The Climate Movement Should Be Funnier
How do you know that climate change is funny? Even the Antarctic ice sheets are cracking up.
The climate crisis is no joke, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh about it. Research suggests that comedy is a powerful way to connect people and get them to empathize with a cause—and the climate crisis is a pretty big one.
So what does science say about the power of a good laugh? And how does that fit into the climate movement?
Ira talks with Esteban Gast, comedian in residence at the clean energy non-profit Generation 180, and Dr. Caty Borum, executive director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University.
Esteban Gast is a comedian in residence at Generation 180 in New York City.
Dr. Caty Borum is the Executive Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University in Washington DC.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You want to hear a joke I heard this morning? Here it is. How do you know that climate change is a joke? Even the antarctic ice sheets are cracking up.
I don’t know how well I told that, but I know that climate crisis is certainly no joke. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t laugh about it. Research suggests that comedy is a really powerful way to connect people and to get them to empathize with a cause, and the climate crisis is a pretty big one. So today, we’re talking climate comedy.
What does science say about the power of a good laugh, and how does that fit into the climate movement? Let me introduce my guests. Esteban Gast is a comedian in residence at the clean energy nonprofit Generation 180. He’s joining us from New York. And Dr. Caty Borum is Executive Director of the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University in Washington D.C. Welcome, both of you, to Science Friday.
CATY BORUM: Thanks, Ira. Big fan of the show.
ESTEBAN GAST: Yeah. I hate her.
IRA FLATOW: Esteban–
Let me start with you. I’m laughing already. Why did you start including climate jokes in your standup?
ESTEBAN GAST: I think I was doing comedy for a while. When you’re doing standup, you’re just really trying to bring onstage the things that you’re thinking about in the world around you. And I think I was nervous for a long time to talk about things that felt a little bit deeper. I was like, OK. I can stick to dating. I can stick to– my parents are immigrants, and I’m the youngest child.
And it was a few years ago, I was like, you know what? I’m thinking the way I’m on stage doesn’t really reflect what I’m doing during the day, which is I’m going and trying to be involved in the environmental movement and activist things and education and social change, and then I’m like forgetting that on stage.
So I think a little bit ago, I was like, what if I just connect all these parts of myself on stage and own up to the fact that I’m reading these very nerdy, environmental news things? And I’m very anxious about climate change, and I feel like a hypocrite, but I don’t know where to express that.
So it was just like a natural expression of the comedy that I wanted to create. I just think it took a while for me to like build up the courage, if that makes sense.
IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s listen to one of your jokes. Let’s hear a joke. This is you talking about that quiz that tells you your personal carbon footprint.
ESTEBAN GAST: They’re like, do you drive a car? And if you say yes to it, you pollute. They’re like, do you buy water bottles? And I was like, yeah. And they’re like, you pollute. So it’s this list that makes you feel guilty. That’s the only– I grew up Catholic, so I’m like, guilt, baby? Bring it on.
So it’s this list, and it makes me feel guilty. I did in high school. I just found out the list was invented and created by BP, the oil company. Isn’t that wild? BP, known for spilling oil into the ocean, was like, do you drive a car? Whoa. That’s bad. I was like, you are BP.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Made by BP. I had no idea.
ESTEBAN GAST: Yeah. I found that out that the personal carbon footprint, a genuine thing that I took in high school, was created by specifically BP and supported by the fossil fuel industry to shift the blame onto individuals, and that just blew my mind. I was like, I need to talk about this.
IRA FLATOW: Right. Caty, you study science and comedy. Tell us. What makes this joke work?
CATY BORUM: Yeah. So a couple of things that Esteban is doing there– which is fun, because Esteban and I actually work together, so I’m just going to analyze his joke right in front of him, which is very exciting. Part of how we’re persuaded through comedy about civic and social issues including comedy is actually the affection for the speaker.
So we’re persuaded in a couple of different ways in basic messages. One is through our cognitive minds that tell us like, oh, I’m weighing the merits of the message. And do I agree with that message? And does it match with my identity? And all kinds of different things that we’re doing in our brains. But then when it comes to comedy, it’s also about the entertainment value.
And it is very much about the affective persuasion, the heuristic persuasion, meaning, do we like the person telling the joke? So Esteban has this really lovely, self-deprecating, funny way of delivering comedy. So when we like him, we’re more willing to find him authentic and interesting.
Probably the most important thing that we always think about with comedy as a force for social change and social good comes from its kind of original definition from Aristotle, which was comedy as a form of social critique. So Esteban, by taking a little bit of a poop on BP, is encouraging us to find a little social critique there, so I would give Esteban an A for that joke.
