As a comedy writer obsessed with climate change, I frequently stumble across articles with titles such as “Can climate change be funny?” or “Is there anything funny about climate change?” As if “serious” was the natural opposite of “funny”.
Of course climate change is serious: that’s why we need it to be funny.
Laughter as a Link
Comedy is a great way to face very serious things. Laughing creates a direct link between our bodies and our minds, between our individual selves and the groups around us, between concepts and reality. Laughing is essential to our understanding of the world. Think of To Be Or Not To Be, Lubitsch’s Nazi satire, or Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove: direct, yet hilarious responses to potential annihilation. We must find ways to laugh at the climate crisis, and if some argue that laughing diminishes the importance of a subject, I believe that we can only accept the hugeness of these crises with the relief offered to us by laughter. This lightness can be exactly what we need to find the courage to live and fight – and this goes much beyond making science communication entertaining.
The most obvious use of comedy in this context is catharsis. In a world where we keep our anxieties buried in order to keep the peace, having someone downright panicking about global temperatures going up somehow feels great. My favourite example is from Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, wonderful in the simplicity of the joke and the delivery. Or Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Don’t Look Up, who shouts live on TV: “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be light! Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying! You should stay up all night every night crying because WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE”.
Punch up, not down
Don’t Look Up is a satire – it takes the piss out of weak politicians, failing media, greedy billionaires and the people who follow them. It is a bitter and effective counterpoint to Lawrence’s cathartic shouting and a good example of comedy that points fingers without being preachy.
At the COP26, comedian Maeve Higgins analysed comedy in the context of the climate crisis: "We try to get rich and famous ourselves … and that’s not gonna help the climate catastrophe … punch up rather than down … see who’s still benefitting from this … and go after them instead of people who are trying to help out.” Don’t go after the vegans, no matter how ridiculous you find them, but after the tech-billionaires, the fossil fuel industries or selfish politicians. You have the power to shift who and what we laugh at and who we admire.
But there’s more to comedy than that. Researchers at Colorado Boulder University have come up with the term “good-natured comedy” as a way “to diversify the modes of comedy that can be used in climate communication beyond satire to other modes that are possibly more supportive of sustained climate action”. This allows us all to open up to tough realities, create a feeling of community and a shared language, and feel good for a while. Good-natured comedy “connotes both a mode of comedy that is good for nature, and [doesn’t seek] to shame or expose in a cruel or demeaning manner. [E]nvironmental comedy needs to be of superior quality in order to be effective, it needs to be unencumbered by excessive environmental messaging.” They encourage us to go beyond the very tempting and often justified urge to blame others, or that the audience must learn scientific facts. This type of comedy must be inclusive: it is not laughing at, it’s laughing with. Comedy writers have to be aware that jokes have consequences, and can hurt as well as heal, even with the best intentions.
Ted Lasso: An Example of Good-Natured Comedy
Ted Lasso uses humour to talk about big, wholesome ideas in a way that would be pretty heavy to the viewer if it wasn’t constantly communicated with silliness. In Ted Lasso, optimism defeats cynicism by way of “good-natured” comedy, and the whole power dynamics of the world he enters are shifted.
Ted’s concept of “Rom-communism” (the belief that it will all work out in the end), for example, is similar to the “Radical Optimism” described in the book The Future We Choose: the mindset we need to solve the climate crisis. From Ted’s speech on accepting change even when all we want is for everything to stay the same, to the usefulness of being a prick when the moment is right, to the power and joy of creating chaos, the show, probably inadvertently gives us tools to understand how we can act on the climate crisis, and asserts that good-natured comedy can be genuinely funny and have an audience, no matter what the cynics say.
Comedy allows us to try being weird. As long as it’s funny, it can be as weird as you like, as different as you like, as creative as you like. This has as much revolutionary power as kindness. With comedy, we can experiment with story structure, characters and tone while still being entertaining.
The authors of the article about ‘good-natured’ comedy mention improvisations where they would play non-human living things, to great comic effect. This de-centring of the human voice is essential to approaching the ecological crisis, and yet non-comical representations can quickly come across and be dismissed as esoteric or “hippie”. Complex issues can be more easily digested when told through comedy, as is masterly shown by the Irish comedy trio Foils, Arms and Hog with their absurd Mother Earth sketches.
There can be more complexity and beauty in a joke than in many serious statements. Contradiction, absurdity, community, understanding, power dynamics, vulnerability, uncertainty – all these can all be held in one sentence and the way it is told. It is hard to make jokes about the climate crisis: most of it is graphs and numbers and once we’ve used up the “I DON’T UNDERSTAND I DON’T HAVE A SCIENCE PHD” or the “I’M PANICKING WHY ISN’T ANYONE ELSE PANICKING” jokes, it feels like there’s not much else to say. It’s so complex and terrifying that we want to look the other way, understandably, but we forget that our greatest way to escape, laughter, could also be the best way to connect with the truth of our times and our imperfect presence in this world.