Rice Paddies, Buffalo, and the sad fate of the Cardamom Trees

Apparently Sapa Town is pretty beautiful. All the pictures of hostels we looked at on Hostel World had amazing views of lush green mountains. But alas, we were not meant to see them just yet. The town was so foggy when we got there that we couldn’t even see from one side of the street to the other and to make matters worse, it was cold. After being soaked to the bone for three days in Hanoi, we were not happy about the circumstances here. We tried to explore the town a bit and went in search for a good jacket for Izzi, but with the fog being what it was we soon decided just to head back to the hostel. The hostel served hot food, at least, so we treated ourselves to rice and veggies and sat as close as we could to the fire. We struck up conversation with a Canadian couple playing cards at the table next to us. They had just finished their trek and we were interested to hear their thoughts. Unfortunately, it turned out that they hadn’t been able to see anything for their whole trek because of the fog. One of them said that all she had wanted out of her trip there was to see a rice paddy and not even that had been possible. Izzi and I finished our meal glumly and then, downtrodden, took to our beds to rest up for what were pretty sure would be a disappointment. Looking back on it now, our mood seems pretty funny. We sulked all day in our beds, ready for the worst, when what actually lay ahead was the most amazing three days of our whole trip.

We had booked our trek with a company called Sapa Sisters. There are many tour groups to book with in Sapa, but most of them are owned by foreign operators or hotels and don’t actually do much to benefit the local people. Sapa sisters is run entirely by local Hmong women, so they benefit directly from the tours instead of working through a middle-man. In addition to truly supporting local tribes, since it’s run by women of the Hmong tribe, it gives them an opportunity to make their own living and to be independent from their fathers and husbands. I felt really good about our decision to book through them. The day after arriving we made our way to their office where we met with our guide, Cho. She explained the different routes to us and the different levels of difficulty —we decided on medium difficulty, although it was tempting to choose the highest level. Then we left our big bags in their storage room and rented some boots. They were thin rubber rain boots which looked like the kind of thing a little kid might wear while gardening with Mum. I was skeptical and was sure that I would be better off in my sneakers. But, Cho strongly recommended that I rent the boots which, of course, turned out to be the right decision.

Once we were all booted up and ready to go, we set off through the town behind Cho. Two Hmong women followed us out of the town and at first it made me a bit uncomfortable, since I had no idea why they would be following us. But, since Cho didn’t say anything I relaxed. I ended up being very happy to have them. Once we reached the hills it got very slippery on account of all the rain (this is the part where I was thankful for my boots). Going up the hills was easy enough, but once we started going down it was downright scary. One of the ladies grabbed my hand each time it looked like I was going to fall to steady me. Although I appreciated her intention, at first I was determined to do it all by myself. I had been hiking in Patagonia, for goodness sakes. I could do this! But then I fell… twice, and after that I accepted her help. Eventually I think she realized I was a somewhat capable hiker and we came to an unspoken understanding. She only offered her hand to me when she thought I would really need it and I learned to trust her definition of a tough spot. They stayed with us until we reached the town where we would be eating lunch. When we thankfully sat down at our table, very ready to eat, they unveiled what had been hidden the whole time in their beautifully woven baskets and it all made more sense to me. It was time for us to buy some of their crafts to thank them for their help. At first I was disappointed. I had naively thought that they were really just there to help us. But I was genuinely grateful for their help and the crafts were beautiful, so I bought a couple woven pouches. Over the next few days countless women and children would offer us help along our trek, obviously expecting us to buy from them afterwards. Cho explained to me that she couldn’t tell the other women to go away. If she did, she said, the community would say that she was bad and didn’t want to share her fortune with the rest of the tribe. But she also told me that it was absolutely fine for me to deny their help. I was very grateful for her explanation and afterwards I learned to say a polite but firm no thank you. 

Izzi and I both absolutely loved Cho. We had all been a little quiet at the start, but as we hiked and got to know each other better we began to joke and laugh quite a lot. She also taught us so much about our surroundings. Once, when we were walking through a more forested area she pointed out some trees which she said were Cardamom trees. She told us that the trees were becoming quite rare because of how the weather was changing. She said that before, it never never snowed in Sapa, but now it was snowing sometimes and the young Cardamom trees couldn’t survive it. She told us that the Hmong people say the tourists bring the snow because before the tourists came there was never any snow.

