Talking Sense

Laugh it out: Can humor ease tension in polarizing times?

Four people on stage perform a comedy sketch
Cast members perform a sketch about romantic encounters in Winona during the "Sketches of Minnesota" event on May 21.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

From the sidewalk, the gathering at Winona’s Parlour Room on a recent Tuesday night looked like a big party. 

Dozens of people drank wine, ate from heaping plates of pasta and chatted up and down long dinner tables inside the downtown storefront. 

But the scene belied the tension that brought the group together and the question they were there to answer: Can humor help people talk about divisive topics during a time of deep political polarization?

As an improv comedian, speaker and self-proclaimed public policy nerd, it’s a question Tane Danger has been contemplating for years. 

A crowd waits in line for dinner as others are seated
Guests queue up for a pasta dinner at the "Sketches of Minnesota" event.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I subscribe to the notion that it’s very difficult to laugh together and be afraid of each other at the same time,” said Danger, co-founder of Danger Boat Productions, a traveling civic-improv troupe which brings to life serious topics in hilarious performances. “It may not mean that (people) agree, but they see the humanity in each other.” 

“Sketches of Minnesota” is a new event series that deviates from the shows Danger Boat Productions typically does. Over a meal, an audience of about 70 people in Winona spent the evening talking about the things that divide them and unite them.

Roaming improv performers eavesdropped on the conversations, taking notes and parsing out themes to be used later in the show. 

Danger and the Minnesota Humanities Center will bring the concept to eight other communities across the state this summer.

“Our vision is a society that is more curious, connected and compassionate,” said Tryg Throntveit, director of strategic partnerships for the Minnesota Humanities Center, which is sponsoring and facilitating the events. 

A healthy democracy demands that people get better at working together despite their differences, he said.

“We think humor is a really good way to get people together to let down their guard, remind themselves that we’re all human, and get people thinking in a serious way — but in a relaxed and a more open way — about how they could build more trusting relationships with one another,” he said.

One person takes notes at a dinner table
Karen Sorvaag takes notes as "Sketches of Minnesota" participants discuss the challenges and shared themes of living in Winona.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Finding common values

The improv troupe didn’t find itself in Winona by accident. It’s one of nine communities that won a statewide contest held by the Minnesota Humanities Center.

A coalition of community leaders orchestrated Winona’s application, including Kara Lindaman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Winona State University.

“As a college of liberal arts, this directly fits and aligns with our mission and our purpose to understand people across differences from multiple perspectives, and define shared understanding on common values,” she said.

To get the crowd warmed up for the performance, Throntveit asked each table to discuss the same set of questions. They started with the question: What’s great about Winona?

Darcie Anderson, who’s lived in big cities and small towns, said Winona’s size is one of its best assets.

“It is significantly easier to meet people, to get to know people, to do things like this, to have conversations,” she said. “Even if you don’t walk away with a bestie, after one evening you could at least make a connection.”

A woman holding a mic speaks
Marcie Ratliff, executive director of Engage Winona, talks about community divisions she’s observed.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The groups also contemplated what some people get wrong about Winona.

“When they think of Winona, they’re thinking of this sleepy town along the river when we’ve got all kinds of culture here,” said Paul Mundt. “We’ve got a Great River Shakespeare Festival about to start, we have the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, we have the Frozen River Film Festival in the dead of the winter.”

And then there are the issues that divide the community. Participants mentioned affordable housing, spending on roads and public infrastructure and the relationship between the city’s colleges and long-time residents. 

“There’s the ‘Winona will never change’ faction. And then there’s the, ‘Oh my God, we need to change this community’ faction. And they’re always kind of at odds,” said Marcie Ratliff, executive director of Engage Winona, a nonprofit that works with community members to envision the city’s future. 

“We can grow and thrive and it’s going to be OK. And you’re going to enjoy the gelato, too,” she said. 

Two people perform a sketch on a stage
Improv actors Jim Robinson (left) and Brandon Boat perform during the "Sketches of Minnesota" event.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Taking the stage

Armed with ideas and inspiration from the night’s conversations, members of the improv troupe took the stage. 

Their first sketches were aimed at insiders, only people familiar with Winona would get the jokes. The material reminded participants about experiences they have in common — like the floating homes on the Mississippi and whether they are “houseboats” or “boathouses,” or if the city has maxed out on knitting enthusiasts. 

The performers gradually introduced harder topics, including Winona’s housing shortage and whether the City Council is out of touch with the community’s college-age population.

Improv comedian Jim Robinson launched into his renter’s lament.

I am the last renter who isn’t a college student

The mortgage rates go up they don’t come down

I look for a new place all over town.

The troupe got a lot of laughs.

As the performance wrapped up, participants were asked to share their thoughts on the event. Some said the levity reminded them that even when it feels like there’s nothing they can agree on, they actually have a lot in common.

Five people raise their hands on stage while an audience claps
The "Sketches of Minnesota" cast celebrates their final act at the Parlour Room.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“Tonight was such a great reminder of how humor can really bring people together, laughing at ourselves and at each other,” said participant Johanna Frisch. “I think it really can be the bridge.”

Paul Barrett said the evening showed how important genuine listening can be, even when it’s uncomfortable.

“Listening to one another to understand, versus listening to one another to see where I could be right at the expense of you being wrong,” he said.

The night was especially poignant for Debbie King, a Democrat, and Barb Kolter, a Republican.

Over their 40-year friendship, politics has sometimes strained their relationship, which is why King said she asked Kolter to come to the show with her. 

“I invited her with me to get a better understanding of where she’s coming from, and also to get a better understanding of where my community is coming from,” said King. “We talked about things that we usually just kind of bypass.”

“And I don’t see any bloody noses,” said Throntveit, who moderated the closing discussion.

“No. We’re all good,” King reassured him. 

“And I’m from Wisconsin, too!” joked Kolter, prompting another round of laughter from the crowd.

An ominous storm cloud rolls over a town's main street
A severe thunderstorm rolls through Winona during the "Sketches of Minnesota" event.
Ben Hovland | MPR News