ESTEBAN GAST: I wish listeners could understand how uncomfortable I was hearing all of your compliments, but thank you so much– and in such a public forum.
CATY BORUM: You know what? Not all your jokes, Esteban. Give me another one. I’ll kill it.
ESTEBAN GAST: Yeah. This is carefully edited to make me look good.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we want to make you look good. Your recent book, Caty, is called The Revolution Will Be Hilarious. What do you mean by that?
CATY BORUM: So The Revolution Will Be Hilarious is really all about the ways in which comedy already works as this really potent cultural and persuasive force in encouraging us to be attracted to think about issues that are complex and dire. Comedy is a way to make messages memorable.
It has a sleeper effect. We can hold on to messages. We’re much more likely to share messages that come through comedy, which means it’s amplified across culture.
Those of us who dedicate our work and professional lives to trying our little part to make the world more just and equitable and kind and better– when we think about all the forces that are at play that do that work, so science, journalism, sometimes, we forget about comedy. And I’m not sure why. So that really is The Revolution Will Be Hilarious. Don’t forget about the comedians because they’ve been doing this for thousands of years.
IRA FLATOW: Tell us why comedy is a good way to think through a tricky topic like climate change.
CATY BORUM: Yeah. So when we’re thinking about, again, social and civic topics that are complicated– and let’s just isolate climate change because that is why we are here. So climate change is so technocratic. It really is very, very complicated to put it mildly. One of the things that comedy does really well– because a joke is not funny if you cannot isolate the essence and the simplicity of a scenario.
A joke never works when you have to have too many layers or too much explanation. You’ve completely lost your audience, and you’re not going to get the laughs. You’re not going to succeed. So just at a really, really basic level, when we think about sort of regular people trying to understand climate change, people don’t like to admit that they don’t understand the science and the technology.
And by the time you sort of tune in even to the best journalism about this, you’re already kind of like midstream in the story. I don’t understand two degrees. What does that mean, right?
So comedy can really say without saying it– like, hey. I’m going to break this down for you and kind of de-wonkify it for you and get it to the essence of what we’re talking about. So it’s really helpful as a force for kind of translation and simplification among many other powers.
IRA FLATOW: When you when you talk about climate change, do you worry about getting into the weeds too much and that that’s going to stifle the joke? I mean, how do you know how much the audience is willing to take, like Caty says?
ESTEBAN GAST: Yeah. One of the things that I do is I always frame things like I’m along on the journey with them. So even if we go back to that carbon footprint joke, I’m not saying, hey. I’m here to deliver information with you. I’m the expert. If you notice, I go, oh my gosh. I did this, and then I found this out, and then I had this emotional reaction to it. Isn’t that wild?
The difference between me and a scientist delivering that– the difference between me and Al Gore who’s clicking through slides is Al Gore goes, and this was created for this. Next slide. And then this did this. And I’m sitting there being like, OK. I was sitting where you were sitting, and I totally understand what you’re thinking.
And I was totally confused, and then I learned this. And then my mind is blown, and I’m here so we can think about this together. And I think that that helps. I do find comedy in small places. I’m what they call an emerging comedian, Ira, which means I perform in very small comedy clubs. So I’m not doing Radio City, you know? Not yet.
IRA FLATOW: Not yet. We’ll get you there.
CATY BORUM: After Science Friday, things are going to change.
IRA FLATOW: You get the Sci Fri bump.
Caty, what about doom and gloom? How do people react to that versus something that’s more hopeful?
CATY BORUM: Yeah. Great question, and I really appreciate that one. There are there are some kind of watch outs when it comes to comedy and climate change, although I will say my disclaimer is I am a big, big fan and believer in creative and artistic freedom for comedians.
I believe this is where true comedic innovation comes from when you don’t stifle people right away. But we do know from research, since you’ve asked, that there are a couple of areas that are important to think about if you’re making jokes about climate change.
So one is that we know from lots of scholars’ research when we end up doing comedy that really picks up on the parts of climate change that have become unfortunately politicized and partisan with a capital P– when you tell jokes that, for example, take a partisan cue, like climate change deniers, for example.
That’s become that’s a very, very partisan cue. It registers to everyone who you’re talking about. Where’s the in-group? Where’s the expert? And you’re kind of calling them idiots in your joke. It might feel really good, because who’s still denying climate change? But it actually has a backfire effect.
It’s actually a boomerang effect. So what that does is send people further into their ideological camps and make them kind of hold on even more strongly to where they began. So that can be part of the doom and gloom.
