Skip to content

Latest Stories

Top Stories

The alchemy of laughter

The alchemy of laughter
Getty Images

Pedro Silva is the Founder of Liberation Comedy and Director of Engagement for YOUnify.

In these serious times, we often find that laughter has lost its place. As someone who experienced bullying throughout my youth and into adulthood, I acknowledge the importance of safeguarding against words that can incite violence. I vividly remember an incident when a bully's words led to a physical altercation involving a dozen people simply because he threatened violence if the name "Pedro" was spoken. Somehow, this ignited a violent response among the other teenagers on the bus. In my attempt to defend myself using words, I found myself beaten. I wish they had chosen words over violence.

However, I disagree with the idea that silencing speech is the optimal path toward building more inclusive societies. Words like, "I want to hurt you" are an evolutionary step up from actual physical harm. If you could speak to many of my ancestors or people from communities that endured unspeakable violence, they'd likely prefer insults over their town being burned down, as happened in the Greenwood District in Tulsa. So, instead of suppressing speech, I believe we need to become better at using our words and become better at hearing words we disagree with, discerning when to argue and when to walk away. In comedy especially we should examine its role more closely before lumping it together with everyday speech because the purpose of comedy is inherently different—it seeks to invoke laughter, which is inherently life-affirming, sometimes even when the laughter is at our own expense.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

What's So Funny About Something That's Not Funny?

Throughout my life, I've been a nervous laugher, often laughing at inappropriate times about things I knew were not funny. This idiosyncrasy sometimes angered people who thought I was making light of their pain or situation. The truth is, my laughter was my body and brain's way of coping with stress. It wasn't as extreme as Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of the Joker, but watching the film, I cringed at the familiarity. My younger brother even said I had the "Joker Disease" after watching it. While I can't diagnose myself with such a condition, I only learned to control it by slowing my mind, deep breathing, and thanking my body for trying to protect me.

Initially, my uncontrolled laughter didn't serve me well. The best I could do was avoid situations that triggered it or stay as serious as possible. However, during basic military training, I discovered the value in what my brain and body were trying to do in stressful situations.

On my first day of basic training, I couldn't suppress my laughter as a drill instructor yelled at me. He asked, "Is something funny, airman? Am I funny to you?" His attempts to intimidate me only fueled my laughter, and I couldn't stop. To make it worse, I started picturing my mom beating him up, which made the situation even funnier. In the end, he said, "You won't be laughing when you get off that bus and start real training." He was wrong—I laughed the entire time. But this time, my laughter endeared me to fellow airmen who nicknamed me "Smiley."

Observing other airmen break under pressure, I became grateful for my uncontrolled laughter's benefits, much like an accidental superpower. I realized that laughter releases "feel good" chemicals in our brains and considered it my body's way of working for me, even if others didn't appreciate it. Rather than suppress it, which only made it worse, I embraced it. My nervous laughter subsided, and I learned to regulate it in a healthier way. While I still sometimes smile or snicker when it seems inappropriate to others, it no longer provokes anger.

If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry

My family often told me that if I didn't laugh at some of the tough experiences I've been through, I'd be crying. They were right. I've shed my fair share of tears, but laughter has allowed me to cope with grief and avoid succumbing to depression. When they pointed out that I was probably laughing to avoid crying, my response was, "Well, I'm going to laugh later, so I might as well laugh now." Little did I know that I had stumbled upon a key ingredient of comedy.

Tragedy Plus Time Equals Comedy

I recently started an organization called Liberation Comedy. Our mission is to help us tap into our alchemical superpowers, realizing that we have the ability to create a better world for more people. In our inaugural podcast episode with comedian and entrepreneur Karith Foster, founder of FRAME (the Foster Russell Alliance for Meaningful Expression), she affirmed the quote, "Tragedy plus time equals comedy." This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain and Carol Burnett. Regardless of its source, it's a profound insight. As someone who has officiated many funerals, I can confirm that even the most tragic events can include laughter. But have you ever wondered why?

I believe it's because we're emotional alchemists. When we laugh at painful experiences, we acknowledge that pain is temporary. Laughter is a revolutionary act, signaling hope for a better tomorrow. When we laugh at our own suffering or at societal issues like racism, sexism, and poverty, we declare that a cure exists for our social ills. Laughter defies the limitations of oppressors and the burdens of the oppressed, proclaiming equality. Laughter is an echo from the future.

But What About Jokesters Who Are Jerks?

Despite some people's belief that all comedy should be palatable to everyone, I think there's a place for comics who use insults as artistic expression. They're the "ego slayers" of this medium, reminding us not to take ourselves or life's challenges too seriously.

Recently, I "took the bullet" at a comedy show in Maui. This means performing early in the show to warm up the audience and gauge their demeanor for the comics who follow. I mentioned my past as a pastor in my set, and subsequent comedians poked fun at me, religion, and the belief in God to get laughs. Some jokes landed, and some didn't. I saw it as an opportunity to improve my comedy skills.

Some people choose to sit in the front row at insult-heavy comedy shows, even though they might become targets. It's similar to engaging in risky activities like bungee jumping, skydiving, or riding a roller coaster. These experiences bring us face to face with the existential fear of death, the ultimate concern of not belonging. It's what some call "The Void." When we emerge from it, we feel more alive. These comics ignite our adrenaline response, immersing us in the present moment where we feel most alive.

