Kaleidoscope Of Humor

Santa Clara Magazine sat down with Assistant Professor Danielle Morgan to explore how laughter can be lifesaving—and life-affirming

Good satire uncovers the absurdity of life—the invisible norms and cultural influences we live with. In satire, Black Americans have long found a way to say, “Why is this this way,” according to SCU English Assistant Professor Danielle Morgan.

Her book, Laughing to Keep from Dying, has earned buzz from The Atlantic to public radio to The New York Times.

She spoke with Santa Clara Magazine about why Black satire is foundational to American humor—and African-American survival.


Santa Clara Magazine: One of the things that academia does really well, and that you do in this book, is look at the structure of things. How stories or movies or poems are put together. That’s something you tackle early on. There’s a structure behind satire that makes it possible to point out what may be uncomfortable. What makes it work when it works?

Danielle Morgan: One of the things that got me particularly interested in studying comedy is how it becomes the sort of equalizer, and it opens doors in a certain kind of way. And what I mean by that is the way if somebody makes you laugh, you’re saying that there’s some sort of equitability. There’s some sort of flow between the two of you that allows you to listen to them a little more readily.

It gives them the capital to be able to speak to you as well. When we are laughing, we’re saying that we understand what the person is talking about. It becomes this nice way of forming kinship.

That kind of in-group is what I think we’re all looking for—to feel like we’ve got people who understand our perspective and understand it so well that they can kind of play around with it. One of the points I make in my book is that satire subverts the status quo. But to do that, you have to understand what the status quo is and why it’s worthy of subverting.

Comedy gives us that sort of lens to think about: This is what the world looks like. What would the world ideally look like for somebody like me, and that’s where the joke emerges.

SCM: In Laughing to Keep from Dying, you talk about how creating that friction between what is and what could be creates a space for people to have their own identity. When satirists push back on stereotypes, they make room for an authentic person—what you call the kaleidoscopic Blackness. How does that work?

Morgan: I think that comedy allows us to think about all the different ways of being through the lens of the expectations of what “Blackness” is supposed to be. These stereotypes are such a part of our national conversation and national consciousness that we all know what these stereotypes are.

Satire then creates a space where you’re either completely rejecting the stereotypes or playfully accepting the stereotypes to show that they are unsustainable or that nobody really is fully like this idea.

This idea of kaleidoscopic Blackness is really useful for me in thinking about it because it’s just a way of looking at Blackness as having all of these different sides.

There are all of these different facets, and what Black people already know is that there are many ways to be Black. There are tons of ways to perform your Blackness, feel your Blackness, and be a Black person in the United States, even if we don’t see that as frequently in the mainstream.

SCM: So, where did this use of satire as a way to reclaim identity begin for Black Americans?

Morgan: When I started writing the book, I didn’t really want to talk about slavery. In the 21st century, does slavery have to be this kind of overdetermining thing? Do I have to talk about it if I’m talking about the 21st century? And when it came to the ideas of satire and comedy, ultimately what I realized was yes, I do.

Number one, I have to make that historical grounding. I wanted to make myself aware and make readers aware of the kind of humanity and bravery that enslaved people had. It becomes easier for many of us to look at slavery as this thing that happened in the past. And that the enslaved are very stoic, they persevered, and it was a very serious time. All of that is true.

But also I needed to underscore the bravery that came through different kinds of forms of resistance. I think that’s really, really critical. If you think of the enslaved as having moments of laughter, where they are using in–group comedy as a survival tactic, that’s important—in understanding the way you laugh with your friends and your family. Enslaved people were doing this too. They had to find that joy because, in the way it helps us to survive, it helped them to survive, too.

Comedy during this time was used as a broader survival mechanism against out-groups. You could prove your own cleverness. You could sort of talk back with plausible deniability.

That’s what we do now. That’s all political satire is, right? It’s this punching-up move.

Within the context of my in-group, we’re all laughing at powerful figures, and we’re figuring out ways to overthrow them, too. So it becomes this really, really powerful way of resisting couched in the plausible deniability of saying: Oh, it’s just a joke. I don’t really know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t mean anything because it’s just a joke.

SCM: Sort of a protective cloak of I’m not saying, I’m just saying… Black Americans still point out—and poke at—power structures through satire. What does that look like today?

Morgan: When you have limited mechanisms for mainstream self-actualization, you use what’s available to you. And part of what gets utilized is humor.

I think about the way comedy has been sort of naturalized in Black communities. And what I mean by that is that there’s a sort of assumption that comedy is just something that some people naturally are able to do. Dave Chappelle is a great example, and he plays into that to the great benefit of all of us.

I always tell my students Dave Chappelle’s persona is that he is the funniest guy in your dorm. He’s supposed to be kind of this pothead slacker. That’s his whole shtick, “I, you know, I was smoking weed, and I thought about this.” But, obviously, Dave Chappelle is incredibly smart. He’s working really, really hard and trying out jokes and spending all of his time writing these jokes and revising these jokes. But the performance and the persona is as though it’s casual. It’s a way to sort of signal to the audience that the things he’s saying are common knowledge. What comedians, I think, in particular, are able to do is to use that as the foot in the door to talk about much more critical social issues. During the past four years, when the pendulum of progress for African Americans was swinging back so hard, comedy provided a way to continue having those conversations relatively safely.

