Making comedy, making change

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On the video wall, there was a little five minute remake of Death in Venice, but turned into “The ADS Epidemic”, not the AIDS epidemic. So, acquired dread of sex was the new epidemic, and it was of course talking about that culture of fear and hatred that early AIDS discourses in the mainstream media and state policies have produced, demonizing queers, creating a general sense of sex panic, and trying to combat that through humour and music.

– John Greyson (AAHP interview transcript, p. 1)

As someone who dabbles in stand up comedy, I’ve been thinking about the work of making comedy and the work of making change.

I’m starting to think there’s a tension between my impulse to mock the way things are organized (while poking fun at unsuspecting bullies!), and the impulse – or perhaps need – to open up small fissures for change. It seems there’s a tension between making comedy and making concrete, material changes. It seems comedy and change don’t always go hand-in-hand.

Judith Butler (1990)  warns, “Parody by itself is not subversive, and there must be a way to understand what makes certain kinds of parodic repetitions effectively disruptive, truly troubling” (p. 177).

And, while she writes that parody by itself is not subversive, she doesn’t rule it out. As she puts it, certain repetitions can be effectively disruptive and truly troubling. Parody, then, can disrupt and trouble.  Subversion, then, is still on the table.

Making comedy can make change. 

As a part of the AIDS Activist History Project (AAHP) team, I have enjoyed learning more about the work of AIDS activists. I have been heartened by the ways AIDS activists used comedy to make change in conversation, in community and in Canada.

In an AAHP interview, John Greyson described using humour to poke fun at absurdity and push for change. In the 1987 video entitled “The ADS Epidemic,” he poked fun at horror narratives and paranoia about AIDS. He poked fun at “ADS”; the acquired dread of sex. He pushed for change by promoting (and eroticizing!) safer sex practices.

And, while I’m skeptical about whether or not one of my mediocre comedy routines can put a dent in the social order, I am heartened by the fact that, collectively, artists and activists did, indeed, open up small fissures to make the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS more secure. They pushed for comedy and pushed for change, and, as Gary Kinsman put it, “It wasn’t just symbolic; it was actually making a difference in people’s lives.”

Now, I invite you to check out a few of “The ADS Epidemic” lyrics below, and to check out the music video here. I also invite you to get in touch with your take on making comedy/change, here or on Twitter. I’d love to connect!

You can get ADS from watching TV.
It can happen to you; it can happen to me.
You can get ADS from sex ed classes.
You can get ADS from Catholic masses.
You can get ADS from stupid jokes.
You can get ADS from ignorant folks.
You can get ADS from doctors and cops.
You can get ADS from high school jocks.
You can get ADS from the Toronto Sun.
You can get ADS from Ronald Reagan.

Posted by Janna Klostermann (@jannaKlos)
Research Assistant, AIDS Activist History Project

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