First Person

What’s so funny about poverty and inequality?

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A new comedy documentary finds the power in the inappropriate.

By Michael Borum, web manager at Oxfam America.

“Comedy is acting out optimism.” – Robin Williams

By the time I joined Oxfam at age 36, I had what I thought of as a well-rounded, slightly acerbic, often—ok—inappropriate but sophisticated sense of humor. It didn’t take long for me to learn that not everyone in a humanitarian organization finds jokes about our work particularly funny—after all, given the nature of our work and mission, who has time for gallows humor? Still, I found a few colleagues who shared my wry outlook and saw humor as a motivator, and I learned to edit myself in mixed company. No harm done.

What stuck with me was the sense that using humor to illustrate the struggles people face was somehow… inappropriate. I didn’t always agree.

Now, seven years on and with a little help from my brilliant and talented cousin, Caty Borum Chattoo, who co-produced a new documentary entitled “Stand Up Planet,” I may be vindicated.

“Stand Up Planet” is the story of how L.A.-based comic Hasan Minhaj sought out some of the best humor from the developing world and brought it home to a US audience in a sort of international, cross-cultural comedy exchange program.

Hasan’s material frequently draws upon his heritage and the conditions of his extended family living in a small village in India, delivered with the clever sarcastic wit of an all-American twenty-something. He talks about sensitive issues that make many Americans squirm—racism, sexism, hunger, and disease, for example. By claiming these issues as part of his own life and making people laugh with him, he’s able to de-stigmatize them in a way that gives others permission to confront them, as well. Hasan, being quite thoroughly American himself, makes it much easier for his audience to relate to him. It’s classic satire, with a twist.

In “Stand Up Planet” we follow Hasan as he travels to India and South Africa in search of their best stand-up comics. Are there women and men out there telling jokes the same way he is, using comedy to confront taboo topics, build awareness, and maybe drive social change as a result? He asks, “What role does comedy play … and how do comedians navigate all the landmines that come with it?”

Along the way we hear great jokes about gender and public sanitation in India and HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in South Africa, among other things, as well as the inspiring work these talented men and women are doing in their communities—all by making people laugh. (It’s probably worth mentioning that there’s plenty of strong language, so be prepared.) Hasan eventually selects one outstanding comic from each country to come to L.A. and perform in front of an audience at the fabled Laugh Factory—a huge opportunity.

I won’t spoil the fun with much more detail (but even Bill Cosby himself makes an appearance). If “Stand Up Planet” screens in your community—or if you can host a screening yourself—you must see it. It’s a great way to start important conversations about the serious problems confronting the world’s poorest communities.

Watching a preview of the film on my computer, I howled with laughter—these were my kind of comics!—but I also found myself profoundly moved by what they had to say that wasn’t a joke. And yes, it was a thrill to see my cousin’s name in the credits. However tangential my connection to this work is, I’m proud of it.

I will leave you with these words from Hasan—words that actually made me cheer and cry tears of joy, words I wish I’d written and that I will proudly repeat:

“You hear people say, ‘Ah, there’s so much suffering in the world. Jokes are inappropriate.’ I say hunger’s inappropriate. Poverty is inappropriate. Lies and hypocrisy from governments—that’s inappropriate.”


Watch the premier of StandUp Planet on Wednesday, May 14 on PIVOT, Link TV, KCET-Los Angeles, or online. Then take a stand with StandUp Planet and Oxfam. Tell Congress: No cuts to lifesaving, poverty-reducing foreign assistance. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+