As we know, where we are in the climate change movement more broadly is a lot of people now believe and understand that climate change is real and that it is at least partially caused by humans. We know this from lots of public opinion data from Yale and Pew and lots of other places. But the issue is still one of efficacy, the idea that people still need to know what to do.
We can know a lot about climate change, but that still might not inspire action. So back to the doom and optimism question. We know from some research about climate change and comedy that when we make people feel hopeful and efficacious and from a social norms perspective, the idea that people actually really care about this, we’re much more likely to inspire people to do something than inspire them to just check out because the issue is so impossible.
So if we’re just telling jokes, for example, about terrible earthquakes or fires or whatever– I don’t even know how you make that funny, but someone can– all we’re doing is really implying to people and outright saying, there’s actually nothing you can do about it, so just sit back and watch it. And that’s not what any of us want when it comes to climate change.
IRA FLATOW: Well, how do you use comedy, then, to go in that opposite direction to instill hope in people?
CATY BORUM: Well, one of the things that you can do is tell jokes that really imply to people that there are social norms that are really at work here. So when we talk about something like electric vehicles, for example, you should incorporate something that is a positive social norm. Hey, electric vehicles, they’re so hot that I’m going to use– this, by the way, is why I’m not a comedian. I’m about to riff on a joke that’s terrible. It’s not even a joke. But I’m going to get a hot date from my electric vehicle. Whatever. There’s a social norm there that’s positive rather than, I don’t know where to plug this thing in, and I’m never going to be able to make it work. It’s very subtle. But we know from lots of social science that that’s meaningful. Everybody go tell jokes about EVs.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking about climate comedy. I have another joke from one of your stand ups. Let’s hear that now.
ESTEBAN GAST: There actually is hope. There’s actually hope. I don’t know if you know this. A few months ago, a little bit ago, the Biden administration signed this thing called the Inflation Reduction Act. It’s the most meaningful climate bill ever passed, like the biggest and most comprehensive ever passed in US history, and it’s called the Inflation Reduction Act.
How good is that? We’ve been trying to pass bills, and then we just had the branding wrong. You know what I mean? I just love that we can’t– it has to be Inflation Reduction. You go, and you go like, hey, should we save the earth? And Republicans are like, no. And then we go, should eggs cost less? And they’re like, yes.
IRA FLATOW: That’s an example of what you were talking about.
CATY BORUM: Also, Ira, should we point out that that legislation is also named after you?
IRA FLATOW: I-R-A?
CATY BORUM: Sorry. I didn’t mean to– I hope that makes it into the cut.
ESTEBAN GAST: Yeah, shout out Ira. That’s a great example where people don’t know about the Inflation Reduction Act actually. So they do in some of the places, but I think there’s places where people don’t know that that happened. So they go, oh, what has the government done for me?
Biden administration? What have they done? And obviously, I want them to do more and more and more. But I’m also like, hey, guys. There is a win we can celebrate, and let me bring it up in a silly sassy way. But there is a win we can celebrate, right?
IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. Are there any topics where you think, “Oh, no, you can’t joke about that?” Or is it all fair game?
ESTEBAN GAST: I would say the short answer is no. All topics are fair game. The long answer is it just depends if it’s a good and thoughtful joke. Are you punching up? If you are making a joke, and the butt of the joke is about climate migrants, then that just is not a good joke. I would say that that person just comedically is not.
But comedy has forever taken on the most serious topics. If we think climate change is dark, I mean, there’s specials recently about divorce and death and racism and sexism and every ism, and they do it brilliantly. Some people do it brilliantly. And it’s less of what topic they touch and more of how they approach it.
IRA FLATOW: Caty, is the future of the climate movement funnier, do you think?
CATY BORUM: Yeah. Look, I think that we should say that everything that we are doing is not entirely working, and so we might as well invite comedy in. There are a lot of really great pieces of evidence about how comedy works on us socially, culturally, psychologically to really get us to pay attention and pass along the message.
And the comedy punching up is a really, really important part of this. Psychologically in groups, we feel bad when we laugh at someone’s misfortune. There’s a lot of exceptions to this, of course.
So getting the laugh is really easier to do when you’re punching up at institutions of power. And of course, that’s what comedy has always done well. So yes, I would say invite in the comedians. They’re really good at getting people to think differently.
IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you so much for taking time to be with us today.
CATY BORUM: Thank you. It was fun.
ESTEBAN GAST: Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Esteban Gast is a comedian in residence at the clean energy nonprofit Generation 180, and Dr. Caty Borum is Executive Director of the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University in Washington D.C.