A Cardamom Tree

It was depressing to realize that there was a fair amount of truth in what they said. Perhaps the tourists didn’t directly bring the snow with them, but tourism means airplanes and airplanes mean carbon emissions and  carbon emissions mean climate change and climate change means strange weather patterns and strange weather patterns mean snow in Sapa. It was a very confusing mix of emotions, feeling very lucky to be there learning this from Cho but also knowing that I was at the very centre of the problem.

Indigo plants

Cho also pointed Indigo plants out to us. She told us to rub the leaves very fast in between our hands without warning us that it would turn our hands well… indigo. Maybe I should have thought about that myself, but I didn’t mind anyway. She told us that she is part of the Hmong Black people which have that name because they use Indigo to dye all their traditional clothing, which turns it all black. I was beyond happy to be learning all this. I really wished I could be writing it all down in my notebook, but that would have slowed down our trek significantly so I concentrated hard on remembering every fascinating tidbit that Cho shared with me.

I tried equally as hard to remember the sights, although taking a photo is a more socially acceptable form of delay than writing down notes. The fog turned out not to be a problem in the slightest for us and the entire trek we had perfect views of everything. Although visually they couldn’t have been more different, Sapa gave me a similar feeling to being in Patagonia. All the space around me seemed to have an extra dimension, as if the 3D world I was used to was actually very flat and I had just never noticed. As I looked around everything continuously seemed to be folding in and out of itself, looking very much alive. At times it would seem unbelievable that I was in the middle of all this beauty. The mountains made me feel very small. It’s a feeling I get often when I’m traveling and which I absolutely adore. I love feeling small because it reminds me that I am a part of something much bigger.

There were rice paddies all over the place and we hiked along thin paths which wound their way between them. I was actually surprised how much I liked the paddies. Usually I’m not a big fan of visible human impact on the land, but the rice paddies certainly felt like they had more of a right to be there than I did. They were carved so perfectly into the mountains and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how long they’d been there. Water buffalo roamed through them, grazing on the shoots in the water and I realized that the paddies were a part of humans and buffalo and rice living together in this place. Sapa wouldn’t be Sapa without them and they were spectacular.

I also grew quite fond of the bamboo. On our second day we hiked through a bamboo forest and the shoots grew tall and thick around us with only a tiny footpath to follow. It was dark in there, but the trunks were narrow, letting just enough light filter through them to give a mystical feeling. In other places, away from the forest, the trees clumped together in little patches, bending from the weight of their leaves which sat in tufts like a bad hair day and made them look like something from the world of Doctor Seuss.

After our long days of hiking it was always nice to arrive at our stopping points. On the first day we had stopped at a restaurant made for trekkers for lunch, which was fine. But that night we stopped at a homestay which we shared with two other small groups of travelers and which was infinitely better. We were given rice wine and amazing food and our hosts were so welcoming. Although we were tired, we stayed up chatting and drinking with the others, our goal being to finish our bottle of rice wine. Cho told us that in their culture, odd numbers were unlucky. So, for example, if you wanted a scoop of rice you had to take two and if you wanted three scoops of rice you’d have to take four. It turns out that the same goes for shots. Needless to say it was not difficult to finish the bottle.

Since Cho was good friends with the guide of one of the other groups we had lodged with, named Pen, we all continued the trek together the next day. For lunch we stopped at Pen’s mother’s house which I was naturally very excited about. It was wonderful to be inside a real home. Since the Chinese New Year was on its way everyone was in the middle of preparations, making traditional celebratory clothing.

They also served us the best rice dish Izzi and I would eat during our entire stay in Vietnam. I learned that nearly all the families there grow their own rice in their paddies and have their own vegetable gardens. Coming from where I come from, this seemed absolutely dreamy. Don’t I wish that everyone back home had the space and the time to grow their own food? Don’t I wish that everyone grew just enough to feed themselves and share with their neighbours? But, of course, Cho and many others don’t really feel the same way. Many people feel stuck in their lives, unable to do anything but grow rice for their families. It’s important to remember that the beautiful life of a small farm is only ideal if you have chosen it for yourself.

