Comedy as an Educational Tool

Borum Chattoo photo

By Kaylynne Enloe

Television and film producer Caty Borum Chattoo (ΦBK, Virginia Tech) skillfully entertains with creativity and documentary storytelling that underline the importance of social justice. Based in Washington, D.C. at American University’s School of Communication, she is a professor and the executive director of the Center for Media & Social Impact, a creative research lab for exploring media and social change. To explain her role as an author and a scholar, Borum Chattoo said, “I study, produce, and lift up the role of creative culture and entertainment storytelling in creating the just, equitable, kinder world we should all aspire to create together.”

Borum Chattoo uses an interesting approach to stress her point about the dire need to promote social and political change. Co-authored with Lauren Feldman, A Comedian and Activist Walk into a Bar: The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice “explains how contemporary comedy, both in the entertainment marketplace and leveraged as cultural strategy, can engage audiences with issues such as global poverty, climate change, immigration, and sexual assault.” These issues, of course, are no joke, but dark humor and satirical humor can accentuate the significance of participating in these social movements, keeping the attention of audiences, rather than having them listen to a serious and prolonged lecture. The book also showcases how activists use comedy to extend to audiences who network in the digital media age. Comedy can help shape movements and influence audiences to promote change, on top of personally relating to these stories told by stand-up comedians.

Borum Chattoo is an executive producer for the comedy special Ain’t Your Mama’s Heat Wave, which highlights climate change by entertaining audiences and inspiring them to listen. She collaborated with a social justice organization called Hip Hop Caucus to bring “some amazing comedians together with environmental justice experts to produce a comedy TV special about the climate crisis as expressed through the talented and funny voices of several Black comedians,” Borum Chattoo said. Comedy informs and empowers audiences to take a stand and encourage activism within their community by keep audiences engaged and surprised by the shock factor of what each comedian and expert has to say about a particular social topic.

Much of her time at the Center for Media & Social Impact is dedicated to a training program that Borum Chattoo co-founded and co-directs with Moore + Associates. This competitive program, called Yes, And…Laughter Lab, is for comedians, typically minorities, who can traditionally struggle in the entertainment industry. She explained further that the Center for Media & Social Impact also runs the Comedy Think Tanks program, an innovative approach that brings these professional comedians together “to co-create new comedy that inspires audiences to see one another with kindness and dignity.” Both programs are designed specifically to give diversely talented comedic minds a chance to collaborate with people and organizations advocating for the expansion of justice and equity to all people.

Borum Chattoo’s research indicates “comedy is a superpower,” she said. Comedy can influence audiences to look at situations and issues more critically from a new perspective, giving them an open mind. Comedy can make audiences more optimistic by keeping things lighthearted while stressing the importance of social justice and change. She released another book in 2020 correlating documentaries and social change, called Story Movements: How Documentaries Empower People and Inspire Social Change (Oxford University Press), which won the 2021 Broadcast Education Association Book Award. She also shared news of her forthcoming publication, The Revolution Will Be Hilarious: Comedy for Social Change and Civic Power, which continues where her current book leaves off, “moving deep into the inside of the entertainment industry, how comedy is created, exactly how it can and is used to help advance a mission of equity and justice,” she said. Comedy resonates with audiences by forming a connection through different expressions and emotions concerning pressing issues in society.

Inducted into Phi Beta Kappa during her junior year of college, Borum Chattoo continues to use the arts and media as an outlet for her creativity. She stressed the importance of higher education in the liberal arts and sciences, saying, “we are not human without the arts.” She went on to express how artists can help viewers understand feelings, emotions, and sights that differ from their own individual experiences. “I like to see the world through an artist’s lens and motivations and bringing that energy into higher education,” which Borum Chattoo explained fulfills her personally and professionally as a professor. She strives to inspire audiences to use different creative forms and provide a sense of motivation and healing.

Kaylynne Enloe graduated from Arizona State University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in film and media studies, focusing on film genre and the television industry. She was inducted into ASU’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Beta of Arizona, in May 2021.