The best comedy is usually an act of extraordinary bravery. When a standup comic gets up in front of a crowd, armed with nothing but a microphone, they're already doing something many of us would be afraid to do. But the truly great comics, the ones who leave their audiences changed in some way, they show their bravery in their material. Some reveal their darkest self, or the harshest realities of their lives; others engage in social or political criticism, or challenge our most dearly-held assumptions. None of these choices guarantee that the act will be funny, but without them the laughs won't go as deep. Without them, we're left with nothing more than the trivial.
There is a reluctance among many comics to do social and political commentary, and there are certainly good reasons not to. It's risky. You're cutting down your audience substantially. You have to deal with criticism that targets your beliefs, your opinions, and likely your person, rather than just your comedic skills. You have to work doubly hard to write material that will date well. Perhaps the biggest risk is that of not being funny - when you talk about a serious issue, one that you care about, it's easy to slip into being more didactic than entertaining. Those who have done it well number among the greatest standups of the past and present: George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Lewis Black, Stewart Lee.
But what do we make of those comics who go even further than critique, and step into activism? One of the earliest examples in standup was Dick Gregory, whose civil rights activism included a 1968 presidential run and several hunger strikes. Still working at 80 years old, Gregory sounds at once like a comic and a preacher, in the best sense of the word - impassioned and galvanizing. Comics such as Ted Alexandro are highly visible at Occupy protests, and some start or support online campaigns for their causes, such as Doug Stanhope's recent fundraising effort for a hurricane victim who told Wolf Blitzer she was an atheist live on CNN (that matters in America, remember?).
These comics are going beyond telling jokes about social and political issues, and are taking significant risks in the process. I've repeatedly watched Janeane Garofalo do this, and Lee Camp's spectacular takedown of Fox News. These are the bravest acts of comedic revolt. Although these comics do gain some new fans, they also receive hateful backlash, and lose a great deal of potential work - often the most mainstream kind. A proportion of their audience is moved to act in some way (spend some time on Lee Camp's website, you'll soon lose count of how many songs he's inspired), but the majority are like me: pretty useless.
Not only am I the farthest thing from an activist, but until recently, I was rarely even moved to raise a finger to type something that might be helpful to a cause. Commenting, sharing, signing, tweeting, none of that. All the usual reasons: busy (not too busy to watch this again though, right?); confrontation is scary/boring; Facebook debates are usually hideously illiterate and when you get embroiled in one you feel dirty; maybe people you know are depressingly stupid or evil on the inside and you would be better off not knowing.
Now, of these activist comics I've talked about, you may not find all of them funny, or agree with their points of view. But they are talented and experienced professionals who could likely make an easier and more lucrative living writing jokes about something else. Suddenly, all the reasons I had for not saying or doing anything just seem like symptoms of sloth and cowardice (potential title for a future autobiography). It is up to those of us who see courage in such work to use the channels available to us to get the word out, and maybe even join the fray every now and then. We should reward work that leaves the comfort of ironic detachment and moves into the more vulnerable territory of battling cynicism and apathy, all while still making us laugh.