On the last of our three-day trek, Cho gave us the option of taking it easy and spending the day at a nearby waterfall, an offer we eagerly accepted. When leaving Sapa Town in the fog we had been so convinced the weather was going to be horrible that we almost spitefully left our bathing suites behind. Now, of course, we were irritated with ourselves, but we decided there was nothing wrong with swimming in our undies. When we got to the waterfall there was a bit of a chill in the air and getting into the water took some courage. But there are only so many opportunities to swim in a waterfall in Vietnam, so we stripped down and dove in. Yes, it was cold. There was a definite moment of shock that required some deep breathing, but it certainly wasn’t as bad as the salt lake in Chile. This time, Izzi lasted longer, too. The waterfall wasn’t very big but it was beautiful. The sound was gentle and calming and made me want to spend the whole day floating on my back with my face pointed up towards the sun. Every few minutes I would dive down into the river as deep as I could. It felt amazing to let the water run passed me and wash off all that travel. It made me feel more clean than even our nicest hostel shower had. When I came back up for air I settled again, half in the water and half in the sun. To my right there was an ancient looking tree which had grown out of the side of a small cliff. It grew low and twisted towards the sun, and its roots wrapped around a huge grey stone as they made their way down towards the river. Just next to it  two water buffalo, a mother and a calf, grazed in the rich green grass, not at all concerned with our splashing. Beyond them I could see the rice paddies carved endlessly into the mountain sides and I was glad that the cold water had turned my skin numb so that I could concentrate all my focus onto what I was seeing.

My body felt tired as I pulled myself out of the water and I loved it. I sat and warmed myself in the sun with the others and it was impossible to imagine a more perfect way to end the most glorious three days. We still had most of our trip to go, but even then I knew that our trek in Sapa would be very difficult to beat.

Cat Ba Island: A breath of fresh air

Izzi and I really did mean to visit Ha Long Bay. In fact, it was one of the things I was most excited about after looking up pictures on the internet pre-trip. To me, it was the perfect Asian water landscape and I couldn’t wait to see it. Unfortunately, we did not make it to Ha Long Bay. When buying our train and bus tickets in Hanoi we got some dates mixed up and in the end we had a grand total of only 24 hours on Cat Ba Island.

Getting there was an adventure in itself. First we took a five hour bus ride from Hanoi and then a 45 minute ferry to the island. The bus was a hilarious nightmare. The length wasn’t so bad, five hours is nothing when you’re traveling, but for some reason the driver decided that it would be appropriate to blast horrible dub step the entire way. Nobody on the bus wanted to say anything to him, so we sat with our own music turned up as loud as it could possibly go, trying our best to get some sleep. Part of me thinks that he really just liked that kind of music and wanted to play it, but it was so bad and so loud that another part of me thinks he just wanted to torture the tourists. When we got off the bus and looked around, I was a little confused. We were at a rather shabby dock with rusty fishing boats sitting in water that looked less than pristine. This wasn’t exactly the paradise I had pictured, but we were hurried onto the ferry and my mood lifted as we started off across the water.

I dozed in an out of the sleep, soothed by the rocking of the boat, and when I opened my eyes I spotted an island shrouded with mist and mystery in the distance. Land ho. When we arrived on land we got on yet another bus and then finally, we arrived in town. The company we had booked the bus/ferry through also owned a hostel in town called Full Moon Hostel, and that’s where we disembarked. I was not thrilled about the hostel and the town in general gave me a weird feeling. It seemed almost ghostly, as if it no longer had any purpose but to feed and house the tourists coming through. At least, that was the impression from the centre of town. But as it turns out, the hostel Izzi had booked was about half an hour away from town. After such a long trip to get there I wasn’t looking forward to another drive, and the taxi wasn’t cheap, but man was it worth it.

The hostel was called Woodstock Beach Camp and it was located at the tip of a little cove. The air immediately felt better when I got out of the taxi and I filled my lungs with the wind coming off of the water. The beach was literally steps from the front of the hostel and there were no other houses or lodgings anywhere I could see. After the chaos of Hanoi the calm and quiet was very welcome. It was our own little paradise—our own miniature Ha Long Bay. The stone mountains stuck out of the water in rounded points that reminded me of hands emerging from the deep.

Photo credit: Izzi McDonnell

After walking up and down the beach a couple of times, our toes digging into the sand, we decided to stay put, right where we were. Getting to Ha Long Bay would have meant getting in another taxi and another bus to take us there. We had less than 24 hours to enjoy the island and, although it meant missing the main attraction, we decided to relax and enjoy.

