A funny thing happened at the 12th Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship last week in Oxford, England.
At this global gathering of activists and change makers, where conversation often centered on poverty, disease and disaster, there was a session called What's So Funny? The Role of Comedy in Social Change.
And as they say in the comedy business, the panelists killed! Here's a sample joke: Mechai Viravaidya, a family planning guru from Thailand, arranged for traffic cops to give out condoms and called the campaign "Cops and Rubbers."
Not only were the speakers funny, they were insightful about the role of humor in confronting the world's woes.
When Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, wanted to crack wise about the need for toilets, he turned to Viravaiday, aka Mr. Condom. Mr. Condom told him: "When you make people laugh, they listen to you." And if they laugh at you, he added, you'll get over any self-consciousness you have. You'll just be ... a funny guy talking about condoms. Or toilets.
Plenty of people have laughed at Mr. Condom and his antics. To promote condoms for family planning and disease protection, he has staged condom-blowing competitions for teachers and had school kids run races in which they pass off a water-filled condom from one to the other. He even started a chain of restaurants called Cabbages & Condoms, with 19 branches in Thailand and two in the U.K. At the entrance, there's a bowl with a sign that says, "Sorry we have no mints. Please take a condom instead."
When he began his efforts, Thailand had a 3.3 percent population growth rate; now it's down to 0.35 percent. Average family size has dropped from 7 kids 15 years ago to 1.2 children today.
You'd think some uptight parents might have complained about his school condom events. But he boasts he has never heard any gripes.
His disciple Mr. Toilet was a successful Singapore contractor before he turned to matters of poop and pee. There are 2.5 billion people in the world who don't have toilets, he says. And sometimes even when you give them a toilet, they won't use it. In India, he says, some people prefer doing it in a field: "The air is nice and fresh, you don't have to do anything after, you just leave it there, and you can squat with your friend and chitchat."
So not only does he have to raise money to bring toilets to the masses, he has to raise awareness about the advantages of going to the bathroom in solitude — for example, you won't be contributing to diseases spread by poor sanitation.
As you'd expect, he engages in a lot of potty humor. On one visit to a school, the kids were thrilled they could say the word "s***." As a bonus, he says, "Suddenly they realized they were no longer constipated."
Okay, so maybe every joke doesn't land.
But overall, humor does seem like a force for good. If you think I'm kidding, just ask Caty Borum Chattoo, co-director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University. With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which is also a funder of NPR), Chattoo ran a study to show that comedy can get people to pay attention to the world's problems. She shared the results at the Skoll panel.
Chattoo asked 600 people to watch an episode of the online show "Stand Up Planet," in which comics take on issues like poverty, HIV and sanitation. Then she asked them what they thought. Nearly 3 in 4 respondents said the comedy show was "easy to understand," "inspiring" and "memorable." Sixty-one percent said the program was "something I would watch by choice." And 80 percent liked learning facts about global poverty and health.
The last panelist at the Skoll comedy event was Egyptian doctor-turned-satirist Bassem Youssef, who hosted a Daily Show-style program before the authorities eventually shut him down. Recounting his run-ins, he concluded: "Satire is not afraid of power, but power is afraid of satire."
And that's no joke.