Charlie Hebdo: Comedy as an Act of Courage

Charlie Hebdo: Comedy as an Act of Courage January 9, 2015

I love Jon Stewart. I mean, like “maybe jump the fence” love him. His presence on The Daily Show has spoken to and with my generation through some of our most formative years.

And yes, he tells fart jokes (which I also love). And yes, he editorializes, (which is nearly ubiquitous in “legitimate news” streams anyway). But he also often names what people are thinking, feeling, or what they can’t even put into words.

And then he helps us laugh about it, and at ourselves.

On a recent episode of The Daily Show, however, he took a more sober tone when talking about the slaughter in the headquarters of the French satire magazine, “Charlie Hebdo.” One comment in particular that he made stuck with me, not because it was funny or witty. Rather, it pointed to something we all need to consider more seriously, I think.

“I know very few people go into comedy as an act of courage,” he said, “mainly because it shouldn’t have to be.” But actually, true satire, and any other comedy with a higher purpose (at the risk of sounding too grandiose) does take courage.

What Stephen Colbert did on “The Colbert Report” took tremendous courage. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” took courage. And regardless of what you thought of Charlie Hebdo’s content, they were indeed courageous.

That’s because, when handled with it’s due respect, comedy is one of the most powerful tools we have. That’s why you know when legendary preacher Fred Craddock tells a joke during one of his sermons, he’s more than likely about to follow that up by hitting you between the eyes with a powerful truth. It’s also why I start my talks (with widely varying success) with a few jokes. It’s not to get people to like me. Trust me, if I wanted that, I could go to churches to tell them about the imminent decline of their historic empire. But it’s because humor in itself opens us up to the unexpected. It disarms us and reveals in ways that direct, rhetorical truth can’t.

Jon Stewart is right that, in and of itself, comedy isn’t an act of courage. But it is a courageous act to confront systems of power, injustice and oppression – and often, violence – with nothing more than a microphone and a three-by-five index cards full of ideas.

How do we know such comedy is courageous? It’s self-evident in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters. If those responsible for the killings hadn’t felt threatened by the satirical cartoons penned and published by the magazine, if they didn’t recognize the power of such comedy, they would not have gone to such radical extents to extinguish it.

So we have to keep laughing, even in the face of tragedy. Aside from it being salvific for our spirits, it is one of the most potent and necessary tools in our arsenal for creative nonviolent engagement that we have. As the classic superheroes often said, we need to laugh in the face of danger, and seek opportunities to unmask the absurdity of broken systems all around us that wreak so much suffering.

Thank you, Charlie Hebdo, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and others who use comedy as a tool of empowerment, revelation, healing and subversion for the rest of us. Despite what Stewart says, you are courageous.

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