Comedy and Strategy: Don’t Laugh, This Is Serious…OK Laugh
In 2014, somebody dared to write on this august website that artists are “America’s overlooked strategic asset.”
What? Really? That’s not hard-nosed foreign policy realism. That’s just … Wait, that was one of us. And two years later, we’re going a step further: It may well be that you cannot really understand what life is going to be like in the next 20 years unless you listen to what comedians have to say about it today.
Comedy is an essential tool to understand everything from global trends to local politics for multiple reasons: the comedic process requires a rigorous understanding of your subject, similar to that of an analyst. It is the product of non-linear thinking, usually using narrative and dialogue, to open minds to new ideas and to see the world around them more clearly. In his history of American comedy, The Comedians, Kliph Nesteroff says that “[t]he struggle of the funny performer has remained a symbiosis of drive, jealousy, heartbreak, and triumph.” Comedy can offer the same and sometimes better insights than policy analysis. And let’s face it, no matter who you supported in the election, we all need a laugh now more than ever.
During the past two years, the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project has published dozens of science-fiction stories and made space for comic books and video games at Washington think tank events, but until now comedy has been off of our radar screen. What changed was the dire outlook in the Global Risks 2035 report by our Atlantic Council colleague Dr. Mathew J. Burrows. This foundational look ahead at the next two decades is replete with gloomy forecasts such as a growing risk of great power war and national governments unable to prove their relevance. And we haven’t even gotten to the robots. “Besides the tectonic shifts at the geopolitical level, the technology revolutions have changed, and will continue to upend, everyday life for most everyone.,” the report says. “The political and social responses to the new technological developments are not as linear as once thought.” This portends enormous challenges for traditional policymaking and analysis in trying not to screw up today in order to damn future generations to lifetimes of software updates for our AI overlords. Basically, the world ahead might be tragedy. And, as they say, tragedy + time = comedy.
This is why the Atlantic Council is hosting a comedy show about strategic foresight policy tomorrow night called “A Robot Walks into a Bar…”
Skeptical? First, it’s free to get in (well, a two-item minimum). Second, think of the last great stand-up bit you heard. Not the funniest one, but the greatest one. Our guess is it followed a formula. That is because, as Chris Rock said, comedians are “professional arguers. Not only can [they] argue about anything, they can argue either side.” In order for jokes to ring true to many people, comedians must make a compelling case for their worldview. And they must do it in real time. Hours of preparation, research, trial and error, and, eventually, presentation go into the formulation of each joke and each performance. This process is near identical to that of the policy analyst or futurist. Both have a lot to learn from comedians, and vice versa.
Comedy, of course, has always been an accessible art form. Humor, at its best, is universal (even though it can be very subjective) and requires the keenest of insights into the human experience. This evokes the Frederik Pohl quote that’s become a mantra for the Art of the Future Project: “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” A good skit or joke can be uncomfortable even as it opens the space for dialogue about many of our toughest problems. Laughs can lead to action, too. Even political engagement. (Remember this?) The popularity of late-night comedy is case-in-point. It used to be just Jay Leno and David Letterman making political jokes, but then more shows, like The Daily Show, came into play offering “fake news” for audiences to consume. They needed to know more of the political context to get the joke. Soon, about one-third of Americans were getting their news from these shows, leading to a growth in the public’s cynicism in, and engagement with, politics writ-large.
This election cycle, with all that it signals about America’s inability to get out of its own way in the 21st century, underscores the importance of comedy in making sense of big, complex issues when more and more serious choices are being made not with rational appeals but emotional ones. It is no wonder that seemingly innocuous sketches like Saturday Night Live’s “Black Jeopardy” hit such a nerve, with one writer calling it “the most astute analysis of American politics in 2016.” As of this writing, the YouTube video of the sketch has about 14.5 million views. It is hard to believe that that many people would read any serious work which explores the intersection of race, feelings toward elites, a growing sense of disempowerment, and social status. Yet, in about six minutes, these millions got a crash course in the subject—and it resonated. The sketch surely has started, and will continue to fuel, a conversation about these issues among the American electorate, especially during a Trump presidency. Think of the needed insight into the ageless societies of the future, the rising risk of great power wars, or how to create viable communities in some of the world’s most densely populated cities.
The point is, comedy takes on serious issues and prompts our engagement, especially when we confront uncertainty and conflict. This is why we need comedians more than ever. The future might really suck unless we laugh about it first.
Alex Ward is an Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where he works on U.S. foreign policy. He tweets at @AlexWardB.
August Cole is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare Project and a non-resident senior fellow at the Council. He is a writer, consultant and analyst. His first novel, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, was co-written with Peter W. Singer, was published in 2015. He can be found on Twitter @august_cole.