Comedy in a Time of Crisis

Sam J Knights
19 min readJan 13, 2021


Or, Why Climate Change Is Funny.

Last week, a group of far-right activists broke into the Capitol. They scaled walls, smashed windows, and broke through the perimeter fence. Once inside, they wandered, slightly aimlessly, around the buildings; some strolled through the famous corridors like confused tourists, whilst others rushed towards the Senate Chamber and attempted to take control. One man, dressed as a pirate, posed for a picture in the chair of the Senate President. Another man, wearing a “Trump” bobble hat, stole a lectern. Shots were fired. People panicked. Rioters kept chanting: “Tump Won”, “Hang Mike Pence”, “This Is Our House”.

Eventually, a topless individual dressed in a novelty fur hat told his fellow rioters that it was time to pack up and go home. As they left, somebody scrawled a message on a nearby door: “MURDER THE MEDIA”. Another left a note for Nancy Pelosi: “WE WILL NOT BACK DOWN”. Later, it emerged that two pipe bombs had been discovered in the area and that five people had died amidst the chaos.

There is no doubt that President Trump encouraged the rioters. In the morning, he had addressed the crowds, urging them to march to the Capitol and oppose “this egregious assault on our democracy”. “You will never take back our country with weakness,” he informed them. A couple of hours later, he recorded a video message for the rioters. “We love you”, he said as the violence continued, “you’re all very special”.

The coup, that was not a coup, is strangely hard to describe. It was surprising in an unsurprising kind of way. Unexpected, yet expected. Infused with the energy of the surreal, but with none of the imagination or the wit. People had died. Bombs had been planted. This was, some people said, a failed insurrection. A riot. A putsch. An act or terror. It certainly looked like one. Yet something about it was also pure farce.

A man walks through the corridors of the Capitol, holding a Confederate flag

In the hours that followed, people argued over nouns. On the one hand, these rioters were obviously incompetent; to describe the event as a “coup” was to belittle the meaning of the word. On the other hand, the riot was planned in advance; if the participants thought it was a coup, then it was surely the intention that mattered. They were using violence to undermine an election. Men with neo-Nazi tattoos had broken into the Capitol; emboldened fascists had, however briefly, occupied the Senate. The significance of such an event cannot, and should not, be understated. “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America”, said President-elect Joe Biden. He is wrong, of course. This is America. Or, at least, part of it. The only way to confront modern day fascism is to recognise that fact.

As the debate raged on, the conversation started to coalesce around some slightly different questions: what were you meant to feel? How were you meant to react? Was the failed occupation funny or terrifying? Were you meant to laugh or cry, and were either of those responses particularly useful? Dutifully, people lined up on either side of the divide. Those who were laughing at the episode were, in the eyes of their detractors, not taking it seriously enough. People had died. Blood had been spilled. Their laughter was trivialising the evil in front of us.

I have a lot of sympathy for this argument. Modern day fascism has a tricky relationship with comedy. Whilst vigorously opposing the “politically correct” comedy of liberalism, fascists have developed entire subcultures around a particular form of memeified humour. Cloaked in irony, these fascists have often sought to trivialise their own ideology and, in doing so, to trivialise the violence on which it is predicated. Fascists have become adept at navigating the various pitfalls of the online world and, under the guise of entertainment, white supremacists have become a core part of the media landscape. Thus, the rhetoric of fascism has crept steadily into mainstream politics, and white nationalism is currently experiencing a deadly resurgence. Make no mistake, the far right are on the march. They are a very real threat, and this threat needs to be taken extremely seriously.

But, what of laughter? The answer, surely, is that something can be both funny and terrifying at the same time. If the last few years have taught us anything it is that danger comes in many different forms. Something can be both pathetic and evil, deadly and ridiculous. Evil is not like it is in the movies. It is uneven and complicated. It is, occasionally, even silly. So, who are we to tell people that they cannot laugh at fascists?

Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator (1940)

British columnists are fond of quoting Peter Cook, who famously said that his nightclub, the Establishment Club, was to be a satirical venue modelled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”. But comedy was important to many Jews in Nazi Germany, not only as an act of resistance but also as a means of resilience. Cabarets in concentration camps were widespread and laughter was an important part of survival. One inmate recalled, “in spite of all our agony and pain we never lost our ability to laugh at ourselves and our miserable situation. We had to make jokes to survive and save ourselves from deep depression”. There is, of course, a difference between the laughter of the privileged and the laughter of the persecuted.