The hostel was an absolute dream. It was hard to tell who worked there and who was a guest because everyone hung out all together. Izzi and I joined in for a game of cards and then some pirate dice game that I don’t remember the name of, let alone the rules. The cans of cheap Hanoi beer were distributed through a tab system, so they were plentiful and we had soon made friends with the others. The hostel was home to a litter of puppies who loved to snuggle, the cherry on top of this perfectly comfortable place.

Photo credit: Izzi McDonnell

We lounged for a while in the pillows and tapestries, but after a while Izzi and I decided to explore a bit more. Woodstock actually had a kayak of its own named Simon (Garfunkel had recently been lost in the high tide) so after less than gracefully pulling it through the mud, we slid the boat and ourselves into the water. We spent a few hours pushing ourselves silently through the cove. Although it wasn’t raining (thank goodness) the sky was grey and the reflection of the clouds turned the water into melted silver.

One of the guys who worked at the hostel had told us about an old bunker left over from the war so, naturally, we went off in search of it. We managed to find it—it was the only metal door in the side of the rock—but after clambering up towards it and pulling hard on the handle, I realized it was locked. It wouldn’t budge a bit. I called down to Izzi to tell her that it was sealed shut, and I could hear my voice echo from inside the bunker. It sounded like a real adventure inside and all I wanted was to follow the sound of my voice into the tunnel. But it was not to be, so we continued our adventure on the water, stopping in the middle of the cove and sitting in silence.

That night we played more cards and drank more beer and eventually ended up in the middle of a big game of twister. I ended up winning, to my enormous surprise, and my prize was a shot of rice wine. It was my first one of the trip, but it certainly wouldn’t be my last. Not long after the shot I decided it was time for me to go to bed. The next day we were starting out journey towards Sapa so I climbed into my top bunk and fell soundly asleep, exhausted from the rejuvenating day.

Of course, seeing Halong Bay would have been amazing and we wouldn’t have missed it if we had just one more day. But sometimes you need moments like our day in Cat Ba while you’re traveling. You need to allow yourself a few opportunities to ignore the “must sees” and just be. Enjoy where you are, because even if it’s not on the TripAdvisor Top 10, it’s the first time you’ve ever been there, and will probably be the last. Plus, at least this way we weren’t contributing to the pollution caused by the tour boats in the water… right?



Have you noticed that some of the best pictures on this blog are credited to Izzi? She’s an absolutely amazing photographer. Do yourself a favour and follow her on Instagram! @izzixmcdn

Deleuze’s Idiot and the Stand-up Comic: Making space to question the Expert

As my sister will readily tell you, I am not a funny person. I have a sense of humour and I love to laugh, but I have never been particularly good at making people laugh myself. Funnily enough, I think this is the reason I love stand-up comedy so much. I love to watch and experience art forms that I could never imagine doing myself. It becomes truly magical. The first comedian I was ever familiar with was probably Jerry Seinfeld, in true ’90s kid form, and then like so many others I fell in love with the work of Louis CK. From there I began to expand and after a while I noticed that the comedy I liked best had a tendency to get a bit political, some more subtly than others. There is something special about the way that comedians deal with political topics. I found myself saying “huh, I never thought about it that way” far more than I usually did. When watching comedy, I allowed myself to rethink things that have been long engrained in my head and to address topics that I am often afraid to in my political social circles. That’s the beauty of stand-up — it opens up space for audience members to rethink their values and consider topics that might otherwise be intimidating or inaccessible to them.

This is where I’d like to begin—inaccessibility. Living in the age of information we’re theoretically supposed to be able to open up our computers and learn anything we want. The world is literally at our fingertips. But while I suppose it is true that we have access to unlimited information, it is far more difficult to turn that information into knowledge. There are many reasons for this, but the most relevant here is that information is produced by experts who hold power over any conversation about their particular field. As anthropologist Isabelle Stengers states:

“Experts are the ones whose practice is not threatened by the issue under discussion since what they know is accepted as relevant” (Stengers 2005, 13).

