Why Comedy Thrives during Crisis

Upoma Dutta, Editor-in-Chief

Upoma Dutta (MBA ’21) talks with Claire Friedman (MBA ’14) about the role of comedy in our self-quarantined lives.

Early on in the semester, RCs took away several lessons on macroeconomics from the BGIE cases touching on the topic of the U.S. Great Depression of the 1930s. However, the Great Depression—similar to any all-encompassing crisis—also had lasting impact on the sociocultural fabric of the country. An often-overlooked aspect of the Depression is the emergence of art forms, especially comedy, that captured the zeitgeist of 1930s America. For example, screwball comedy, a parody of romantic comedy, gained notoriety in the decade with films such as It Happened One Night and Twentieth Century, both of which were made in 1934. Similarly, Americans, disillusioned by social structures and traditional values of the “old middle class,” found comic relief in envelope-pushing spoofs from artists like the Marx Brothers and Mae West.

The popularity of comedy during the Great Depression or any crisis is somewhat understandable—comedy, after all, offers a form of escapism from people’s worries. Today, as the COVID-19 crisis intensifies, almost all out-of-home entertainment avenues have shut down to help “flatten the curve” and so television has become the only source of escapism for most people. A quick look at Netflix’s Top 10 list shows that people are finding comfort in familiar sitcoms such as The Office and instantly forgettable comedy films such as Spenser Confidential.

“Since self-quarantining at home, I myself have been watching a lot of comedy series—new seasons from Curb Your Enthusiasm and Schitt’s Creek as well as older sitcoms like Frasier and The Larry Sanders Show,” says Claire Friedman (MBA ’14), arguably the only former investment banker turned Emmy-nominated writer in HBS’ alumni roster. “When you are sitting alone at home and there is already a lot of anxiety around you, there is comfort in re-watching old sitcoms and re-visiting characters that you are already familiar with.”

“But I now do have an involuntary, adverse reaction every time I see the characters on TV shake their hands or move too close to one another,” Friedman adds with a smile (a detail I’m only able to give thanks to the proliferation of conducting interviews over Zoom).

Friedman, a Saturday Night Live alum, is now a writer on Showtime’s late-night comedy show Desus & Mero. While the COVID-19 crisis has halted the production of scripted series, some late-night comedians are trying to resume production of their shows from remote locations and others are trying to use the opportunity to engage with their fans on social media by uploading “home-made” monologues. Friedman’s own writers’ room has gone virtual, with her team now collaborating over Slack messages and Zoom conferences.

“Since late-night shows present topical humor, their relevance increases during times of crisis. However, as a writer, the challenge is that the jokes also have shorter lifespan because the news is changing fast—what’s funny in Week 1 of quarantine might be a lot less funny in Week 8. As a comic, you also don’t want to put up something that you will regret in a few days.”

Despite the uncertainty, Friedman notes that the current crisis does present a silver lining for comedians. “People are going through the same set of experiences. They are locked in their homes, they are anxious. So, there is an opportunity in creating humor around the less serious, more relatable aspects of the experience—such as ‘sanitizing your vegetables’ and other weird activities that have become the new norms in our lives.”

In a similar vein, Friedman’s March 24 New Yorker article, where she lampoons relatable quarantine daily routines such as “[washing] hands for length of time it takes to sing ‘American Pie,’” is a welcome respite from the chaos.

At the same time, comics continue to resort to familiar terrains of U.S. politics to find humor. Friedman agrees that, even during this crisis, the White House press conferences—a staple on almost every late-night talk show—do not fail to deliver a steady stream of jokes. [RC students who have recently read about media censorship in BGIE cases on China and Russia certainly have a newfound appreciation for the free speech and free press enjoyed by the U.S. media.]

Friedman has been passionate about comedy for as long as she remembers (she started doing stand-up comedy as a child and chose to attend Harvard as an undergraduate to write for the Harvard Lampoon). However, she admits that she owes some of her ability to make light of a situation to her experience of starting her investment banking career around the time of the 2007-08 global financial crisis.

“The experience made me deeply aware that the worst-case scenario could become a possibility. People who have not lived through a crisis were suddenly caught off guard and found their careers and livelihoods shaken by the mortgage crisis. Due to this experience, I realize that a lot of comedy is about accepting and making light of bad things. This mentality of finding humor in dark moments has made a lasting impact on the way I approach comedy.”

Friedman’s words should offer some encouragement to aspiring HBS comics who are trying to restore humor in their quarantined lives.

Upoma Dutta (MBA ’21) came to HBS after spending roughly four years in the media and entertainment industry in New York, where she helped two media companies (HBO and Disney) transition into the streaming era and build on new strategic growth opportunities. Originally from Bangladesh, she also worked for the International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group) early on in her career to promote financial inclusion and financial sector stability in South Asia.