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AU’s comedian in residence combines social justice with laughter

Bethany Hall and Caty Borum Chattoo break down their partnership and its future

AU’s comedian in residence combines social justice with laughter

Caty Borum Chattoo and Bethany Hall pose for a photo after speaking about Hall's role as a Comedian-in-Residence at AU. 

Bethany Hall has been making people laugh for ten years. Now, she has come to AU to bring humor with a helping of social justice as AU’s first Comedian-in-Residence.

Hall started incorporating comedy with activism when she took on a temporary two-week job with Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation that has now sponsored Hall with a year-long externship to work with Caty Borum Chattoo, the director of AU’s Center for Media and Social Impact.

“It was my first real intro into the world of nonprofits and philanthropy and all the good that was being done that I kind of felt like I wasn’t exposed to,” Hall said. “We only hear about the bad things, and then there’s so many good people working for good.”

Hall has always wanted to become a famous comedian so she could use her platform to make the world a better place. When she was feeling overwhelmed a few years ago, her dad sent her an email that made her realize how close she was to her goal.

“He was like, ‘You are a working comedian and you work in philanthropy as well, look how close you are to what you’ve always wanted to do’,” Hall said.

Starting off with an internship at Late Night with Conan O’Brien, she realized her passion for television and got very involved with the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv comedy group in New York City.

One day, while working at her day job, she received a call from “30 Rock” asking her to audition for the show. Not feeling ready, she quickly did her makeup at Sephora and went to the audition during her lunch break.

“I got the part and then they pulled out my headshot and they’re like, ‘We have this picture of you, you look really nice in this picture but we really like this better,’” Hall said. “They were like ‘Just keep this going on’ and I was like, ‘Great, I’ll never shower again.’ And I haven’t!”

Hall said that working with Tina Fey was her dream and it was great to see how the production came together. She has also worked on the Chris Gethard Show and is now in her ninth year. The show started as a stage show and has now landed on truTV after two seasons on the cable channel Fusion.

Hall partners with AU

While working on a five-part TV series about global poverty and development issues, Borum Chattoo and her colleagues wanted to find a way to engage the audience in a different way. They landed on the idea of comedy and put together a team of producers and directors to produce a documentary titled “Stand Up Planet.” Her team also conducted a study on how to influence people through comedy.

“When we step back and we think about the big backdrop of issues that are profoundly complex and sad, we can’t solve them if we have people continue to check out of the problem because it’s too hard to imagine,” Borum Chattoo said. “Comedy is this cultural force that brings people in.”

The documentary launched The Laughter Effect, a research initiative that studies how comedy impacts social justice topics.

“Comedy is itself is a deviant art form. Comedy is funny because you’re bending the truth or you’re bending reality and you’re making us think in a new way,” Borum Chattoo said. “Social justice requires that we think in new ways.”

Borum Chattoo believes comedy is a real strategy to communicate difficult topics, however, most organizations do not take comedy seriously. After hearing Borum Chattoo speak during her time at Atlantic Philanthropies, Hall partnered with the professor to create comedic content that could inspire change.

“When you want to give your dog medicine, what you do is you wrap it around in peanut butter first and then you feed it to them,” Hall said. “You shouldn’t know that you’re consuming something that is encouraging social change.”

The first video that Hall and Borum Chattoo are working on will be released on March 8, International Women’s day. The video is about unpaid domestic work and its impact on women.

From there, Hall will be working with Caring Across Generations, a national advocacy group for the elderly, the disabled and their caregivers, in a larger project that will explore the lives of caregivers.

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