Laughter is, and always has been, a coping mechanism. In dark times, people need comedy to hold them together. And the dark times are coming thick and fast, right now. The rise of fascism. The crisis of democracy. The climate and ecological emergency. We stand at the intersection of countless crises; every day we experience another shock, another quake, another point of collapse. From forest fires to fascism, the world in which we live is defined by the extreme. By the gross and the grotesque, the monstrous and the macabre. The world is a harsh, confusing place, and there is no “correct” response to the evil that confronts us. Your laughter is valid, even in the midst of a crisis.

In 1638, The Antipodes or The World Turned Upside Down by Richard Brome was first performed at the Salisbury Court Theatre in London. The play is a sprawling Caroline comedy that presents, through a complicated framing device, a topsy turvy world known as “Anti-London”. Many critics have said that the play uses the ancient English trope of “the world turned upside down” to poke fun at society as it then was, and to dream of something better; James Bulman calls the play a “funhouse mirror”, in which audience members are encouraged to “view the nature of their society”, whilst Ian Donaldson has argued that this trope can be traced back to the Middle Ages and to the custom of “carnival” in ancient societies. Drawing on the work of Bakhtin, Donaldson argues that, during the seventeenth century, this “reversed world” of carnival emerges once again.

In 1889, Jules Verne wrote The Purchase of the North Pole, which imagines a world in which the North Pole is sold to the highest bidder at a public auction. The buyers that win the auction are later revealed to be members of the Baltimore Gun Club, who plan to tilt the Earth’s axis in order to establish a more stable climate. The book is subtitled “Topsy-Turvy”, or “sans dessus dessous” in the original French, and it is now widely regarded to be one of the first examples of an emerging genre of fiction: climate fiction, or “cli-fi” as it has come to be known. The image of the world upside down — topsy-turvy and out of joint — is foundational to how we have thought and written about climate and ecological catastrophe from the very beginning.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, by Peter Bruegel the Elder (1559)

Mikhail Bakhtin writes that “during the carnival there is a temporary suspension of all hierarchic distinctions and barriers among men and of certain norms and prohibitions of usual life”. For one day, roles are reversed; the king becomes the slave, and the slave becomes the king. In a similar way, Richard Brome underwent his own “antipodean” reversal, having once been the manservant of fellow playwright Ben Jonson. For Bakhtin, the event which epitomised the carnival ritual was the “mock crowning and subsequent decrowning of the carnival king”; he wrote that “he who is crowned is the antipode of a real king”. In other words, the least powerful becomes the most powerful, and vice versa. In daring to imagine an inverted world, the carnival provokes us to question everything. This fantastical, “antipodean” day teems with subversive possibility.

Thus, the absurdity of carnival easily lends itself to comedy and “the world turned upside down” has been used by writers and satirists, from Chaucer to Shakespeare. It is also, as Christopher Hill reminds us, a familiar trope of the old English radicals. In his book The World Turned Upside Down, Hill examines the beliefs of the Diggers, the Ranters, the Levellers, and others; he traces the idea of “the world turned upside down” to various passages in the Old Testament and shows how numerous radicals in the seventeenth century used the trope to talk about revolution in biblical terms. In this manner, Henry Denne wrote that it was his endeavour “to turn the world upside down, and to set that in the bottom which others make the top”. Or, in the words of Gerrard Winstanley, “freedom is the man that will turn the word upside down”.

Later, the Diggers inspired the lyrics of a song ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, popularised by Billy Bragg in the late twentieth century. The song was in fact written by Leon Rosselson, who had previously appeared on That Was The Week That Was and other late night comedy shows. The song takes the trope of ‘the world turned upside down’ and synthesises it with a radical eco-socialist politics that argues: “The earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share”. The song could have conceivably been written sometime in the seventeenth century; indeed, many of the lyrics are derived from a pamphlet attributed to Gerrard Winstanley.

