Dark comedy

Study: Humor helped 90% of subjects feel more hopeful about about climate change

Meet people where they are.

The symbol laugh burns in red fire

The precarious state of Earth's climate is getting harder to ignore. The seemingly constant influx of bad news has contributed to new forms anxiety and depression, and even coined new terms like “climate grief” and “eco-anxiety.”

These new sources of stress demand new remedies — so how do we deal?

To start: Laugh about it.

No really. Research suggests that the power of humor to combat climate-induced anxiety goes beyond just temporary distraction.

A team of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder has published several findings that get at how comedy can influence the way we feel about climate change.

In June 2019, they published a study in the journal Comedy Studies that looked at how “good-natured comedy” — beyond satire — helps people “positively process negative emotions regarding global warming” and “sustain hope.”

The study included 30 students at the university who studied environmental sciences. To gauge whether humor could influence their feelings about climate change, the researchers had them participate in a number of comedy workshops related to climate change, including coming up with their own skits.

After the workshops, 90 percent of the students said they felt more hopeful about climate change during the exercises. Importantly, 83 percent said they felt their commitment to taking action on climate change was stronger — and more likely to last.

The students also said that reframing the climate change narrative from doom and gloom into comedy not only made them feel more hopeful about climate action — it could also help others feel more empowered to take meaningful action. All hope, it seemed, was no longer lost.

Changing the climate conversation

A 2018 study by the same scientists examined how comedy can change the conversation about climate change. The researchers analyzed stand-up shows that focused on climate change — specifically, a video competition series at the University of Colorado called “Stand Up for Climate Change” — and tracked how the audience responded over the three years the series took place.

Climate comedy helps to make people more aware of climate change, brings an emotional element to the conversation, and highlights themes like problem solving and knowledge formation, they found.

“While science is often privileged as the dominant way by which climate change is articulated, comedic approaches can influence how meanings course through the veins of our social body, shaping our coping and survival practices in contemporary life,” the researchers conclude in the paper.

But this conversation isn’t “a given," they note. Having an effective funny conversation about climate change requires comedians — and communicators — to “meet people where they are.” That means "emotional, tactile, visceral, and experiential communication," Boykoff describes in a piece for The Conversation.

"Rather than 'dumbing down' science for the public, this is a 'smartening up' approach that has been shown to bring people together around a highly divisive topic," Boykoff writes.

Humor doesn’t always lead to positive effects on climate perspective. A 2019 study from a different group of researchers looked at how more than 1,200 people responded to late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel’s satirical approach (contrasting the “good-natured” style examined in the first study) to talking about the climate.

The researchers edited a segment of Kimmel to highlight either humor or indignation, and tracked how participants reacted to the two approaches. The humor-only segments reduced participants' anger about climate change — but they rated those segments as less informative. Overall, "avoiding humor helped close the partisan gap in risk perception between Republicans and Democrats," the researchers found — suggesting a more sober approach may be better in some circumstances.

Humor in a time of crisis

Kimmel is not the only popular comedian who touches on climate change.

Broad City's Ilana Glazer has a new TV special called “The Planet is Burning.” She told The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah that the title was a way to get the word out about climate change. “The planet is burning and we’re not talking about it all the time. It’s like, pathetically funny,” she said. “If I was going to have billboards and repeat a phrase over and over, this is probably a worthwhile one.” It’s “free climate change advertising,” Noah said.

Glazer and Kimmel are part of a growing trend — it seems climate-change comedy is hot stuff. In Los Angeles, the show “Dying of Laughter (And Climate Change)” merges comedy and activism. In New York City, a series called “An Inconvenient Talk Show” features climate scientists and comedians. The same performers even had a spot in at last year’s South by Southwest festival.

Humor's cathartic power isn’t limited to climate anxiety. While the planet is roasting, thousands of Redditors are participating in r/RoastMe — an organized dragging of willing victims who subject themselves to whatever insults the community conjures up. Inverse reporter Emma Betuel took the plunge and got roasted to learn more about the psychology behind the madness. You can read about her experience here.

As psychologist Izzy Kalman told Betuel, “People think that humor is positive because it makes them feel good. But the reason it makes people feel good is because it’s negative."

Whatever the source of your woes, research backs up the idea that laughter can bring some light to the darkness. Comedy won’t fix the climate crisis, to be sure. But in these trying times, it might be a key ingredient in helping us cope with the challenges — and respond to them.

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