Developing World Comedians Turn Poverty Into A Joke

The Gates-funded Stand Up Planet is attempting to globalize the comedy world and teach us that there are things to laugh about no matter what your situation.

Poverty, of course, is not funny. Unless you own the joke.


Stand Up Planet, a new comedy special backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to change the global conversation about poverty by featuring comedians from countries such as India and South Africa in a four-part television docu-series and comedy special.

The show’s first season in India and South Africa, produced by KCETLink Media and Kontent Films, will track the lives and standup of comedians in countries where the jokes are as much about daily struggles with poverty, as the those faced by everyone around the world. You can watch hilarious clips of some of the featured comedians above.

“It’s definitely an experiment, but in a long tradition of comedy that seeks to change the conversation,” says says Xandra Castleton, one of the show’s creators and executive producers. “It’s no coincidence that among our advisors are Norman Lear (All in the Family) and Bill Cosby, two people who saw no need to separate comedy from the social issues of our lives.”

Finding humor in places where average annual income is the weekly wage in the U.S. was not a given. Castleton says she wasn’t sure the show would be possible. “We wondered if there was even going to be comedy in these places where people really feel adversity,” says Castleton. Yet the opposite was true. She found humor was the outlet and relief from daily struggles everywhere, a universal language that may translate around the world. “When you laugh you care, and ultimately the world’s problems are our problems,” says Castleton. “We want people to connect and care enough to take some actions, too, not just in a passive way.”

But first she needs an audience. For every person who watches a documentary on global development, thousands of others tune out that message. Stand Up Planet is betting comedy will engage those who would otherwise ignore the subject. The show won’t shy away from revealing the personal lives of the comics it profiles and tackle tough subjects not normally broached by Americans. Will jokes in Mumbai fall flat in front of a global TV audience? Stand Up Planet is about to find out.


Castleton thinks the show has the potential to reveal the common bonds we share through laughter, no matter our race or nationality. The comedians, themselves, are living proof. “One of the things that all the comics say is that they see each other as a tribe,” says Castleton. “Before Indian or South African or American, they see themselves as comics first.”

If you want to catch it live, head to the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles on May 23: it will be two shows hosted by Hasan Minhaj, open to the public, with comics from India, South Africa and the U.S.

Credit: Kelly Rakowski/Co.Exist (Illustration)


About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.