This means that in a conversation, an expert is the person whose knowledge will be accepted as true and objectively more valuable than the knowledge brought forward by the person who is not an expert in the field. Don’t worry, I’m not about to argue in favour of “alternative facts”. I do believe that experts are important and deserve to be listened to. Climate scientists do have the right to state that climate change is real. An individual who has never worked in public education does not deserve to hold the position of education secretary in the White House. But when a person labels themselves as an expert, they’re in a way saying “I know more than you and if you disagree with me you’re wrong”. This often means that real, in depth conversations are often only held between experts on the topic. They control the conversation, which isn’t a problem in itself, but the way they talk about their topic can often be confusing and dogmatic, especially to people who are new to the topic. One of my greatest frustrations with anthropology, for example, is that although it is such an interesting field that I want everyone to engage with, so much of the knowledge — theory, ethnographic articles — are almost impossible to understand if you haven’t spent four years of an undergraduate degree reading them (even then understanding is not guaranteed). This isn’t just a problem in academia, however. This tendency towards elitism and superiority is common surrounding many, even most, social and political issues. I’m guilty of it myself. It’s very easy to feel superior to someone who holds a different opinion than you do. The results, however, can be disastrous.

I am not alone in the belief that Trump was elected in part because so many people in the US felt left behind by their government and country. In an article for the Washington Post, Chris Cilliza states:

“Trump’s campaign was pitched entirely at the idea that egg-headed wonks and liberal elitists—including the entire literary and entertainment culture centered on the two coasts—were not only deeply out of touch with the concerns of Average Americans but also dismissive of them”.

The sad part about this statement is that these “Average Americans” are not entirely wrong. The fact that class struggle exists in rural America too is often ignored by urban dwellers. It’s clear, at least to me, that Trump won’t do anything to improve life for the lower classes, even the white ones, but that was central to his campaign. He told a large, frustrated group of people that they did not need to change with the rest of the country, did not have to listen to those who made facts out of things that were completely contrary to “Average America’s” beliefs. This, of course, is very different from the last presidency.

“Obama saw the job—especially in the first few years—as a sort of Professor in Chief. He would be the expert, explaining the hows and whys to a less well-informed public. Trump is the antithesis of that idea. He views himself as channeling the will of the people, a group that has been ignored or laughed at by coastal elites over the past decade” (Cilliza, 2017).

And it’s true; we have been laughing at them. To many on the left, conservatism (especially rural conservatism) has become synonymous with stupidity and we form intense prejudices that define entire parts of the country as lesser. No wonder these people don’t want to be a part of our conversations, don’t want to listen. I would not want to be a part of any conversation in which I was immediately considered stupid and talked down to (although as a woman this does happen often). I am totally in agreement with the idea that it is not the duty of the oppressed to educate their oppressors. People need to take the initiative to educate themselves. But it is naive to say that educating yourself is easy. If an uninformed person does try to begin to educate themselves on a social topic, what they’re confronted with is often inaccessible and isolating.

I’m going to use Dylan Marron as an example. This is an uncomfortable thing for me to do because I seriously love and respect what he does. But even as an avid fan, I have to admit that his intense use of sarcasm gives a clear tone of superiority. I only noticed this when I watched a video of his with which I didn’t totally agree. He was talking about the uselessness of awards shows like the Oscars and I was thinking to myself “well, but what about the potential awards shows have for making political issues known to millions of people at once?” I’m not necessarily right and he wasn’t necessarily right, but the point is that his video, the way he argued his point, made me feel a little stupid. It made me feel like any point I might have on the topic would not be welcome in that conversation. But let’s take a look at a video of his that I do totally agree with:

Right from the start, as I’m sure you noted, he states that “the people who say it doesn’t exist are full of shit”. Now, I happen to think that he is totally right. But what if I were a person who didn’t know much about police brutality and had maybe in the past even argued that it didn’t exist because I had never seen it? If I were the daughter of a police officer trying to understand what people were talking about, would this be helpful? I don’t think I would be particularly receptive to a person who right from the start told me I was full of shit. To be fair to Dylan, he is very aware of this problem. In fact, he can actually help me explain what I’m talking about here.

But the character of “the expert” in our social drama has a counterpart — almost a complete opposite, though not quite. This character is called “the idiot”. I don’t mean “idiot” in its popular sense, as in a stupid or foolish person. Instead, I’m using the term based on French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s concept.

