Humor is a very powerful thing. It has the ability to entertain. It can connect people who otherwise might have very little in common and allow old friends to revisit happy times and places. A well-timed joke can relieve tension, foster conversation, encourage, bring cheer, and alleviate melancholy.
It can also inform, elucidate, and raise awareness of serious issues – sometimes in ways a simple recitation of facts cannot.
On his “Last Week Tonight” program, comedian John Oliver delivers a lengthy monologue focused on the state of the corrections system in the United States. The commentary deals with a wide range of prison-related issues – from mandatory minimums, to solitary confinement, to the privatization of prisons, to the number of children with at least one parent behind bars. At one point, Oliver plays a clip from Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges” program which is specifically intended for children of inmates.
“Just think about that,” Oliver says incredulously. “We now need adorable, singing puppets to explain prison to children in the same way they explain the number seven or what the moon is.”
In one of the more disturbing moments of the video, Oliver looks at the cavalier way prison rape is viewed by the general population. He makes his point by showing a series of popular television shows and movies – some intended for children – that jokingly reference rape in prison.
“We are somehow collectively able to laugh about references to the fact that four percent of prisoners reported being sexually victimized in the past year,” says Oliver. “One in 25!”
Of course, Prison Fellowship has long promoted an understanding that inmates are people, created and loved by God, and of infinite worth. Justice Fellowship has been at the front of a movement to end prison rape, lobbying for legislation designed to curb sexual assault behind bars, and helping to change the public perception that such assaults are “just part of the punishment.” And Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program remembers those children of prisoners who are the unintended victims of crime.
While the language used by Oliver is a little crass at times (most of the curse words are “bleeped out” in the video below), and his comments do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Prison Fellowship, the issues he raises are legitimate, and are worthy of closer examination. And if using humor helps to raise awareness for these issues, perhaps even spurring some to take steps to bring about change, then folks like John Oliver have provided us with a valuable service – and that is serious business.
Viewer discretion is advised for the following video. May not be appropriate for sensitive viewers.