take place in July as usual, it would have provided a much needed collective morale boost, after months of uncertainty, anxiety and grief.
That said, today, more than ever, comedians should be about more than laughter. They can also serve as guidance and as gut-checks. On July 26, an anti-Donald Trump group released the America Wake-Up ad. It’s a montage of images of the Trump crew, mixed with troubling news footage and topped-off with the voice of the late comedy icon George Carlin, excerpted from one of his 2005 acts. In it, Carlin deconstructs the decline of the American empire. His words are still very much à-propos.
In a sit-down with Barbara Walters in 1984, the grande dame of interviews asked Johnny Carson: “When you go home and worry about things, do you worry about this country? Are there things that really bug you that you can’t say on the air?” To which Carson replied: “I think one of the dangers, if you are a comedian, which basically I am, if you start taking yourself too seriously and start to comment on social issues, your sense of humour suffers somewhere.”
The likes of Just for Laughs alums Trevor Noah, Hasan Minhaj, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Canadian Samatha Bee are walking on a path unbeaten by Carson. My wish is to see more of their counterparts of this side of the border join it. If the past months have produced one takeaway that is unquestionable — because it is supported by numbers — it is that social ailments and racial injustices exist in Canada, not only in the United States. Shouldn’t that reality be reflected more in Canadian acts?
“I don’t mean to get heavy, but we got to say something”, chimed Chappelle in 8:46. The jokes can wait, comedians. But justice cannot.
Martine St-Victor is a communication strategist and a columnist on ICI Radio-Canada Première, on RDI and on CBC radio.
I understand that. But today, late night talk shows are not only watched live. They are viewed online and excerpts are shared hundreds of thousands of times on various platforms. Their reach is greater than ever, and so is their influence. If the comic relief of these ambassadors of laughter takes a hit, in exchange for calls to action and demands for accountability from leaders, I’ll take it. If comedians use their clout to encourage audiences to be more involved in civic duties, I’m OK with it.
In fact, they should, à la Carlin or à la Chappelle. In early June, JFL favourite Dave Chappelle released 8:46, on Netflix and on YouTube. It was a 26-minute cri du coeur. With George Floyd’s murder as its epicentre, 8:46 is also a diagnosis of how we got to today’s upheaval. Its intent is not to make us laugh. Instead, it forces us to think about our place and responsibility in the current movement for social and racial justice. I have often said that not every Black person needs to be Martin Luther King and not every woman needs to be Gloria Steinem. But today, it would be great if every comedian with clout used his or her platform to be an advocate for equality and for change.
The influence of comedians is undeniable. Many of us can name more comedians than we can elected officials and can probably recite comedy bits better than we can explain policies. It’s something politicians have understood since at least 1968, the year Richard Nixon appeared on TV’s Laugh-In. The role of comedy has always been essential to social change, but never more than now. The best comedians get us through emotions. We remember when what they said moved us, made us think and yes, laugh. Very few political leaders have that kind of power.