Interview: Deanna Zandt, The Role of Humor

League of Awkward UnicornsLaughing at Work

We interviewed Deanna Zandt.

Laughter is an important, but often overlooked, element of emotional engagement. Much of your work has been in areas that can feel heavy–sexual and reproductive rights, race, gender, and social inequality. You  also have a podcast, League of Awkward Unicorns, talking about mental illness. Do you have a sense of why humor is so important to you and in your work?


From a very real standpoint, the cliche of “if we’re not laughing, we’re crying” comes to mind. I mean, really. Some of the work that’s involved in making the world a better place, it’s so overwhelming that it can crush your soul if you let it. I find myself needing to laugh, at something, anything, on some days, just to get through. And I’ve got a relative amount of advantages and privilege in the world… if I feel crappy, then the people actually experiencing the oppressive crap must feel even worse. So, I often feel like we have to be able to bring something joyful to even the most painful work. This is why I’m often the one making jokes on conference calls. They are by far the most pernicious part of my job. (Juuuuust kidding. But not really.)

The other part of humor is that it has tremendous transformative power if it’s done right. For me, that transformation isn’t about removing friction or tension, necessarily, but about maybe lubricating it. Yes, I realize how dirty that sounds. But everyone prefers lubed friction to dry friction, right? I think about the work of Roosevelt Thomas, who talks about how groups and societies make better decisions when we account for difference and tension rather than ignore it, especially with regards to socially-constructed barriers of race, gender, etc. Humor can ease us into a space that lets us do that accounting.

I teach a lot of workshops about how to harness the power of digital media tools to make change in the world, and I start off every single workshop, regardless of the audience, with this quote: “Social media is like teen sex. Everyone wants to do it. No one actually knows how. When finally done, there is surprise it’s not better.” When I do that, I set the stage for everyone to be able to drop some of their guard and fears they have about learning something new, something that feels foreign and weird or scary for many.


How do you feel humor plays a role in the health of communities and in social engagement?

Laughing and play are so deeply ingrained in how we absolutely, primal-ly relate to one another. There’s a study that shows that apes enjoy slapstick humor, which I find frigging brilliant. It goes on to talk about how bonobos, one of our closest ape relatives, use laughter and play in social bonding– and that’s no different in humans. How many people, when asked what they’re looking for in a partner, say “a good sense of humor?” That need is primal.

A lot of people, when talking about primal behaviors, focus on the aggression and territorial nature of chimpanzees, our other close relatives. But we tend to ignore the awesome playfulness and sexuality in bonobos, distancing ourselves and not seeing ourselves in them. Why? I don’t know. We recognize the seriousness of our work in very earnest, intellectual ways, but have forgotten our primal ties to joy and bliss. That kind of bonding comes through play and humor.

And we apes aren’t the only mammals that do it, either. When you’re in yoga doing a downward-facing dog, that’s an actual maneuver that dogs do to each other to invite others to play– it’s called a “play bow.” All dogs know inherently what that invitation means. Dolphins go surfing together. Having fun together is written into some pretty core parts of mammalian DNA.


Where have you seen humor used well to shift the course of a conversation?

There are tons of great humorists in the world of social justice. I don’t want so much to focus on the obvious ones that poke their fingers at the “other side” — look at those silly Republicans! look at those dumb-ass Democrats! — but rather the ones who are able to transform something horrible into something completely ridiculous. One of my favorites in that department is W. Kamau Bell, who used his very first show on FX to address the deeply painful, awful policy that is stop-and-frisk in New York City. This policy did incredible harm to communities of color, demoralized youth, and created even more tension with the NYPD, all for little to no actual outcome of preventing violence. When Kamau did his sketch, he was able to create this space for people to blow off steam, and recognize the utter ridiculousness of this ineffective, painful policy. People need to feel some of that before they can feel the power to make change over something so incredibly large, I think.

I’m also thinking about the work that The Onion does. Yes, they’re brilliant and hilarious, but they’ve also opened up the space for some awful moments to start to move culturally. In the weeks after 9/11 in New York, we were all basically a bunch of zombies. It wasn’t uncommon to see someone just burst into tears on the street or on the train, and it felt intolerable to many of us to try and live our lives when something so shattering had just happened in the way that it did. (I do want to take a moment here to recognize that this type of violence happens near daily around the world, and don’t in any way want to claim American exceptionalism here.) During that time, it didn’t feel right to watch a movie, for example– it didn’t feel right to enjoy anything. And then we wondered what was going to happen when The Onion came out–they’d taken one week off, and then released their issue on Sept 26, two weeks later. How could they not saying thing about “the disaster,” as we called 9/11 before it got its official moniker? And yet, what could they possibly say that was funny?

I worked at an ad agency at the time, and seriously, we all gathered around my computer to read it together. The headlines were outrageous, stunning and hilarious–they had pulled off the impossible. The graphic making fun of cable news’ logos: “Holy F***ing S***: Attack on America.” “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule.” The “How Have We Spent The Past Two Weeks” infographic (“staring at hands, crying”). “Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell.” (I especially appreciate the one about the ex using 9/11 as an excuse to get in touch with an old girlfriend, because that s*** actually happened to me.) Everyone in the room was howling–moving between laughing and sobbing, back and forth, very fluidly–and it gave many of us license to be human again. To find joy again through fully experiencing our pain.

Again, it’s that transformative power that humor has to move us from someplace very, very dark and hopeless to a (even slightly) lighter place where we can manage or maneuver.


Where have you seen humor cause greater conflict or fall flat? What are the risks we take in being funny? Where do you see humor being used to make the unspeakable then speakable?