Deleuze’s idiot “is the one who always slows the others down, who resists the consensual way in which the situation is presented and in which emergencies mobilize thought and action… The idiot demands that we slow down, that we don’t consider ourselves authorized to believe we posses the meaning of what we know” (Stengers 2005, 2).

Put more simply, the Idiot refuses to blindly follow the status quo. They refuse to accept things as objectively good or bad, true or false, just because that’s how society has agreed to label them. They encourage us to look at things in a different way than we usually do. But don’t confuse this character with the “Devil’s Advocate”. The Devil’s Advocate argues the opposite of the common or current narrative, often just for argument’s sake. But that’s not what the Idiot is doing. They are not necessarily arguing the opposite of the current narrative. They are asking that we think about this narrative differently—that we don’t assume that the way we see something is the only way it can be seen.

“The idea is precisely to slow down the construction of this common world, to create a space for hesitation regarding what it means to say ‘good'” (Stengers 2005, 2).

… or bad, for that matter.

The Idiot is almost opposite to the expert because they do not put themselves above others. They are equal or even inferior since they are often the object or ridicule and laughter. And this is where I’m finally going to get back to comedy. In most of the good stand-up I’ve seen, the comic starts their set by placing themselves in a position of inferiority to the audience. This self degradation happens over and over again, and it is not an accident. Just look at this statement made by Ricki Gervais in HBO’s Talking Funny: 

“I think with comedy, it’s not a rule of thumb, but I think you have to be the underdog. There’s no place for being above the audience.”

By using self deprecating humour at the start of the show, they show the audience that they do not consider themselves superior. They show that they’re just a normal, screwed up person with issues like everyone else. The audience can relate to the mess the comedian is talking about. In this way, although the comedian is clearly in a position of power—standing alone on a stage in front of thousands of people who have paid to hear them talk—they level the playing field. They’re saying “don’t be intimidated by me; I’m just some idiot”.

Amy Schumer is not my favourite—after watching a lot of stand-up as research for this piece I realized that the allegations about her stealing a lot of her jokes is true. That being said, this is a great example of self degradation. She literally calls herself trash based on the outfit she’s wearing and describes the humiliating experience of the “walk of shame” that much of her largely female audience can relate to.

Here Louis labels himself as completely average—a very normal middle aged man who is often out of breath and with no hope of ever being in great shape. Despite his immense fame and genius-status talent, he’s just a guy no better than anyone in that audience. But self degradation doesn’t always have to be about physical appearance, and often the best isn’t.

What he says here, “I have a lot of beliefs and I live by none of them” is something we can all connect with. It’s also something we might not like to admit to ourselves. We like to see ourselves as people who stick to our values, but the reality is that we are easily corrupted. You’re a vegetarian until Thanksgiving comes around. You only buy organic food except for when you get drunk and end up at McDonalds… Whatever our own personal example, these are moments that we are ashamed of. So when Louis connects with us on this level, beyond just physical appearance, we really do realize that he is a flawed human just like us. The audience is comfortable recognizing this shameful similarity because he doesn’t accuse them of being this way, he just talks about his own flaws and allows them to quietly relate. The example that follows is a little different.

Dave isn’t saying that he is a bad person or is a bad comedian, even. He simply talks about a moment, a very embarrassing and career damaging moment, where he really messed up. But he’s doing the same thing as Louis and Amy did in the last three examples—he brings himself to the level of his audience. In the anecdote he tells, Dave messes up in a very relatable way. Many people, especially those in his audience, have had the experience of just simply being too high at the wrong time. The audience may never have had the experience of being high on stage in front of thousands, but they know the feeling he’s talking about.

I’ve heard comedians call self deprecation one of the lowest forms of comedy. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is true that if a comic’s entire set were made up of them putting themselves down, it could get quite tedious. But what’s important to note is that all the examples I’ve given are from within the first 10 minutes of the comic’s set. This tactic is about making the audience relax, letting them know they are not some expert.

“In his role as negative exemplar we laugh at him. He represents conduct to be ridiculed or rejected and our laughter reflects our superiority, our relief that his weaknesses are greater than our own… Yet to the extent that we may identify with his expression or behavior, [we] secretly recognize it as reflecting natural tendencies in human activity if not socially approved ones” (Mintz, 74).