SCM: A safe but powerful way to point out problems with society or leadership, right?

Morgan: It demonstrates to me the power of comedy that former-President Donald Trump would get so angry that he’d not come to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He would take to Twitter and yell about Saturday Night Live. Trump spent so much of his time attacking entertainers and, in particular, comedians because he knows that comedy reaches the masses very quickly and very convincingly.

And it is not just one person; it’s also structures. Within the context of really thinking about white supremacy, it’s so pervasive that it is what we’re raised under. Even for those who resist and refuse it, it becomes the frame through which we examine things. What comedy is doing is trying to make us bear witness to that frame. It’s done by either highlighting the absurdity of it in satire or imagining an entirely new status quo in comedy.

SCM: What you are saying reminds me of a famous sketch from Key & Peele. It’s a science class in what appears to be an entirely white school. There’s a substitute teacher who is Black. In doing roll call, the teacher is “mispronouncing” names common in white American culture despite students’ objections. It’s a fabulous look at our assumptions— exposing that frame of white supremacy.

Morgan: Absolutely. I’ve taught that sketch before in my African-American comedy class. Coupled with Percival Everett’s satirical novel Erasure, it’s been consistently one of the pieces that students have the most to say about.

We start thinking about what makes the mispronunciation of these names laughable when we actually see teachers mispronouncing students’ names all the time.

Why don’t we think that Aaron spelled with two As is AA-ron? Once students start thinking about that, they’re thinking about their own names. I’ve had students say they learned that their last names were made up by a great-grandfather, that no one else shares their last name, but no one has ever questioned it. They start having all of these interesting conversations where they get to be self critical.They think about why it seemed silly that this guy is mispronouncing these kids’ names. I’m laughing at the racial dynamics, but what else am I laughing at? They ask, What are Key and Peele pointing out to me about the practices of naming and our assumptions? It’s almost this twilight zone kind of thing: What does it look like when things are just slightly askew? Suddenly you know your name is Jacqueline, but he’s calling you J-Quell- In. He is refusing to acknowledge that this is not how your name is pronounced. He can do that from his frame of reference and from his degree of power. He gets to determine your name, and in doing so he gets to determine who you are.

SCM: What happens when the audience doesn’t want to see the reference or the broader statement or misses the commentary on the power of being able to decide our own names?

Morgan: To be a satirist, in particular, means that there has to be intent and impact in your work. So the intent, you have to have satirical intent from the outset. You can’t backward engineer and say, oh, it’s satire. You have to come to the material and then perform the material as satire. That has to be a very clear goal of the comedy. But you also have to have an impact on the audience. The audience has to receive it as satire.

There can be a disconnect if you intend to create a satire and your audience does not see it as satire. If they see it as sincere or authentic, then you have created more harm than good. And we’ve seen this happen with Dave Chappelle. We’ve seen it happen with Leslie Jones. We’ve seen it happen with Chris Rock. We’ve seen it happen with pretty much all of the big satirical comedians of this age. What they have ultimately said, especially with Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, is that I’m not going to do this joke anymore, or I’m not doing this thing at all.

Satire requires the audience to be invested in your way of explaining the material. If they are more invested in sort of the immediate gratification of laughter, the joke is not going to hit where it’s supposed to hit. Satire wants to make us feel uneasy, and if the audience doesn’t want to feel uneasy, if they just want to laugh, the joke is not going to hit. It begs the question: Is it worth it to make the joke?

I think there are some comedians right now, in fact, who are being very, very meticulous in how they frame their comedy almost to an extent that the joke is still central, but it’s not the primary goal. Making the audience laugh is almost equal weight to making the audience understand.

SCM: To make the audience think.

Morgan: Absolutely. Our former Frank Sinatra Artist in Residence W. Kamau Bell is absolutely doing this. I think John Mulaney is very sneaky in how politically savvy he is. Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, Dara Wilson, and Alexandria Love are is speaking truth to power right now.

Satirists feel like they have to call things out. They have this platform, and they are going to use it.

Helping people understand that is part of my goal in writing this book. I want people to understand that satire is difficult. It is not something that just anyone can do. It has a sort of political impulse behind it that can be revolutionary.

If it is done well and the audience can receive it, it can open up so much space for self-identity.

The other thing that I think is critical is acknowledging that this revolutionary satirical impulse has existed ever since Africans were first brought to this country. I want people to see the humanity of the enslaved and the cleverness of the enslaved, and because they were human, there were even moments of joy they created for themselves in spite of everything. People experience joy in the midst of incredible, incredible sorrow, and they used satire as a way to self-actualize in a space where that was disallowed. I think that’s important.

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