This article was originally featured on Nexus Media.
When David Perdue applied to be part of a climate comedy program, he felt a little out of his element: “I couldn’t recall one time I’d ever had a conversation with my friends about climate change,” said the Atlanta-based comic. Purdue, who is Black, added, “But I knew it was an issue that was going to affect people who look like me, so I wanted to use comedy to address that.”
Perdue was one of nine comedians who took part in a nine-month fellowship where they learned about climate science and solutions and collaborated on new, climate-related material. The Climate Comedy Cohort produced shorts, toured together, and pitched ideas to television networks. Their work is part of a broader effort to bring some levity to a topic that is increasingly present in everyday life.
For Perdue, that meant bringing race into the conversation about sustainability and clean energy. “[Solar power] is free labor, and the most American thing to do is to use free labor,” he says in one of his sets. “We just have to tell people the sun is Black.”
Climate change is increasingly featured in television dramas and apocalyptic thrillers. But comedians like Perdue, as well as higher-profile acts like Michelle Wolf and Joel Kim Booster, are also taking on the climate crisis. (Wolf, in her HBO special, says that “mother nature is trying to kill us in the most passive-aggressive way possible. She’s like, ‘What? I raised the temperature a little.’”)
By talking about climate, even irreverently, social scientists say, they may be helping to combat climate doom and boost civic engagement.
Comedy—even if it’s about heavy topics like climate change—can motivate feelings of hope and optimism, said Caty Borum, a professor at American University and author of The Revolution Will Be Hilarious: Comedy for Social Change and Civic Power. “Those are routes to persuasion because we’re being entertained and because we’re feeling emotions of play – and this is particularly important for climate change,” she said.
The Climate Comedy Cohort, a joint project between American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact, which Borum runs, and Generation180, a clean-energy nonprofit, announced a new class of comedians earlier this month.
“As it just turns out, the very unique qualities of comedy that allow us to break through taboo, allow us to use social critique, and translate topics, all of that really contributes” to people feeling like they can take action, Borum said.
Actor and former Obama aide Kal Penn hosts a new show on Bloomberg called “Getting Warmer” that focuses on climate technology and solutions “with a dose of humor and optimism,” according to its tagline. And in April, a group of comedians is putting on a show called lol climate change: a show in Los Angeles.
Borum said that programs like hers can help combat climate doom and inaction. “The goal of the program is not to have comedians tell more scary stories about climate change, but to really dig in on the solutions,” she said.
Just because climate change is heavy and important, it doesn’t mean comedy about it can’t be really silly, said Estaban Gast, a comedian who helped create the Climate Comedy Cohort.
He noted that comedy often draws from tragedy. Marc Maron’s new special, From Bleak to Dark, delves into the death of his partner, Lynne Shelton; in Nanette, Hannah Gadsby opens up about being sexually assaulted. “It’s the comedian’s job to pull from that,” Gast said.
On stage, Katie Hannigan, part of the Climate Comedy Cohort notes that gas stoves are horrible for the planet. She says, “I am doing my part for climate change. I have never even used my gas stove … since I started that fire.”
Kat Evasco, one of the lol climate change comedians, has a joke connecting her mother’s skepticism about climate change to her denial about being gay—even though she’s shared a bedroom with a woman for 25 years, Evasco quips. “It’s about moments that might not center on climate change, but can tie back to it,” she said.
“We aren’t big on sharing data and statistics,” Evasco said. “What we are looking for is: how does this show up in human experience? How do you laugh about death?”
Max Boykoff, a professor in environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, said he believes comedy can help drive the conversation forward on polarizing topics like climate change. (The majority of Americans don’t feel comfortable talking about the climate with their neighbors or co-workers.)
“The comedic approach is not just simply a matter of making someone laugh. It’s actually a way to open people up,” he said. In 2018, Boykoff and Beth Osnes, a professor of theatre, developed a creative climate communication course in which students developed their own comedy skits. At the end of the semester, 90% of students reported feeling more hopeful about climate change, and 83% said they believed their commitment to taking action on climate change was more likely to last.
Borum said that when comedy is done well, it can change minds on almost any topic – she has studied how comedy can create social change around poverty, inequality and human rights. “The best comedy that inserts something important about the world is not boring and lame,” she said, “and that’s true from a science perspective, but also a comedy perspective.”