Sure, I guess technically we are laughing at the comedian, but really we are laughing with them. We admit to ourselves, if not to anyone else, that we relate to the comic’s flaws. The self deprecation says to the audience, “I am not better than you, and really you’re not better than I am. This is a conversation between equals”. And in a conversation between equals, with much less of a power dynamic than a lecture holds, the audience has the opportunity to let their guard down from around their beliefs and socially constructed norms.

But the Idiot goes further than just being an equal to the people around them. The Idiot introduces their peers to different ways of seeing the world. They slow down the conversation. For example:

Here, Louis literally says that sometimes “it’s not clear what the right thing is to do”. The common and accepted norm is that good citizens throw their trash away in a garbage can. Of course, Louis isn’t actually saying that we should all just start littering all over our cities. He’s not playing Devil’s Advocate; he’s not going 100% against the norm. What he’s doing is questioning this norm, opening up space to show us that it’s more complicated than it seems. In this bit he addresses the massive problem of pollution in the oceans and makes the audience face the fact that even if they’re doing what they’re “supposed” to, they’re all contributing, we’re all contributing, to an issue that is much bigger than dropping a candy wrapper on the street. Here’s another example with a slightly different approach:

Here he’s talking about a topic that gets a lot of people very upset—same sex marriage and the people who are opposed to it. What’s brilliant about this bit is that he never accuses anyone in the audience directly of being a bad person because they oppose gay marriage. He isn’t technically talking about anybody in the audience—he’s talking about babies. When he says “they can’t accept that because they’re being babies” he implies that people who can’t accept gay marriage are babies and are being selfish without actually pointing fingers at anyone. The entire point is clearly made yet veiled by the ridiculous idea that gay marriage is why babies cry on airplanes. The following bit is the one that got me thinking about this topic in the first place, probably because it’s the most obvious.

This is the closest he gets to really lecturing the audience, but he doesn’t do it as himself, Louis. He does it from the point of view of God. The image he paints is of God coming back and yelling at the human race as if we are a bunch of naughty children. Inside this ridiculous story he manages to question the insanity of the things we consider essential like cars, bacon,  jobs and even the idea of the economy itself. But Louis isn’t saying that we shouldn’t have these things—he clearly doesn’t want to live without them—but he slows us down and makes us reconsider what we feel absolutely entitled to.

This use of the ridiculous is used a lot in stand-up to soften things that are truly horrible.

When Dave talks here about a black woman being beat up by police, he does come out and say that it’s fucked up. But then he compares her fight to an infamous boxing match, making people laugh. When he says “she’s takin’ a lot of shots” the audience pictures this woman getting punched over and over and are forced to face that this is a reality in our society, but without being soberly and seriously confronted by it. Dave makes them face a horrible truth, but still allows them to laugh. Some of his bits are more up front.

Here, he reminds us of the injustice towards black people in America’s justice system. He points out that when this happens to a white man an entire Netflix show gets made about the issue while the same thing is happening to black people every day. He doesn’t make anyone feel bad about loving Making a Murderer; he even says that he watched the show himself. He just points out, humorously, the injustice. The joke is short, but the point gets made.

This bit by Ali Wong is not subtle. She says the words “white male privilege”; she brings up colonization. But she does this without mentioning her own oppression. The way she delivers the joke is impossible not to laugh at, and I loved seeing the clips of white men laughing when she’s done. By making them laugh with her and participate in this exchange with her, she forces them to recognize their privilege. I find Ali Wong really interesting. The first time I watched her set I felt quite uncomfortable because of her whole bit about feminism:

I couldn’t help but laugh, but my reaction to this was: “Ellen wouldn’t be a show without feminism, Ali!” and “women didn’t just do nothing before feminism, Ali”. But what I realized after watching her set a couple of times is that most of the best points that she makes are feminist ones.

I think she’s actually taking a dig at Louis here. It certainly seems like she’s referencing his bit about how boring parenthood is in “Live at the Beacon Theatre”. And then there’s this one:

Okay, clearly she’s not serious about the mushrooms thing. But in the rest of the bit she makes a really good point. Fathers are often praised for changing diapers or going to parent/teacher conferences when it is taken for granted that the mothers will do the same things. Although it is shrinking, parenthood is one of the biggest double standards that exists in our society.