These questions all sort of tie together to me, because they’re all related to a principle of good comedy that I only learned very recently. In the summer of 2012, comedian Daniel Tosh was heckled by a female audience member for making rape jokes, and then he said to her directly while on stage, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?” Yeeeeeeeep. Not funny at all. A huge s***storm rose up around it, and this debate started about whether rape jokes could ever be funny. At the time, I placed myself firmly in the “no” camp: rape is never funny, therefore, there can be no jokes. The end.

But then a bunch of smart, enlightened comedy types started having public discussions about this, and one of my favorite feminists, Kate Harding, compiled a list of 15 rape jokes that work. One of them is even from a comedian not exactly known for enlightened social justice views, Dane Cook. He says, roughly, that we have to stop using “rape” as a casual way to say some minor injustice had happened, like “I went to the mechanic and got raped” or “I totally raped you in that video game.” Cook says, “I’m pretty sure if I sat down with a woman who’s been [raped], and I said, ‘Can you describe what this was like, going through this?’ she’s not gonna look at me and go, ‘Have you ever played Halo?’”

I agreed, that joke was hilarious. And so were the other ones in Kate’s list. What makes them funny? They don’t target the victim. They don’t re-injure victims by making light of their experience– they go after our culture that tacitly accepts rape as just “part of life,” after the rapists themselves, after others who don’t treat rape as a big deal. That’s where the transformation happens. That’s how we can take people from one place — “rape jokes aren’t a big deal, why’s everyone so upset?” — to another — “rape is messed up and here’s why.”

This is where the unspeakable/speakable parts of humor come in: these situations can give voice to shame, can shed light on it and erase some of its pain and ongoing injury. Shame is not the kind of trauma you feel once, and then it’s over. It continues to pick at our emotional scabs over and over, and it’s difficult to heal without the help of others–the very thing that most of us are afraid of when it comes to shame. Humor can be a back door into opening up a tiny bit of light onto that shame and dissipating it. That, in turn, can have wider cultural implications of breaking down unnecessary taboos when enough people get the joke.


How do you think humor plays a role in the culture of a community?

When we apes remember to laugh at our BS, we bond! It’s almost that simple. Just this week, I’d posted a quote on Facebook from a friend of mine who said, “My experiences with [online dating website] OKCupid made me think, ‘No really, I’ll die alone. It’s OK.’” When I originally asked her if she wanted to be credited or not, she declined–most of us don’t want our names attached to anything related to how online dating goes, haha. I know I haven’t!

I posted to Facebook as an “overheard” (“OH”), and it hit so many people so deeply, so quickly, I was shocked. It’s one of the most popular things I’ve ever casually posted, and yet it’s at the intersection of two topics that are so deeply painful for many people: online dating/dating in general, and death/dying alone. God, I couldn’t think of worse cocktail party conversation if I tried.

It was the humor of it, though, that reached people, opened them to laugh at its ridiculousness. And then it inspired this incredible conversation later on in the thread–once you got past the ninjas, that is–about assumptions of partner care, chosen group living for independent and child-free folks, investing in romantic relationships versus a network of different kinds of relationships, and much more. The humor of it opened a door for us, and created a community of people who now want to carry the conversation a little further, and discuss their fears and ideas a little more.

One of the most powerful implementations of humor’s transformational impact, then, is related to relieving the oppression of shame: it can liberate us from our isolation, those feelings of “Good God, I must be the only one that feels this way.” It can connect us quickly to one another, help us identify our tribes very easily.

I didn’t always feel this way, though. Ask my family: our joke is that I was born without a sense of humor, which could have been a sentence of exile in an extended family that likes to tout the famous phrase, “we put the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional.’” The truth is, I was born without a sense of humor about myself, absolutely. Lots of things were hilarious in the world (Muppets and my Uncle Robert in particular), but jokes that picked on me, they hurt. Badly. It was how my family bonded, by picking on each other, but I just didn’t feel that way for the longest time. I felt singled out, even though my mom would sit down with me and say, “You’ve got to realize, this is what we all do to each other, it’s not just about you. And you’re allowed to dish it out, too. You just can’t be so sensitive.” They could have given up on me, which would have actually isolated me completely from them, but they didn’t. They kept at it, and by golly, by the time I was 15 or 16, I finally understood somehow. I don’t remember what exactly it was, but I started to see the fun in making fun of myself.

It further developed when I became an exchange student at 17, and I didn’t speak the language of the country I was living in at all. Attempting to speak was daunting, frustrating and just plain miserable; it made me feel just incredibly inadequate. I sank into what I now see was a minor depression for a couple months caused by that isolation, and my own unwillingness to take risks. And then something just broke in me: I realized if I was going to survive, let alone thrive, for the rest of the year, I had to give up on this idea that I was so special and delicate that I couldn’t make a mistake. I had to make myself vulnerable to inadequacy, and that quickly became very, very funny. Yes, it was funny that I accidentally asked for a little white candy instead of a kiss in the middle of a teenage kissing game. It was funny that I made up words that didn’t make sense to anyone but me. It was funny that I accidentally said “f***ing great” at the dinner table, not knowing that I was swearing. I finally saw that it was my fallibility that connected me to others deeply, not my perfection. And also: things just weren’t that friggin’ serious, for cryin’ out loud.

Shame and its accompanying sense of armoring up to hide it are the biggest things keeping us from one of the most basic characteristics we need to move forward and grow, both as individuals and as a culture: vulnerability. Owning and laughing with our vulnerabilities, that’s where transformation begins as we connect to and liberate one another. Plus, really, I mean, the ridiculousness of human existence in general, that s*** is funny.