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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Margaret Sullivan: Humor enlisted to carry climate-change message

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 21, 2021

By Margaret Sullivan For The Washington Post

Raging wildfires have closed California’s national parks. The polar ice cap is melting at an alarming rate. And extreme weather is ravaging the world – especially its poorest people – as temperatures tick ever upward.

Pretty clearly, the planet is a mess. And while the climate crisis is no laughing matter, humor might be a last-ditch way to hammer home the message to a broad audience about just how serious a problem we’re facing.

That’s the idea behind a rare collaboration Wednesday night, when late-night talk show comics will take up the increasingly grim subject on their shows, which audiences usually come to expecting entertainment – not dire warnings about the planet.

Here’s who’s in: TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” CBS’ “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

At least some portion of their shows is expected to address the topic, each in their own way, with no particular rules applying.

For one climate advocate, who has long been critical of the way climate change has been communicated, this is nothing short of a dream come true.

“It’s pretty incredible,” said M. Sanjayan, chief executive of the Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit organization Conservation International.

Sanjayan has long been concerned that a certain uniformity in style among the oracles of climate change has kept their message from breaking through in a maximally effective way.

“Globally, it’s mostly been educated, male, white scientists who probably lean to the left,” Sanjayan told me in an interview. “And that’s not the planet, or our country.”

He’s also concerned that the dark message of an out-of-control crisis is so overwhelming that a lot of people simply don’t want to think about it. The latest seven-part newspaper series, or public-TV special, while undoubtedly worthwhile and informative, may be, for most people, just too much to take in.

“This doom-and-gloom messaging just isn’t working,” he said in 2017 on a Vox Climate Lab video. It can breed passivity: “We seem to want to tune it out.”

That’s where a new approach comes in. “Humor is a very powerful tool, and it’s not being used as effectively as it could be,” Sanjayan told me. “It isn’t used enough as a weapon – lampooning the forces of evil – or as a unifying force that de-stresses us and allows us to be engaged,” he said.

It’s what he’s been trying to do in his own frequent appearances on talk shows, as far back as 12 years ago when he had a substantial chat – in which he managed to convey a serious warning – with the popular host on CBS’ “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

The way Sanjayan sees it, humor can build community, add crucial hope to a movement that seems up against insurmountable odds, and keep people engaged in solutions instead of completely turned off to the subject.

Already, there are hints of how the late-night hosts might tiptoe through this minefield.

“In the interest of recycling, please use whatever Jimmy Kimmel said,” Fallon told CNN about why he was participating. (Here’s how Kimmel explained his own motivation: “I don’t want to die.”)

Bee told the New York Times that she was keeping her hopes appropriately modest, quipping: “I expect, probably by the end of the show, we will have solved the climate crisis. So that’s exciting.”

The main driver behind the cross-network collaboration, dubbed “Climate Night,” is former “Daily Show” and “Patriot Act” showrunner Steve Bodow, who reached out to producers asking for a spirit of cooperation. Remarkably, he got it, along with a critical mass of participants.

The collaboration takes place during Climate Week NYC, an annual series of events running concurrently with the UN General Assembly.

Sanjayan isn’t promising outright hilarity Wednesday night. “I think they are going to bring a thoughtful approach, with the idea of ‘we’re going to pause our day jobs because this is so important,’ and they’ll all do it differently,” he told me.

It may not be a laugh fest, but, after all, “these are really smart people with great writers” – and he hopes, some viral potential.

“I’m hoping for some zingers that go flying around on social media, things that will be right on that line of what’s unacceptable, but also damn funny.”

Funny enough – let’s hope – to get a different audience thinking about a deadly serious problem.

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