Sustainable Missoula: Can we joke about climate change?
Sitting in Flippers on a Tuesday night, I’m surrounded by ten of Missoula’s best stand-ups, and we’re all armed with our joke books and pens. I’m reading the most recent headlines about climate change to the group off my phone, and the comedians are shouting back possible punchlines.
“New Jersey has become the first state to require that climate change education is integrated into every school subject, including classes like art, language, and physical education,” I read from NPR’s website, and wait for their responses.
“In PE, kids are now learning how to wrestle each other for precious, precious water,” one comedian says, to a burst of chuckles around the table.
“At least they’re not teaching critical race theory,” another quips.
We’re preparing for our next big fundraiser: an hour-long comedy show about climate change, to benefit Families for a Livable Climate. We’re discussing mass extinction, disastrous weather events, and what might literally be the end of humankind – and we can’t stop laughing.
“What do you think they’ll call Glacier National Park in ten years?”
“Just Some Trees,” one comedian offers.
“Melty Place National Park?” says another.
It’s easy to say that there’s absolutely nothing funny about climate change. Just like there’s nothing funny to say about heartbreaking issues like mass shootings, pandemics, or sexual assault.
But I want you to know that’s not true. And not only is it not true, but it’s dangerous thinking. The reality is that humor about these topics isn’t only not gauche or offensive (if done right), but that it’s vital to confronting and solving these problems.
As a comedian and community organizer, I do think there are places comedy shouldn’t go. You can’t convince me that there’s any valid reason to “punch down” against marginalized groups during a set. And I think that the vast majority of “shock comedy” for shock comedy’s sake only results in cheap (and uncomfortable) laughs.
But when it comes to talking politics, taking on sensitive topics, and making fun of our most terrifying current issues, comedy isn’t just okay, it’s imperative.
This isn’t just how I feel. Science has confirmed it. Multiple studies have found that humor is literally good for us, lowering our blood pressure, fending off depression, and even taking away our physical pain. But researchers have also found that humor is a legitimate way to help us stay informed, a way for us to talk about really difficult things, and ultimately a medium for us to find connection in a divided world.
One example? A 2021 study found that political humor is a reliable way to learn news and retain information. Participants not only paid more attention to politics when it was delivered in a humorous way, but they remembered what they learned better – and were able to pass it on to others. It’s research like this that explains why viewers of satirical news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are consistently better informed than others, even those watching more traditional news programs on FOX.
Taking on tough current events in stand-up is also a proven way to make stronger connections with others. Dark comedy and gallows humor doesn’t exist to offend people. It exists to help us continue existing.
“If you laugh at it, you can deal with it, and if you don’t, you can’t deal with it,” Joan Rivers famously said at Sundance in 2010, when talking about using humor to cope with her husband’s suicide. “I would have been laughing at Auschwitz.”
It’s shocking, but Rivers (who is Jewish, by the way) said that humor during that time of unimaginable grief is what saved her from ending her own life. It’s a common theme voiced by first responders, medical professionals, and veterans: dark humor helps us survive our traumas and then helps us process them.
Comedy also helps us find common ground and understanding. When I was in college, I would have told you that there’s no such thing as a funny rape joke. That sexual assault was simply not a laughing matter.
Then in 2006, I saw Wanda Syke’s Sick and Tired comedy special, where she famously talks about how grand life would be if only she had a detachable vagina. She could take it out and go for a jog at night, she teased, or she could leave it at home to safely go on dates.
I laughed, the audience laughed, my partner on the couch laughed – and he said that he’d never really thought about what it must be like to move through the world as a woman. Sykes’ jokes weren’t just hilarious, they were doing work, spreading empathy and changing our culture. Rape jokes aren’t just okay, we need them to fight sexual assault.
The scope and immediacy of the climate crisis often feels completely overwhelming. Tackling it means talking about it, informing others, and finding a way to cope with what’s happening to the world around us. We’ll need to respond with everything we have, and that includes some punchlines. If we can laugh at it, as Joan says, we can deal with it.
Sarah Aswell is a comedian and the founder of Revival Comedy, which hosts a monthly comedy fundraiser at the ZACC for non-profit organizations in Montana.
Join Revival Comedy and Families for a Livable Climate December 17, for a night of jokes (and activism). Doors at 7 PM, show at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased here.
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Tuesday Dec 13 — Common Good Missoula's Civic Academy. 6 - 8 pm. Missoula Fairgrounds Commercial Building. Common Good Missoula and City of Missoula and will co-present on what the Our Missoula project means to our community and how, together, we can create more diverse, inclusive, and robust engagement that guides how Missoula will grow in the future. Our Missoula is a multi-year project that seeks to refresh Missoula's vision for future growth, and to modernize and make critical changes to the zoning and development code, one of the City's greatest tools for achieving that vision. All welcome for this game changing event. Climate, housing, connections and more! RSVP here. Facebook event HERE.
Saturday, December 17 — Missoula Climate Comedy Night Benefit. 7:30 show. As described above! Join Families for a Livable Climate at the ZACC with Revival Comedy and other comedians for a night of laughter and connection to benefit our organization and climate outreach work in Montana. Purchase tickets today. Funds raised will go towards sharing climate stories and conversations across Montana. $10 tickets. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. Show is rated for ages 18+.
Friday, January 20 - Climate Advocacy day at the Capitol. Let's bring a bunch of folks to Helena for our climate. Save the date!