RONZONE: Finding the funny in the controversial

 

 

Raquel Ronzone

Racism. Abortion. Underage drinking. Gun control. Welfare. And the often cited, but nonetheless contentious, concept of jihad. This is not the search history of Daily Kos or an outline of talking points for the next Congressional meeting.

It’s a regular Thursday evening on FX.

In five seasons of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the network’s runaway hit has accomplished what blogs, town hall meetings and public debates have attempted but never exactly succeeded in doing. It created a genuinely open forum – one that is not complicated by demands of political correctness or the self-preserving tactic of saving face – to explore some of the most divisive issues in modern society.

Don’t be mistaken. The show offers no solutions to the social quandaries it addresses every week. In fact, because of its ruthlessly unapologetic treatment of topics, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” goes beyond the black and white of the debates and turns the attention to the debaters instead.

The media has remained quiet about the show’s controversial storylines, a surprising silence given the hostility and lack of sympathy other comedians and actors have endured. Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman have also brazenly confronted the unmentionables of society, only to meet pulic indignation.

Perhaps the media realizes the value of shifting the focus from cyclical, superficial political dialogue to the people who engage in it. They may realize that, more importantly, an individual’s understanding of self and comfort with his or her personal opinions is the first step to understanding and addressing the larger concerns that affect the community as a whole.

In any case, the humorous approach mastered by “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” only helps the cause, making the thought-provoking commentary more accessible and more palatable to an otherwise reluctant public.

Surely, the creative team responsible for FX’s fan favorite is not the only one privy to the effectiveness of using comedy to broach conflict-ridden subjects.

Blogger-turned-author Christian Lander has tackled the issues of race, money and social class since the 2008 launch of his outlandishly self-critical blog, stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, and the release of a book based on the site. Despite the criticisms that it is offensive and racist, the blog has inspired a number of spin-off pages: Stuff Indian People Like, Stuff Black People Like, Stuff Jewish People Like, Stuff Asian People Like and Stuff College People Like.

In a more pronounced move, teachers and parents in Vietnam are using jokes to discuss sexual health and relationships, according to a recent BBC report. This cultural shift, embraced by young and old alike, defies the communist and deeply conservative attitudes that have suppressed past discussions of sex. Resorting to humor, the article noted, allows some parents and children to talk about the taboo without feeling judged or embarrassed – an explanation with collective validity.

Humor is not a means of oppression or degradation but a way for people to connect. Used appropriately, it lowers our levels of discomfort, erasing any notion of the offensive or defensive sides.

It doesn’t instruct us what to think – although a smart audience of good comedy will evaluate how it thinks. Ultimately, humor provides a distinct, unobjectionable opportunity for self-reflection.

We can talk about tolerance, respect and open-mindedness. We can proclaim our appreciation for and embodiment of those values with posters, bumper stickers and colored rubber bracelets. But until a situation forces us to confront any discrepancies between our preconceived theories and our actual responses in the real world, we will remain socially stagnant.

We all have personal insecurities, prejudices and comfort zones, but only a few of us are willing to admit to them and to verbalize our internal thoughts without fear of public backlash. Comedy allows us to do just that by turning the mirror back onto ourselves. It is proving to be quite effective in coaxing those unacknowledged feelings from us and facilitating discussion.

Moreover, comedy demonstrates that we can become more sensitive without becoming thin-skinned and that we can learn to accept slight discomfort – instead of shying away from it – if it means more open lines of communication.

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Raquel Ronzone is a junior communication major from Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected]