12 March 2012

Using Comedy for Social Change: Live from SXSW

Are programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart providing better access to news and current events than traditional news outlets? Why are we subjected to hours of reality TV that portray women as appearance-obsessed maniacs? And people of color are just in the media to fulfill stereotypes, right?

These are the questions that Eddie Geller (writer) and Erin Gibson (writer/actress), along with Candace Clement (Advocacy & Organizing Manager for Free Press), addressed during the 2012 SXSW Interactive panel "It’s Funny ‘Cause It’s True: Battling Bad Media." Ultimately, the question is whether comedy can play a role in social change and help us create policies that will lead to better media.

"Mitt's Office" for MoveOn.org, written by Eddie Geller

"I was the class clown in school and always enjoyed making people laugh," says Geller, whose comedy is part of being himself. "When I was 15 or so, I started making comedy videos for our morning announcements and had begun doing stand-up comedy by the time I left high school. In college, I spent most of my time doing improv and stand-up comedy, which is why I moved out to Los Angeles. I think it's in my blood, as my sister is also a comedian and my brother is pretty hilarious in his own right."

It must be in the family blood. One thing that makes Geller unique from his funny siblings is that he's always been passionate about politics and numerous issue. It's no surprise then that he accidentally became an activist when he started his own issue awareness organization.

In November of 2010, he made a post to reddit.com calling for a Reddit Political Action Committee. That ended up becoming an organization called the OSDF (Open Source Democracy Foundation) that fought for Net Neutrality - the principle that the Internet needs to remain free and open. Since founding OSDF, "I couldn't let walk away from this desire to try and make some sort of positive impact," says Geller.

Welcome to the new AT&T-T-Mobile: It's less choice without saving you any money!

In the summer of 2011, I pitched the idea to the media reform organization Free Press, whom he'd worked with previously, to produce some parody videos to help their campaign against the AT&T/T-Mobile merger. They took him up on his offer, and that's when Geller's foray into using comedy for activism truly began. In addition to the anti-merger campaign, he's also produced a series of videos parodying Elizabeth Warren as well as Mitt Romney, and he occasionally updates his own blog on the Huffington Post.

While Geller is speaking out against mergers and political corruption and financial greed, Erin Gibson speaks out against stereotypes about women on her show Modern Lady. The show is a weekly comedic look at how women are portrayed by the media. Because of the success of the program, Erin is a sought after speaker on topics like gender issues in media and how to use satire to inspire change.

"Modern Lady" Live from Erin Gibson on Vimeo.
Erin Gibson addresses the attendees at the National Conference for Media Reform

Making a living as a comedian, especially when it comes to voicing opinions about the state of politics, can be challenging. The audience isn't as large as that of mainstream comedy. "Part of being a comedian is knowing you will fail a lot," says Gibson. But comedy is a good entry point to get people involved and engaged with politics.

One criticism of activism online and through social media is that it turns into "slacktivism," a term that describes "feel-good" measures in support of an issue or social cause, such as signing petitions, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction.

But Gibson says, "I am weary about making calls to action - I don't know if that's my job." The other panelists pointed out, however, that the call to action does not have to be explicit, and that raising collective awareness is an important first step to inspiring social and political change.

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