Comedy is, in my mind, as much a medium for social commentary and criticism as any protest or political debate.
Ricky Gervais is shown in this file photo. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Chris Pizzello
By Samantha Emann, special to the Times-Herald
A comedian is much funnier when the people, social norms and political issues they joke about are comical, relatable and make you see from a different perspective at the same time.
An obvious nod goes to John Stewart and Stephen Colbert who have brought satire to a higher and more poignant level. Their perspectives on American culture and politics are both intelligent and seriously funny.
I have a lot of favourite comedians, alive and dead. Again, I could not manage to cut my favourites down to the traditional increment of five. But here are the best of the best in the arena of political and social satire and comedy.
”Comedy is the blues for people who can't sing.”
Although this comedic star has appeared in movies and on television, I have always found his best work to be his stand-up. If you want a comedian who will give it to you straight on many issues, especially racism, Chris Rock is your man. He talks about social norms and stereotypes in a way that shows you exactly how weird or wrong they are while also making it dangerous to drink for fear of performing the dreaded spit-take. You laugh while realizing how much ground our society still has to cover. I find his down-to-earth attitude and uncanny ability to make us laugh at ourselves is both relatable and smart.
“They say that 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people.' Well I think the gun helps. If you just stood there and yelled BANG, I don't think you'd kill too many people.”
Eddie Izzard is funny in that crazy, improvised and yet at times very intelligent way. His social commentary sneaks up on you. Although in some ways you could say that as a transvestite he wears his beliefs on his sleeve. With him we see the wackier side of human nature and history. Historical injustice is a favourite topic of his as well as equality, religion and jam. He sets about trying to change people’s minds about things they may not have previously understood just by being who he is and being brave enough to do it in heels, which is more than this columnist can do. He speaks multiple languages and gives very intelligent interviews. While his jokes may seem a little scattershot, the unscripted quality of his stand-up work only adds to its charm and effectiveness.
“Offending people is a necessary and healthy act...Every time you say something that's offensive to another person, you just caused a discussion. You just forced them to have to think.”
Louis C.K. is very talented and I think most of his comedic talent comes from his honesty. His riffs on the vanity of both genders, the poor priorities of the current generation, divorce and raising children are always on-point and hilarious. His willingness to take on the more taboo and intimate subjects also makes him one of the best in contemporary comedy. He is honest about himself and is not afraid to laugh at himself or use himself as an example to get a point across. He gives us genuine experience, advice and ranting and is not afraid to offend, which is a quality I can commend and love to see in a comedian.
“The truth doesn’t hurt. Whatever it is, it doesn’t hurt. It’s better to know the truth.”
Ricky Gervais is one of those comics who, in his sarcasm, has been known to be both profound and profoundly funny. In a lot of his stand-up material he is cheeky and witty, punctuated by moments of sobering bluntness. On topics like obesity and animal cruelty he is very concise and open and yet is still able to make fun of himself in a way that amuses audiences. His page by page reading of a children’s book about Noah’s Ark is one bit I can watch again and again as he effortlessly takes a topic that many people take far too seriously and lampoons it in a way that forces people to laugh, no matter their beliefs. It is refreshing to see a comedian who actually lives by a lot of the stuff he says on stage. His accent is just a bonus.
“Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do.”
Bill Maher mixes laughs with his own brand of unapologetic opining to devastating effect. You may not always agree with everything he says but he does not shy away from unpopular opinions. Whatever your personal politics Bill Maher, both in his stand-up and on his show Real Time with Bill Maher, says things in a way that makes you laugh out loud, shake your head and/or loudly debate with those around you, especially when it comes to government and religion. He has a television show, he has made a documentary and has filmed multiple comedy specials with the same genuine, Republican-roasting humour that make audiences both listen and laugh.
“The status quo sucks.”
When it comes to comedy with an unabashed personal agenda, no one can top the late George Carlin. His uncensored and common sense approach to comedy has won him my top spot. No party, no faith, no gender, no generation, no one could escape his criticism. Not only did he not care if you agreed with him, he did not care if you were offended and I think he would have been disappointed if you weren’t – at least a little bit. From suicide, to technology, to addiction, to God, no topic was out of bounds and he did it all insightfully. You may not have liked what you heard but you took notice. He was, arguably, the best of the best when it came to mixing legitimate commentary with comedy. He was both wise and stubborn and many aspiring satirists, comedians and commentators follow his brash but honest example.
These comedians all have qualities that make them great. Sometimes, comedy is just about the jokes, but it can also be about challenging our beliefs and forcing us to see the world in a different way. These comedians, in particular, are truly exceptional at that.