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Democracy is a Laughing Matter

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The CMSI team poses with the lineup of comedians at Comedy Saves Democracy. Photo by Ari Scott.

Could America’s deep-seated polarization be solved with jokes?

On Saturday, October 21, comedians Negin Farsad, Chris Gethard, Dylan Adler, Corey Ryan Forrester, Maggie Crane, and Yasmin Elhady took to the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage for the premiere of Comedy Saves Democracy, an interactive show executive produced by the School of Communication’s Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI) that put that hypothesis to the test.

CMSI, which creates, studies, and showcases media for equity, social change, and social justice, is one of six community partners selected by the Kennedy Center for its 2023–24 Social Impact and Comedy programs—and the only one affiliated with college or university to have earned that distinction. Last weekend’s event was presented by CMSI’s GoodLaugh, which creates comedy for social good, and was produced and directed by Caty Borum, executive director of CMSI, and SOC comedian in residence Bethany Hall.

Featuring original material from comedians on lessons learned traveling the country; interactive “pre-show shenanigans,” during which audience members engaged with each other; and a closing comedic song, the sold-out event was emceed by Farsad.

“When we think about issues that we face in this country—the climate crisis, racial injustice, environmental justice, and gender equity—[they] are made profoundly difficult to address when we remain polarized,” Borum said. “The heart of democracy is people’s belief that they can work together.”

Comedy, for its part, brings people together, Borum continued. Stand-ups must listen to the crowd, cross ideological divides to connect with others, and a push through failure.   

“[Comedians] have to get people to laugh with them,” said Borum, an award-winning producer, scholar, and author who studies how entertainment can create social change. “If you go into a community that is not like your own and you can’t people get people to laugh, you have failed at the show. You have bombed.”

Democracy relies on the same principles of collaboration and compromise, Borum said. But when people stop interacting, it becomes like a punchline that falls flat: the show is over and no one laughing.

“Democracy completely fails once we give up on the power of people to actually come together and do collective decision-making,” Borum said. “It’s on us to try to find ways to listen to one another and to work past polarization.”

Watch a recording of Comedy Saves Democracy here.