Comedy in communication: A TED conversation

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In our information age full of ideas worth spreading, how can you make your ideas stick? According to TED speakers Pep Rosenfeld, Chris Bliss, Patrick Chappatte, and Liza Donnelly, comedy doesn’t just make us laugh – it makes us think.

“Comedy has the unique ability to circumvent our ingrained perspective,” says writer, comedian, and TEDxRainier speaker Chris Bliss. When we laugh at a joke, we have to admit that something about the joke makes sense. “It sneaks the message in,” says comedian and TEDxAmsterdam speaker Pep Rosenfeld. “Comedy is the Trojan horse of communication.”

What makes comedy so effective at communicating information?

Our defenses aren’t up for comedy, says Pep Rosenfeld. Not only that, but laughter releases endorphins, making us happier, relaxed, and more receptive. Humor makes information easier to retain. According to Bliss, this is precisely the reason why viewers of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart are more informed about current events than the viewers of other major network and cable TV shows in the US. And when something is funny, it becomes instantly more viral, meaning that your message is much more likely to be shared with others.

Turning our walls into windows

A well-timed joke can dissipate tension and make information more digestible, says Pep. A fight-or-flight response fills our veins with adrenaline, which keeps us alert and raises our defenses, explains Bliss. “Laughter is like the water that puts out the fire. No one is open to new information when they’re mad. Anger is the single greatest disruptor of good communication.” Laughter creates an instant bond between people, says Pep. “If I make a comment about something both you and I observe, then we’re on the same team. It’s a great hitting-on technique.”

The power to unite or divide

On the flip side, comedy may be used as a weapon to increase tension, to divide, and to manipulate. Patrick Chappatte, political cartoonist for the International Herald Tribune and speaker at TEDGlobal, spoke on the “Power of Cartoons”, and describes how they have been used as media propaganda to illicit feelings of fear, anger and hatred toward certain people or organizations. Even in recent years, Danish political cartoons depicting Mohammad provoked riots that lead to casualties. This sparked debates about freedom of speech and censorship. Cartoons are effective at mobilizing people, for better or worse, by sending a strong and succinct visual message.

From animation to activism

So how can we use comedy constructively? Chappatte believes that through responsible use of freedom of speech, cartoons may promote social and political discourse that can lead to positive changes. In an effort to promote dialogue and peace in conflict-ridden countries, Chappatte held workshops in Gaza, West Africa and Lebanon, where he gathered cartoonists from across the political spectrum to meet and publish their cartoons side by side. Although the cartoonists didn’t agree with each other, they each were allowed to voice their opinions about the religious, social and political issues affecting their country via cartoons. View some of Chappatte’s cartoons here.

Liza Donnelly, a staff cartoonist for the New Yorker and speaker at TEDWomen, began cartooning to confront cultural expectations of how she, as a woman, should dress, act, and think. Liza likes cartoons because they can get at the truth “quickly and succinctly, through the intellect and through the heart.” Liza turned to humor because “humor relies on the traditions of a society, takes what we know and twists it, it takes the codes of behavior and the codes of dress and makes it unexpected”. Women who use humor provoke change and hold a special power, says Liza, which is why she decided to break the glass ceiling as one of the first prominent female cartoonists. View some of her cartoons and blog here.

How have our TED speakers been using comedy since their TED talks?

Liza Donnelly is involved in Cartooning for Peace, an EU-UN initiative born partially in response to the aforementioned Danish Prophet Mohammad cartoon debacle. Cartooning for Peace brings together cartoonists from all over the world, and covers topics such as freedom of expression, religion, human’s rights, women’s rights, the environment, and more, all with the aim to “unlearn intolerance.” The cartoonists have been exhibiting across Europe, the US, and other countries.

Chris Bliss is working on his Bill of Rights Project, which seeks to “promote an enduring awareness of and respect for the freedoms and the principles guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, through the installation of Bill of Rights displays in civic spaces across America.” He’s organized The Phoenix Comedy Festival, which takes place May 13 and celebrates the “freedom to be funny” to raise funds for the Arizona project.

Pep Rosenfeld just opened a new show at BOOM Chicago on April 10, Branded for Life (Gemerkt voor het Leven), which explores (and mocks) what we buy, sell, and want, and who influences our decisions.

In addition to continuing his work as a cartoon journalist, Patrick Chappatte recently screened a selection of film perspectives on Lebanon at FIFF (Festival International de FIlms de Fribourg). Included was his own animated documentary “La mort est dans le champ,” which describes how the dispersed explosives that remain from the Israeli-Lebanese war still continue to maim or kill people in the region. The screening was followed by a panel discussion led by Chappatte.

So while TED speakers use comedy and cartoons to challenge our preconceived ideas on values, culture and politics, they show us that – on both an individual and global scale – using comedy in communication is an idea worth doing.

Categorized as Ideas Worth Doing, news, speaker.

Tagged with comedy, communication, humor, tedglobal, TEDWomen, tedxrainier.