Laughter is the Best Medicine

Humor and Social Commentary in Donald Glover’s Atlanta

you Atlanta is a thoughtful masterpiece like
the show’s executive producer writer and actor Donald Glover Atlanta never
commits to one approach to entertain its audience within its first 10 episode
season the show is filled with dramatic Erik tur development social commentary a
look into the modern music industry as well as plenty of laughs Atlanta is the
perfect project for all the talents of lever has been developing and while it
would normally be considered suicide for a show to be so multifaceted and
abstract the FX series pulls it off by framing a cohesive narrative within the
situational humor present within each episode Atlanta was conceived from a
widespread misunderstanding of black culture in America Donald Glover shared
in an interview that he wanted to show white people they didn’t know everything
about being black the episodes cover a range of topics from the tolerance of
sexual identity to the appropriation of black culture and the one-size-fits-all
labels that are placed on rappers it confronts the hyperbole of common
depictions of prison and selling drugs music and the Internet age that we live
in showing the people in systems for what they truly are there is so much
social commentary to be gleaned from the show but that isn’t the show’s purpose
in a different interview Donald Glover said the number one thing we kept coming
back to was that it needs to be funny first and foremost I never wanted this
to be important while Glover has made this claim it’s tough to refute how the
show is rife with set pieces depicting socially charged topics of discussion
while the show is certainly funny it has so much to say
from satirical scenarios like transracial identity to social mobility
there are certain social truths that come in the form of uncomfortable stings
throughout each episode though they are typically sandwiched between more
lighthearted moments it feels like a pretty strange mix after finishing the
first season I debated over and over again exactly what the show set out to
do how can a TV show be so funny but so sad
at the same time how do you engage in audience in laughter and sorrow
simultaneously comedy is a funny thing it’s so ingrained into our humanity that
it can be difficult to understand just what makes something funny there are
plenty of researchers that have published theories regarding this but I
think the most comprehensive theory is the benign violation Theory authored by
Peter McGraw a psychology professor and founder of the humor Research Lab the
benign violation Theory compiles a lot of common thought about humor and wraps
it up into a simple Venn diagram McGraw developed this theory by travelling the
world to form humor parallels from culture to culture but on violation
theory proposes that humor occurs when three conditions are satisfied
number one the given situation is a violation of what the audience feels is
normal number two the situation is benign not causing any
immediate harm or hurt number three both perceptions occur simultaneously
McGraw writes the easiest way to explain this is with tickling when you’re
tickling someone it produces a playful laughter because the danger you pose is
benign but it is a form of assault that is outside of norm
psychologists theorized this is part of our development as children to learn to
defend ourselves from play fighting and tickling other examples of the benign
violation theory can be found all throughout comedy take louis c.k for
example his comedy is very much steeped in social violations but he jokes in a
way that doesn’t feel too soon or too personal take a look at this bit now
this is a big place is about 2,500 people here and
that’s a lot of people that’s enough people to be like a sample of the
population there’s enough people here to say that within two months at least one
of you will die I think it’s probably accurate to say that out of any random
group of 2,500 people not all you are gonna make it Louie is creating a
violent perception by claiming that at least one person will die by Christmas
but the joke is benign because everybody is assuming that it won’t be them the
joke lands that because these two perceptions come together at once what
if someone had a heart attack in the audience shortly before the show however
I know fat chance but humor me for a moment if someone had been taken away by
an ambulance in the audience shortly prior to the joke landing it would not
have been as funny to the audience because it would have been too soon too
insensitive let’s think about a different problem on the other side of
the diagram what if the joke didn’t have the edgy danger of death in it with the
joke have landed as well if you were saying that one person was going to get
the cold before Christmas I wouldn’t think so there would have been no
violation of norms the joke would have had no punchline no stakes both
components are important even if some comedy leans one way or the other like I
said before Louie certainly leans into the social violation side of the theory
but he is a master of delivering his comedy in a benign fashion that’s how
he’s able to retain an audience while he is talking about touchy subjects like
race and the grudges that he holds against children like Louis CK’s work
Atlanta masterfully presents a mix of benign in violating scenarios to create
incredibly clever comedy what makes the comedy so clever is the
use of socially sensitive situations being observed from a benign outsider
for instance episode 2 s plus owns experience being processed in jail earn
and Alford have been involved in a shooting and while alfred has been let
go we’re taken through earns prison journey
from his perspective the idea for the episode was to make a boring accurate
depiction of prison rather than the prison most of us know from other TV
shows and movies the reality of prison clashes with our perception of it in the
first few minutes of the episode well hold on what about my cousin Ernie boss
he’s not the system yet but when he is in his balcony posted well what’s the
charge what’s the charge negative sign a movie you better wait till he’s in the
system because we are viewing this from earns outsider point of view the
situation is benign as ern isn’t in any real danger
while the comedy is achieved what Atlanta should be heralded for is the
feeling you’re left with after watching it we’re taking on these hilarious
excursions with the cast but we’re left with questions to answer at the end of
each episode the prison episode is no exception there are a lot of laughs to
be had in this episode but the scene that always comes to my mind first when
I think back on it is this one why are you up in here every week cutting up
he’s in here every week yeah look look he giving his coughing the
toilet oh man he gonna drink it why is he here every week he look like any help
don’t tell me that’s Lea in here again yes mi drinking the toilet water again
oh that’s going me now that’s just a two-minute scene which is quickly
brought back to a lighter tone but we’re left with the question long after the
credits roll the scene challenges us to look at how our society treats those
with mental disabilities the episode poses other questions about sexuality
violence and stereotypes that also need to be processed this is Atlanta at its
best it is telling a narrative developing the characters making
relevant social commentary in delivering a frequent dose of humor it is like its
creator multifaceted layered and ultimately self reflective all of
these aspects come together to form a believable and engaging story the
commentary being made isn’t heavy-handed like crash nor does it get buried under
the lighter portions of the show Glover in is all black writing staff we’re
simply trying to express what it’s like to be black in America in a humorous
fashion humor has often been a backdoor for
social change in understanding it can become a coping mechanism we employ to
move serious situations into more playful territory within that territory
however we learn about the world around us from a different point of view we are
able to have our perspectives refined and challenged without the fear of a
media conflict like a child being tickled we’re not simply laughing we’re
learning about the world around us in breaking down the walls between us and then I served you as she was asking
for you gotta make that call now yeah started running that day