Isn't this what all comedy does? It reminds us that despite the chaos in the world—wars, pandemics, addiction, politics, "isms," inflation, infidelity, endangered species, pollution, reality TV, and whatever Kanye West says next—we're still alive and there's hope. Let's harness our internal alchemy to laugh in the face of danger until we all feel safe enough to laugh at ourselves together.

If you appreciate the power of laughter to drive positive change and bridge gaps across differences, I invite you to share this post, subscribe to our podcast, and watch and share my recent comedy set, "What's In a Name?"

For the inaugural Liberation Comedy Podcast, "What's So Funny About...?”, we are thrilled to have Karith Foster, American comedian, speaker, television and radio personality, actress, author, and entrepreneur. Karith is the founder and CEO of ⁠Inversity Solutions⁠ a consulting firm that specializes in and Foster Russell Alliance for Meaningful Expression (FRAME), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization which is committed to, "Inspiring free speech, social change and empowerment through education and mentorship." In this episode, we discuss how comedy can help be a healing force in society and we ask ourselves "What's so funny about...? Question of the Day". Listen and enjoy.

If you know comedians who support important causes or use comedy to unite people, connect them with us.

To read the originally published piece, visit here.

Read More

Trump and Biden at the debate

Our political dysfunction was on display during the debate in the simple fact of the binary choice on stage: Trump vs Biden.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The debate, the political duopoly and the future of American democracy

Johnson is the executive director of the Election Reformers Network, a national nonpartisan organization advancing common-sense reforms to protect elections from polarization.

The talk is all about President Joe Biden’s recent debate performance, whether he’ll be replaced at the top of the ticket and what it all means for the very concerning likelihood of another Trump presidency. These are critical questions.

But Donald Trump is also a symptom of broader dysfunction in our political system. That dysfunction has two key sources: a toxic polarization that elevates cultural warfare over policymaking, and a set of rules that protects the major parties from competition and allows them too much control over elections. These rules entrench the major-party duopoly and preclude the emergence of any alternative political leadership, giving polarization in this country its increasingly existential character.

Keep ReadingShow less
Women holding signs to defend diversity at Havard

CHarvard students joined in a rally protesting the Supreme Courts ruling against affirmative action in 2023.

Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Project 2025: Affirmative action

Shapiro, a freelance journalist, was a newspaper editor for 30 years in California, Illinois and Iowa, including 21 years as executive editor of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

This is part of a series offering a nonpartisan counter to Project 2025, a conservative guideline to reforming government and policymaking during the first 180 days of a second Trump administration. The Fulcrum's cross partisan analysis of Project 2025 relies on unbiased critical thinking, reexamines outdated assumptions, and uses reason, scientific evidence, and data in analyzing and critiquing Project 2025.

The most celebrated passage in American history is honored in textbooks as a “self-evident” truth about equality.

We are schooled “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is a lofty proposition, but as the brainchild of two slaveowners — written by Thomas Jefferson at the behest of Benjamin Franklin — inherent contradictions exist.

Keep ReadingShow less
Computer image of a person speaking
ArtemisDiana/Getty Images

Overcoming AI voice cloning attacks on election integrity

Levine is an election integrity and management consultant who works to ensure that eligible voters can vote, free and fair elections are perceived as legitimate, and election processes are properly administered and secured.

Imagine it’s Election Day. You’re getting ready to go vote when you receive a call from a public official telling you to vote at an early voting location rather than your Election Day polling site. So, you go there only to discover it’s closed. Turns out that the call wasn’t from the public official but from a replica created by voice cloning technology.

That might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but many New Hampshire voters experienced something like it two days before the 2024 presidential primary. They received robocalls featuring a deepfake simulating the voice of President Joe Biden that discouraged them from participating in the primary.

Keep ReadingShow less
Male and female gender symbols
Hreni/Getty Images

The Montana Legislature tried, and failed, to define sex

Nelson is a retired attorney and served as an associate justice of the Montana Supreme Court from 1993 through 2012.

In 2023, the Montana State Legislature passed a bill, signed into law by the governor, that defined sex and sexuality as being either, and only, male or female. It defined “sex” in the following manner: “In human beings, there are exactly two sexes, male and female with two corresponding gametes.” The law listed some 41 sections of the Montana Code that need to be revised based on this definition.

Keep ReadingShow less
Rep. Gus Bilirakis and Rep. Ayanna Pressley

Rep. Gus Bilirakis and Rep. Ayanna Pressley won the Congressional Management Foundation's Democracy Award for Constituent Accountability and Accessibility.

Official portraits

Some leaders don’t want to be held accountable. These two expect it.

Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.

There is probably no more important concept in the compact between elected officials and those who elect them than accountability. One of the founding principles of American democracy is that members of Congress are ultimately accountable to their constituents, both politically and morally. Most members of Congress get this, but how they demonstrate and implement that concept varies. The two winners of the Congressional Management Foundation’s Democracy Award for Constituent Accountability and Accessibility clearly understand and excel at this concept.

Keep ReadingShow less