Highlights from ComNet15: Comedy, Power, and Resonance

October 8, 2015

The Communications Network’s annual conference in San Diego was a sunny affair complete with a beach party kick-off and sunglasses in the swag bag. The theme was “Making Ideas Move” and most of the events centered on how to get people to listen and act.

(Pictured: Journalist Jonathan Capehart interviews Clarence B.Jones during the plenary on Friday. Photo credit to ComNet)

During the on-stage discussion with Elliott Kalan, writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, interviewer Kimberley A.C. Wilson asked him what it was like working with Jon Stewart and writing jokes every day. Kalan explained that Jon’s honesty and authenticity resonated with his audience, and that people appreciated his way of making sense of the world. One of the most fascinating moments for me was hearing Kalan’s process of writing a joke.

He described how he distills a quote or moment from the news into the nub of what was absurd or notable, then assesses the multiple ways he could make it funny. He doesn’t stop there, however. He scraps the first or second options because they would be too “expected” by the audience and he pushes himself to create something new and fresh.

In the world of social change, we sometimes fall back on clichés and nonprofit speak, so it was inspiring and fun to hear how Daily Show writers push themselves to create a show that is resonant, creative and resoundingly popular.

On Friday, Civil Rights leader and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., Clarence B. Jones talked about resonance, as told by the story behind the “I Have a Dream” speech that he penned for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. more than 50 years ago. He explained that the “I Have a Dream” message had been used in other speeches prior to the March on Washington in 1963. But it hadn’t caught on. Why? It was the context. Jones explained that that particular moment, with an audience of 250,000, made the message resonate in a way that it hadn’t before.

Jones was asked about his opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement and poignantly noted, “We marched in the hope that you wouldn’t have to march.”

His primary advice for the Black Lives Matter movement was to focus efforts on the acquisition of power. “Movements that don’t focus on acquiring power don’t move,” Jones explained. The most obvious place to start is registering people to vote because in the American system of politics, power is gained by votes.

Jones’ wisdom, humility, and humor provided a resonant moment for many of us in the room. He reminded us that leaders of the past faced formidable challenges, but remained focused on progress despite the odds. I think he inspired all of us to fight harder for the change that we hope to see in our world.

Teresa Guillien