I don’t think Ali means what she says about hating feminism. As horrible as it is, it’s true that many men just stop listening once a woman has declared herself a feminist. They prepare to be lectured and their defence goes up. It seems to me that when she jokes about hating feminism, she is taking herself out of the position of the Expert (although she absolutely has the right to speak as an expert on being a woman). But although it’s sad that she has to do this, it allows those in the audience who might be afraid of the word “feminism” to relax and listen to what she’s actually saying. They end up engaging with some important feminist issues.

All this being said, there is a wrong way to engage with social issues in stand-up. When Ali talks about the double standards of parenthood she doesn’t attack her husband or men who support their pregnant wives in general. When Dave brings up the horror of police brutality he doesn’t go on a rant labeling all cops as pigs. When Louis makes us reconsider our waste system he doesn’t say anyone who makes waste is a bad person. They don’t point fingers, they open up space for wider thought, playing the Idiot. The following bit by Amy Schumer is approached very differently:

Although I agree with the essence of what Amy is saying here, this bit makes me cringe. Right off the bat she is painting gun owners (despite the fact that she says she’s friends with some of them) as stupid. She squeezes them all together in one box and makes fun of not only their ideas, but irrelevant things like the way they speak and what they look like. She even goes as far as to make fun of the type of home some of them might live in as if poverty were a character flaw. If you’re pro gun, this bit is not going to make you rethink your position because she has already dismissed you as stupid. Why would you listen to her? Amy does the opposite of creating space for broader thought. She narrows the topic into something not only simplistic, but isolating. When you watch a clip like this one of Amy and compare it to this next one, the difference is clear.

In this example Louis never once makes fun of people who assume the sexuality of their children or raise them to have a certain sexual orientation. Instead, by showing how ridiculous it would be to raise kids gay, he clearly shows how ridiculous it is to raise them straight.

Now, even if you’re the greatest comedian, you’re not necessarily an activist. Many comedians say horrible and offensive things that do a much better job of reinforcing stereotypes and entrenching social norms than they do of challenging them. Even the comics I have used as examples have often been accused of going too far. For example, my clips of Dave Chapelle come from a special which has been criticized for minimizing the struggles of the trans community. But when it’s done right, humour has immense potential to spark social change. Laughter is powerful because it feels so good. It’s a physical reaction and I’ve found that, in my experience at least, physical reactions are much easier to remember. In HBO’s Talking Funny, Jerry Seinfeld says in reference to a joke by Chris Rock:

“Really good bits go deep into your head and keep coming back. I think about that bit, honestly, once a month. Because it was the first time, and I apologize for how naîve this sounds, that I realized ‘oh, black people live in a different world than white people!’ I didn’t really know that until I heard that bit” (HBO).

And not only are you more likely to remember, but you’re more likely to listen in the first place.

“Humour is actually less likely to foster the kind of ‘counter argumentation’ or ‘argument scrutiny’ that serious discourse usually receives” (Young).

Stand up is not going to save the world. We still need serious discussion, productive anger, and direct action. But in order to take action, you need to recognize a problem and you need to ask a question. As Stengers states,

“Often, speculations about what could possibly be announce themselves with the ‘what if?’ What if that which seems to go without saying was not as self evident as it seems?” (Stengers 2000, 46).

New ways of thinking come from taking a step back, slowing down, and looking differently at the way things already are. Through their self imposed equality with the audience and the power they hold through their ability to create laughter, stand-up comics are in the perfect position to slow everyone down, carve out some space, and help us ask “what if?”.

Works Cited

Cillizza, Chris, 2017, Donald Trump isn’t an intellectual. And he’s very proud of that. The Washington Post, January 19
Mintz, Lawrence E, 1985, Standup Comedy as Social and Cultural Mediation. American Quarterly 37(1).
Moffit, John, dir. 2011. Talking Funny. 
Stengers, Isabelle, 2000, “Another Look: Relearning to Laugh. Hypatia 15 (4).
Stengers, Isabelle, 2005. “The Cosmopolitical Proposal: Atmospheres of Democracy”. pp. 994-1003. Ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Cambridge: MIT Press
Young, Dannagal, 2012. “Laughter and the Political Landscape”. The Society Pages. https://thesocietypages.org/roundtables/humor/

Interested in this topic? Check out these two videos by one of my main sources of inspiration, Youtube’s Nerdwriter: