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‘Comedy is revolutionary’: Darren Zook fuses laughter, democracy at BridgeUSA event

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About 100 students gathered in the Tilden Room at the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union for Zook’s lecture.


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Senior Staff

APRIL 19, 2023

Darren Zook, UC Berkeley political science lecturer, always arms himself with his iconic brown fedora and an open mind. On Tuesday, Zook spoke on the intersection of comedy, free speech and democracy at an event hosted by BridgeUSA at UC Berkeley titled “Who’s Laughing Now?”

About 100 students gathered in the Tilden Room at the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union to take in Zook’s lecture and discuss the boundaries of free speech as represented by comedy. Presidents of BridgeUSA’s UC Berkeley and Stanford chapters, Sloane Valen and Jackson Richter, respectively, kicked off the event by introducing the organization’s nonpartisan goals.

“We exist on college campuses as a means to depolarize — to hold political conversations that bring people from all across the spectrum,” Richter said. “These issues affect all of us, and we need to come up with solutions together.”

With that, Zook took the stage with a mocktail in one hand and a stand-up comedy-esque microphone in the other. Zook began by advocating for the power of comedy. He cited Somali comedian Abdi Jeylani Marshale, who was assassinated in 2012 by religious militants for his work.

Every culture has comedy, Zook added. He claimed that extremists, however, lose the ability to laugh and to take a joke. The commentary that comedy carries protects democracy, and based on his work in human rights, Zook proposed that laughter is a “life-affirming force” — it promotes the empathy integral to a just human society.

As a result, Zook finds that the “cancel culture” and identity politics surrounding comedy counteract democracy. Comedy is symbolic and performative speech, according to Zook; it is not meant to be taken literally, which alters the legal basis for prosecuting comedy, Zook said.

“In comedy there’s an idea of punching up and punching down. If we’re punching up it’s a good fight, and punching down is a bad fight,” Zook said. “But, if we go that route, we get into some really complex problems and lose sight of the fact that we’re in a moment of comedy.”

Zook noted that comedy and satire are strongly protected forms of speech, adding that courts have declared that comedy does not “punch” at all. In this way, comedy is revolutionary, according to Zook.

Good comedy should “rupture logic,” Zook said. The method by which a comedian brings the fragments of logic back together creates the laughter that brings people together, he added.

“We laugh at the jokes not because of the content; it’s the moment of liberation when we come back together, and that keeps us in touch with each other,” Zook said. “Comedy is the language we all speak, and if we stop laughing, we lose the ability to keep in touch empathy-wise.”

To move forward, Zook recommended that audience members not take themselves too seriously and learn to laugh with each other. This, he believes, is more powerful than canceling a comedian many times over.

Zook cited the cultural dismissal of comedian Dave Chappelle as a mistake. He said claims that Chappelle is aging or out of touch represent ageism, a critical issue according to Zook. He added that Chappelle perhaps has life experience that listeners can learn from, even if they do not agree with him.

“Should we silence comedians or not listen to each other or retreat?” Zook said. “The revolution, when it comes, number one it’s going to be hilarious, but if we can collectively laugh at ourselves and laugh with each other, then I think everything’s going to be just fine.”

Contact Katherine Shok at  or on Twitter


APRIL 19, 2023