(Contains spoilers - please see the film first)
I just watched the stunning film by Todd Phillips, The Joker. Part of why I loved this film is that it made me reflect on the role of societal institutions in engendering human dignity. The film does this by showing us what happens when our real and current eroding societal institutions erode just a bit more - and the projection of the impact of that on humanity in a city in terms of social cohesion, empathy, and dignity.
Over four years ago, I created a course designed to teach a highly compassionate form of stand up comedy about ‘stuff that matters’ to people who are working to make the world better in terms of the environment and society. The purpose of the course is not to turn these people into stand up comedians, but to help them bring empathy, insight, and playfulness to how they talk about the big issues of our time. It helps them to articulate what they care about in ways that inspire people to WANT to listen to them.
One informal and playful tagline for the course is “We make vegans nice.” Being judgemental or angry at people turns potential allies away. What I do is help participants to become their most adorable, intelligent, and human selves for about five minutes on stage in a dedicated show. I have now run the course over 30 times across 10 countries and so far so good.
Compassionate, intelligent stand up comedy can be deeply healing. To find what is funny about a system, you emotionally and psychologically step out of it. The more dysfunctional your system, the better this feels. And yet it is not enough just to laugh at a broken and toxic system. You gotta do something restorative, inclusive and delightful with what you just shared.
Good comedy, in my opinion, inspires us about what positive change could look like. By mixing real, desired dynamics with elements which make us laugh, and all with a baseline of compassion, we allow potential allies to laugh and to think about new perspectives without feeling attacked.
The thing is, it is impossible to write/perform this kind of comedy when you are on-fire angry or in the depths of despair. Because on stage, a stand up comedian becomes a transparent window. If you have ugly feelings about yourself, or a particular group, these will come out in your choice of premise in your jokes.
In the film, Joaquin’s character, Arthur Fleck, is frequenting stand up comedy clubs in Gotham to learn the craft, but the man who Arthur is studying is just re-hashing on stage typical toxic views of women and re-enforcing societal dysfunction.
One of my favourite parts of the film is when we finally get to see Arthur perform a bit of the stand up comedy that he wrote himself, and despite us seeing flashes of naked women in his notebook yet not knowing how healthy or unhealthy his relationship to these images are, Arthur takes on none of the same tired/toxic jokes about women and men, and he instead shares very honestly about his childhood. Although he is clearly nervous, for a brief, shining moment, he shines compassion on himself, and creates a space for dignity, as a respite from his self-loathing.
I was left wishing I had gotten a chance to work with his character as a comedy coach, before he started killing people.