Seven Serious Jokes about Climate Change
Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious. - Peter Ustinov
Last night’s climate comedy featured an exacting gig for professional comedians at the RSA, but they all took the task very seriously (one aspect of comic expertise, I noticed, is skill in the art of pretending not to prepare).
Individually, and together, they delivered a wonderfully diverse take on the climate challenge. It was a great fit for the project, because it echoed the core point about the need for a diversity of perspectives and approaches to the challenge. I am grateful to all the comedians for their hugely creative contribution; in fact I feel I learnt something about the creative process by watching what they did with the issue. I’m especially grateful to Pippa Evans for rallying her colleagues and hosting the event with such elan (even if she did call me ‘little beardy Rowson‘ on stage).
Climate change does not lend itself well to comedy for a variety of reasons. Some are comedy specific – eg it’s remote from everyday experience, darkly serious, there are competing conceptions on root causes and solutions, but most are related to the reasons that climate change is not more accessible more generally. Indeed, Pippa introduced the evening by quoting Dan Ariely’s line: “If you said, I want to create a problem that people don’t care about, you would probably come up with global warming”.
However, as Adam Corner outlined in a preview of tonight’s event in the Guardian we should not give up on comedy as a way to generate interest in the issue. The core point, I think, is that humour and laughter serves to help people think and feel together, and climate change desparately needs that kind of shared experience of the problem. The challenge is that it’s relatively easy for comedians to do general comedy that merely mentions climate change but keeps the underlying issues at arm’s length; but if you start arguing seriously about what is happening and why and what we really should do, you might trip into earnestness, and will lose or even alienate your audience.
I was impressed therefore that all seven of the acts found that difficult-to-reach sweet spot in the middle. They were seriously funny, and ensured the laughter wasn’t an escape from the problem, but a way to reengage with it. The format of the event was based on the RSA/COIN report The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change, which came out today, and I had a chance to flash it at the audience while speaking briefly (c1.08) before the final act.
You’ll have to watch the video for the full effect, but as an appetiser, here’s a nugget I took away from each act.
Science: A carefully crafted sketch by Steven Punt where he initially (and slightly unnervingly for me) seemed to be speaking as a climate denier mocking ‘so-called science’, before proceeding to mock the mockers in style by highlighting why and how ‘so called Science’ is invariably proved to be right.
Technology: The most heartfelt piece, in which Rob Auton was visibibly moved by the end; clearly grappling with the issue on a personal level, but also highlighting the absurdity of relying on technological solutions alone, like ‘ice cap apps’, and why do we need real trees when you can see trees on your Ipad?
Law: I had the impression that Jessica Fostekew had been reading my initial piece on the Seven Dimensions and focussed on Ecocide, but noticed that: “The wording of the ecocide law has a loophole & doesnt exclude a violent robot revolution.”
Culture: The most flamboyant sketch, which initially unnerved much of the audience, but was probably the most memorable in terms of resonance of colour and voice and movement. A slowly developing story was told with the aid of the unsuspecting guy sitting next to me, whom Holly Burn decided was called ‘Jim’. She proceeded to kidnap Jim, live, and took him to her imagined dance floor as she reminisced about her trips to Africa with ‘Jim’, before ruefully comparing the current state of the place she used to love, which was now a wasteland. The essence of her case to ‘Jim’ – who crucially turned out to be a famous artist and writer was: Why didn’t you write about this? Why weren’t you creating content about climate change while there was still time to do something about it?
Democracy: Marcus Brigstocke seemed generally masterful, and clearly understood the climate challenge well. His rendition of a tailored Dr Seuss poem was particularly engaging. Just watch it.
Behaviour: Pappy’s initially looked like they were making it up as they went along, recycling (sic) old material, but this was preparation for an impressive and (for me) genuinely surprising twist with palpably strong parallels to human inaction on climate change.
Money: The Showstoppers (featuring banker-style bracers) prepared a song all about money and climate change, and it felt like the finale of a broadway musical, which helped end the event on a high note.
What made the event for me was not that it was hilariously funny. There were a lot of quality comedy moments, but it wasn’t laugh out loud for weeks on end; I don’t think we could have expected that. What fascinated me was the tension betwee the seriousness and urgency of the issue, and the creative challenge of making people laugh about it in a way that didn’t trivialise the problem. There is a real expertise there – and I deeply admire the way the comedians managed to do that.
In fact I wonder if climate change comedy will become a whole new genre. When you realise how delicate an art form comedy is in general, climate comedy could be an elite test for budding comedians. As our performers showed tonight: if you can make people laugh about climate change without forgetting the need to act on it, then you have succeeded in beginning to create the army of new climate amatuers that the world needs, and what’s more; you have truly mastered your art.
@Jonathan_Rowson is co-author of The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change: Introducing a new way to think, talk and act. Tonight’s event was the first of five in this series. The second even, Climate Question Time, is happening on February 11th.