The spirit of the carnival echoes throughout history, both in the works of satirists and in the speeches of socialists. Its subversive quality has imbued it with both a political and a literary resonance; half serious, half joking. Radical, yet ridiculous. For a while it faded into obscurity but, slowly, “the world turned upside down” is beginning to reappear in all sorts of strange places. It has been used to describe many different crises in the twenty-first century, from the economic crash of 2008 to the Arab Spring in the early 2010s. More recently, it has been used to describe the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended our understanding of how society functions. The Guardian now has a series called “the world turned upside down” which aims to look at the “different ways the pandemic is reshaping our lives”.

A woodcut frontispiece of an English ballad, The World Turned Upside Down (1646)

So, what does this tell us about the crises we face today? I think it tells us that, sometimes, a crisis can feel like a carnival. Not the bright lights and the sugary drinks of the circus, but the anarchy of Saturnalia. The free-wheeling energy of the Feast of Fools. Something can be so unsettling, and yet still retain the capacity to excite, delight, and fascinate us. Any major crisis can, like “the world turned upside down”, be both political and comic, and we should not be afraid of admitting this. In fact, we should be prepared to embrace it. Realising the comic potential of the modern world can help us to understand it better. It can even help us to change it.

At this point, I should probably admit a personal interest. For the last year, I have been writing a comedy series about climate change. Here is a crisis which is, quite literally, changing the orientation of the natural world, and “turning the world upside down”. Climate change is undoubtedly a profound evil, but I see no problem in laughing in the face of it. In fact, I have found it immensely comforting, and my guess is that a lot of people feel the same. You only have to spend a couple of minutes on the internet before you come across a similar sense of humour.

Take, for instance, the “this is fine” meme, which shows a cartoon dog calmly sipping coffee whilst everything around him is on fire. The artist behind the image, KC Green, describes its success as “a feeling we all get” that things are burning down around us. We are being asked to ignore the crises at our door and carry on as if nothing is wrong. No crisis of democracy. No rising threat of fascism. No climate and ecological emergency. Humour is used here to reveal the truth, rather than to obscure it. What might be dismissed as an irrelevant joke on the internet is, in actual fact, challenging one of the greatest lies of the modern age: that everything is under control. It is a worrying cartoon that clearly resonates with a huge number of people.

The truth is that many of us, particularly young people, have come to regard the modern world as something of a cruel joke. Through no fault of our own, we have been born into a world in decline. The forests are burning, the oceans are rising, the ice caps are melting. At the exact same moment, democracy is in crisis and fascism is making a comeback. The conventional methods have failed. Capitalism is in freefall but careerist politicians, hopeless and impotent, still cling to power. Still repeating their failed catchphrases. Desperately hoping that one day, one day, they will be relevant again. “They want a revolution and we give them reforms,” cries The Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, “We’re drowning them in reforms. Or promises of reforms, because let’s face it, they’re not actually going to get anything”.

Our leaders have little to no understanding of the crises we now face, and the window for action is vanishing fast. We know that the only way to tackle the multiple crises of the twenty-first century is to reimagine and reinvent every aspect of our present society. We need to find the “Anti-Earth”, not just the “Anti-London”. Everything needs to change, and yet nothing will change without a fight; our economic and political elites are not going to surrender their power politely. It is going to require action from below. Ordinary people working together to save the world, and fight for something better. And that, objectively, is a little bit silly. Silly that we let it get this bad. Silly that it was ever thus.

The Bathos, by William Hogarth (1764)

We live our lives caught in between these grand narratives. On the one hand, most of us are painfully aware of the crises we face; we can see, clearly, the catastrophes hurtling towards us. On the other hand, we still have to go to work. We have to keep doing the dishes, taking the bins out, and acting as if everything is normal. We live in a society that attempts to normalise the most abnormal conditions; extreme poverty, growing inequality, climate and ecological breakdown. The correct response is to scream, to cry, to tear it all down. But we do not do that. Why? When philosophers talk about the climate crisis, they often reach for the profound; they talk about the end of the world with sombre faces and in hushed, serious tones. Yet, for me, “pathos” is only half of the story; its sillier cousin “bathos” is also essential.

In 1764, William Hogarth published his last engraving, The Bathos, or the Manner of Sinking in Sublime Paintings inscribed to Dealers in Dark Pictures. The picture shows an exhausted Father Time amidst a sea of destruction; a broken bell, a cracked palette, a ruined church tower. Hogarth is said to have known he was dying when he made it; advertisements for the print announced that it was to “serve as a Tail-Piece to all the Author’s Engraved Works, when bound up together”. In the centre of the print, there is a derelict shop-sign. Upon this sign are the words: “The World’s End”. Below, there is a picture of the Earth on fire; a cracked globe engulfed in flames. Looking at it now, it feels like a dark prophesy of things yet to come.

Bathos is defined as “a sudden change, that is not always intended, from a serious subject or feeling to something that is silly or not important”. There is, to my mind, no better feeling to encapsulate the twenty-first century, this strange, purgatorial epoch. Today, we are faced with two distinct pathways; do we continue on the road to disaster, or do we choose to veer away and dream of a better world? Both possibilities play out in our minds simultaneously. Similarly, the mundanity of everyday existence is played out against the backdrop of impending doom. Vast, unintelligible crises threaten our very existence, and yet we continue to bank our cheques and pay our rent. We continue to uphold the system that is failing us.

Fawlty Towers, written by John Cleese and Connie Booth (1975)

In this way, the activist resembles the archetypal sitcom character. Like Basil Fawlty or Alan Partridge, the activist is always wanting something they will never get. They try and they fail, over and over again. They work tirelessly, in the full knowledge that they will likely never achieve their aims in their own lifetime, nor live to see the fruit of their own labour. They are up against a system that does not care about them, in a world that they do not feel comfortable in. They exist on the fringes of society, like a clown, trying to reveal truths about society through mischief and trickery. Just like comedy, activism exists in the space between success and failure, dystopia and utopia; it teeters forever on the edges of disaster.

Jessica Milner Davis writes, in her book on the evolution of farce, that “in the face of irresistible forces — the mechanical demands of the body, the mechanical patterns of habit, the universal laws of mechanics themselves, and beyond all these, the mechanical manipulations of the plot — farce acknowledges our common helplessness”. The same could be said for activism, and the mechanical age in which live. Michael North argues, in his book Machine-Age Comedy, that “the machine age seems to have brought, along with all its other dislocations, a new motive for laughter and perhaps a new form of comedy”. This hypothesis raises the possibility that modernity is itself governed by an inherently comic rhythm. If this is true, then, right now, it is stuttering. Breaking down. Malfunctioning. And a new comic rhythm is trying to establish itself.

Francis Hutcheson once speculated that since laughter is provoked by a deviation from the normal, our understanding of what is normal has serious repercussions for what is funny. A “new normal” clashes with what we might now call the “old normal”, and in this conflict there is comedy. But there is also something altogether more political; in presenting contrasting conceptions of what is and what is not normal, comedy is able to unlock a form of utopian desire. A yearning for what is not, but what could be. Jokes about the failed present thus gesture towards a better future. Or, as Mark Fisher once wrote, “emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency”. Destroy the natural order. The very essence of carnival.

If the function of radical politics is so similar to the function of carnival, who is then to say that laughter is apathetic? Comedy can be an effective lens through which to view the modern world, but it can also be an effective tool in our activism. Laughter is a weapon of the revolution, and we ignore it at our peril. As Marcuse once wrote, “art is committed to that perception of the world which alienates individuals from their functional existence and performance in society — it is committed to an emancipation of sensibility, imagination, and reason in all spheres of subjectivity and objectivity”. The same is true of comedy.

An octopus is arrested, Extinction Rebellion (2019)

There is something inherently ridiculous about a protest. It taps into the same anarchic energy of the carnival. It upends our traditional understanding of hierarchy, and presents a direct and clear challenge to authority. When I think back to the protests that most delighted me, I think of spectacle. Beautiful, incongruous, ridiculous spectacle. I think of a big pink boat in the middle of Oxford Circus. I think of a glorious garden bridge over the River Thames. I think of a giant wooden horse being pulled into the British Museum. Two years ago, during the climate change protests in London, I remember watching a giant pink octopus being arrested by the police. People were laughing at the police officers and I suddenly realised that their authority had vanished. The spell had been broken. The French surrealist André Breton once said that “art goes hand in hand with revolutionary social activity; like the latter it leads to the confusion and destruction of capitalist society”.

Protest presents power with a “dilemma situation”. Activists talk about manufacturing this “dilemma” in various ways, but it usually emerges in a form of a bargain. The protesters challenge the authorities to agree to their demands and, if they fail to do so, there will be repercussions.The police are also forced to make a tactical choice; to allow the protesters to continue or to repress the protest with violence. The traditional hierarchy is suddenly overturned as people realise the extent of their own power; in other words, protesters inject a “tension” into a real situation and challenge those in power to “resolve” it. This is, as it happens, the basic structure of a joke. Tension is injected into a room, only to be resolved moments later. As George Orwell once wrote, “every joke is a tiny revolution”.

A protester demands a similar punchline. In organising a protest, activists are attempting to draw out a tension that already exists. They dramatise the conflict and, in doing so, they physicalise the discontent of the citizenry; politicians can, if they so choose, look out of the window and see the opposition before them. They are invited, then, to resolve it; to correct the injustice and to answer the calls for change. Or to be overturned. Uprooted. A victim of the revolution. Comedy, like protest, generates conflict but invites resolution. It creates a space in which people can dream of something better. It gestures towards an other, more harmonious future and, in doing so, delights in the possibility of change.

“Be realistic, demand the impossible”, graffiti in Paris (1968)

Lord Byron once wrote that “all tragedies are finished by a death” and that “all comedies are ended by a marriage”. Let us hope, therefore, that the story of the twenty-first century is a comedy and not a tragedy. We need a resolution to the confusion; we need to undergo a period of transformation and emerge, happy and contented, at the end of the play. The power of comedy to resolve tragedy is an energy we all desperately need. Resolution, like revolution, is a manifestation of utopian desire. It imagines a world without conflict, without injustice or suffering. It removes the evil from the world.

Comedy teaches us that the world is not being “turned upside down” by dangerous revolutionaries. It was always upside down. It has been upside down for a very long time. “The time is out of joint”, says Hamlet, “That ever I was born to set it right!”. The challenge before us is now clear. The forces that have upended our world need to be challenged, and it is our responsibility to resolve it. To revolve it. To turn it back and right the wrongs of the past. “A revolution is a turn of the wheel”, writes Rowan Williams in This Is Not A Drill, “and the paradox of true revolution is that it takes us back from insanely dangerous places to having our feet on the ground again”.

Perhaps it feels wrong to laugh at the fascists who stormed the Capitol last week. Perhaps it is strange to laugh at climate change, but laughter is still a valid response. Of course, there are jokes that delay action; there is the dismissive laughter of the elite which does not aim to understand, but only to mock. But some jokes aspire to something more than that; in accepting the ridiculousness of the modern world, comedy can help us to understand evil as it really is. It can puncture the pomposity of the powerful, and revel in the absurd energy of protest. It can force people to think again about what is and what is not normal. “I’ve worked you out”, says Inspector Bertozzo in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, “you really do have this acting mania, so you’re acting mad but in fact you’re saner than I am”.

Let us not police our feelings in the midst of a crisis. We have more important things to worry about than that. Let people laugh if they want to. The laughter is not the problem, the crisis is the problem. Fascism is the problem. Capitalism is the problem. Climate change is the problem, and we are going to need better protests in order to reverse it. Better movements. Better dreams. And, yes, better jokes. We need jokes that will spark a revolution. Jokes that are not written simply to entertain, but to provoke. To tear down and to build up. To turn the world upside down.

Marshall Islands, a graveyard slowly disappears into the sea.

Before Greta Thunberg, there were other young girls who spoke truth to power. Selina Leem was only eighteen years old when she addressed the United Nations in 2015. “My name is Selina Leem”, she said, “and I am a small island girl with big dreams from the island of Majuro in the Marshall Islands”. Selina explained that, even when she was much younger, she could see that the world was changing. The earth was getting warmer, the animals were dying, and her island was quickly disappearing under water. She asked leaders to “tell a new story” about climate change that centred people on the frontlines of this crisis. “Sometimes”, she continues, “when you want to make a change, then it is necessary to turn the world upside down”.

Like so many people in the Global South, Selina was ignored. Ultimately, her warning was not heeded, and her advice was not followed. But what Selina was asking for, in “the world turned upside down”, was a revolution of the imagination. To start looking at the crisis from a different perspective. To be brave. To dream. To dare to demand the impossible. Here was a young girl, an outsider and a trickster, demanding that the world was turned on its head. Nobody listened. Nobody laughed. But maybe they should have done. Maybe it would be better than this.




Sam J Knights

writer, actor, activist, clown | writing about imagination, revolution, and the end of the world