39 thoughts on “Humor and Social Commentary in Donald Glover’s Atlanta

  1. So…. This was very insightful. I've been meaning to watch this show but I never found the time to watch it. Thank you for pushing me even more to see it. Great video!

  2. The benign violation theory always makes me think of kittens playing with each other.

    If you watch, they're actually using the same moves and attacks they would use to take down and kill prey. You have to assume that an animal would only allow another to attack it in a potentially fatal way because they trust that the other animal isn't actually going to hurt them.

    Laughing at someone can be a form of attack. It can push the target of the joke to the outside of their social circle. It defines them as different from "us." That social rejection can make life difficult for the other person.

    But we also make jokes about people we love and care about. We poke fun of our family and friends. These jokes are meant as playful "attacks" against the other person. We allow them to make jokes about us in return, because we trust that they aren't really trying to hurt us.

  3. Really enjoyed the video! Massive fan of Atlanta and it's social commentary is very interesting.

    Quick question though, how have you managed to upload the video using content from the show? I have a video essay about Atlanta uploaded but it's been blocked due to copyright claims. I'm just wondering how you avoided that? Thanks!


  5. Great video and i completely agree with u. Whenever i try and sell people on the genius of this show, i always revert back to the mental health scene in the holding cell. Of many power moments in the show, that one was so subtle and short, but stood out the most to me.

  6. Loved the video ! Excited to see the content to be fed on the channel. Will you do more of these as season 2 plays ? Last nights episode was great

  7. This series really inspired me to get off my ass and start writing my own series, it really shows that you can have freedom to be abstract/surreal with everything and still make it incredible. Atlanta really shows me that I can execute the ideas I got fully without restraint.

  8. Lost me with all the theory stuff by some guy and what scientifically makes people laugh. Just talk about the show damn.

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