For their second federal election, activist comedians are ready to get serious.
Talking Sh*! (Harper Did)
After four years working in the non- profit sector, Emma Cooper returned to B.C. feeling disenchanted.
“It was great in a lot of ways, but you can get stuck in bureaucracy sometimes,” she notes, of working with a high-profile Halifax non-profit. “And I found that frustrating after awhile...We would sit down and say: ‘We’ve done the work, and our cause is good. Therefore, people will like it, and they’ll donate,’ and you’d get all these altruistic people together. But you can start to feel like a martyr really quickly, because it’s only a small core of people who are into it, and it often feels like you’re engaging with nobody beyond that small group.”
However, all of that changed when the 29-year-old standup comic got involved with ShitHarperDid (SHD), a loose-knit collective of comedians and activists who have made a big splash— locally and nationwide—pointing out absurdity and corruption in the Harper government. And while the website originally gained notoriety for its online funnies, organizers have been using the upcoming federal election as a chance to turn online engagement into real change.
“There’s been more than four years of people signing up and engaging with the site,” Cooper explains. “And some of them want to do more. So let’s...take this to Harper, and ask some questions—not let him just walk in and do business as usual. It’s about taking those jokes, and saying: ‘Ok, we’ve got that trust. Now what are we going to do with it?’”
Hitting the fan
Founded back in 2011 by local comedian Sean Devlin, SHD was big news during the last election, amassing more than 4 million views in its first 72 hours,and garnering a number of high-profile endorsements (including nods from Margaret Atwood, Ellen Page, and The Yes Men’s Mike Bonanno) for their ability to break down complex political issues into easily-digestible (and easily shareable) zingers for online consumption.
Their work has been featured inThe Walrus, Maclean’s, and The Globe and Mail, as well as on virtually every major television network. And while the original website languished after Harper's 2011 victory, Devlin—along with campaign manager Sara Wylie and lead community organizer Brigette DePape (the former parliamentary page who in 2011 gained nationwide attention after holding up a “Stop Harper” sign in the House of Commons)— returned to the cause with a vengeance, relaunching the site, touring colleges and universities, producing video shorts, and hosting workshops on creative activism.
“Making art that gives journalists a reason to talk about things that happened in the past—that's a neat concept that ShitHarperDid does really well,” Cooper notes. “I think ultimately, if you want to connect to people, you need to go to them, and humour is a great way of doing that. You get people into a mindset where they're laughing and enjoying themselves, and suddenly they're more open. And when people are more open, they can be more engaged, and that can change their ideas and opinions, which is ultimately what activism needs to do.”
"It's been amazing to see the work that gets done when people stop being so polite and start being citizens."
-Emma Cooper, SHD
SHD's local success is hardly surprising; B.C. has always been a place where activism, comedy, and satire overlap in fascinating ways. Vancouver is also the birthplace of Adbusters (known internationally for their “culture-jamming” initiatives, including Buy Nothing Day and Occupy Wall Street), and The Onion-style humour site The Syrup Trap, known for its satirical take on Canadian issues—political and otherwise.
“The goal of humour writing is to entertain,” notes Syrup Trap founder Nick Zarzycki. “To make good jokes, and to create art. You're participating in a creative act, and the end goal is to invent a silly character, or to tell a story. That's the goal. But when you're writing satire, there's a strategy. You're pointing out certain fallacies or absurdities in an opponent's argument. And politics and ideology are great places to do that.”
But do these antics translate into real change? The facts would seem to indicate otherwise: although the 2011 election indicated a small uptick in voter engagement (up roughly one per cent for youth and two per cent overall), that election still carried the third-lowest voter turnout in Canadian history. And despite the engagement generated by disruptive public action (like the Occupy movement and SHD's arrest-worthy event disruptions), it has so far been unable to effect any substantial policy changes.
Luckily, this time around, the SHD troupe has a number of new, real-world plans in the works: not only are they in the process of completing a documentary on the government's terror agenda and questionable surveillance tactics (executive produced by Mark Achbar, co-director of Manufacturing Consent and The Corporation), but they have also managed to mobilize their online fanbase into a “Direct Action Network” of more than 1,600 people, all of them dedicated to creative disruption of Harper events. While DePape has since moved on, Devlin himself has been arrested twice for sharing the stage with the Prime Minister—including once this September, while wearing a T-shirt which read “Aylan Should Be Here.” The shirt, memorializing Alan Kurdi, the three- year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean sea as his family fled their home country for a better life, was a pointed reference to the Harper government’s alleged complicity in the Syrian refugee crisis.
And the SHD folks hope that this shift in emphasis may be the trigger for actual change in terms of voter engagement, public perception, and at a federal level. It's a long shot, but if it works, it may be the most important shit that SHD ever did.
“ShitHarperDid is a model for engagement,” Cooper concludes. “The goal is to make jokes so that people will pay attention and start to see what's happening in our country. From there, they can sign our Action Pledge and get involved in non-violent direct action in their home communities. Artists can read our jokes and get inspired to make their own content, which we can share on the site. Everyone can do something that will help, and it's been amazing to see the work that gets done when people stop being so polite and start being citizens."