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Monday, 19 September 2011

How Satire and Laughter Can Improve Politics (Guest Blog)

"No, no, I'm not going to be your monkey." - John Stewart to CNN's Tucker Carlson

For those who are not familiar with his career, comedian John Stewart via his primary media vehicle, "The Daily Show", airs for half an hour five times a week in North America on the cable network Comedy Central and is further syndicated in dozens of other countries and has full broadcast content as well as extended interviews available for free via the web. What Stewart and his staff have been able to do over the last decade is to pull the veil away from established partisan media outlets and political "spin" through satire, consistently choosing to mock whichever party has acted in a way most ridiculous that day. It is important to note that they do not ridicule that which they have not researched, and it is clear that the staff behind the scenes is working very hard to get the facts straight before the jokes are written. Stewart often interviews some of the world's most powerful people, always with respect, intelligence, and of course humour. He has arguably elicited more information from subjects like Donald Rumsfeld or Pervez Musharraf with this "soft" approach than most standard news reporters could dream of, and has replaced all such reporters as the most trusted source for actual news (which he never claims to be reporting) for Americans under 35.

After years of crafting humour out of the stories of the previous day's news with less than 24 hours of lead time, the Daily Show has spawned not only some of the most versatile North American comedians of the last decade, but rendered the established weekly, more scripted "sketch comedy" shows such as Saturday Night Live largely irrelevant to younger audiences. Stewart wins over these younger viewers by refusing to dumb things down for them, such as when he appeared on a panel discussion by "Get out the Vote!" youth organizations who weren't expecting him to object halfway through and take on the whole rest of the panel because they were insisting that young people wouldn't tune in for "in depth analysis" and might not vote unless they were handed issues in bite-sized pieces without the "spice" of historical context. His attitude was essentially, "If they don't know the issues and can't be bothered to learn anything about them, why exactly do we want them voting? I say we report everything, use the free press, and then if the youth don't vote or don't know what's going on, nobody can blame it on us."

In 2006, Stewart went on CNN's then highest-rated cable news programme, the highly polarized "Crossfire", as a citizen and not the comedian they were expecting. The show, famous for treating every issue as an opportunity to attack one's political opponents, was no longer on the air a couple of months later, and the format is no longer used as a template for reporting on politics by other networks. Apparently the audience just could not take it seriously ever again. I invite you to spend fifteen minutes watching the following Youtube video to see how a professional comedian was able to accomplish this by not telling jokes:

This foundation of irreverence towards the powerful and/or established, a confidence in the common sense of their message, and more importantly in the intelligence of the audience hearing it, has led them to challenge any political belief head-on by ironically outflanking it. Such as when they sent two correspondents to Iran to explore the allegedly widespread hatred of Americans there. Not surprisingly, they didn't find much hate, just normal people who didn't seem to have any trouble getting the joke too (7 min):

The gesture and the concept were not lost on Iranian activists in the diaspora, who eagerly seized on the opportunity to construct their own "Daily Show" which could expose their own politicians and political fictions to the light of common sense and human decency. Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi host the programme, "Parazit", now in its third season and being broadcast into Iran via Voice of America (though they dream of the day when they can freely open a studio in Tehran with a live audience), in the meantime they are giving the Farsi language community at least one place where politicians are brought back down to earth with the rest of us humans (9 min):

Why is this relevant to Zambia? Well the fact that nobody seems to have been allowed to make fun of Zambian politicians for the last few years is a crime against comedy. Such waste! That there isn't a group out there making a comedic career off of the media hypocrisy on all sides throughout this election cycle is economic negligence of the highest order. I know Zambians are funny. I know that the situation is so patently ridiculous at times as to be ripe for the plucking. I know that the serious side of the media have been reporting that government supporters and/or officials have been intimidating journalists and making the concept of not "embarrassing government" more important than constitutional freedoms. Guess what? When you do that you have just doubly embarrassed yourself, by turning the one arguably foolish act which might have been subject to gentle mockery, into two demonstrably foolish acts that create an expectation of more such to come. You are not the only ones guilty of overreacting to someone else's joke, to err is human, but you get singled out because you are the ones who seemingly insist that you cannot laugh at yourselves and therefore no-one else is allowed to either.

A person who stumbles and makes a spectacle of themselves should recognize that humour from onlookers comes from solidarity; from the fact that they also could have done the same thing, and they see their own foibles and struggles echoed in you. That brings you closer to them, because they can laugh at you as they laugh at themselves and those that they love. If you see their laughter as coming from outside only, then it is not an echo of your own soul, not a recognition that none of us is perfect, that we all must watch our step or risk falling into foolishness. Only a true fool fails to recognize that being laughed at draws one in to their community, and gives one lasting emotional value for any neighbor who might wish a repetition of this pleasure. Only one whose lot is to go through their whole life being mocked for their earnest incompetence without ever being fully aware of the joke would choose to hear every laugh as an assault rather than a welcome.

I myself have often been mocked for using fifty words where five would have done the job better, for being clumsy, for saying exactly the wrong thing at exactly the worst time, for completely missing the context when everyone else around me is on the same page, for most anything that I do consistently and people who know me come to know as part of me, whether I can see it or not. Imitation is one of the highest human art forms, we do it so well. It is funny, I am funny, we are all funny because it is a funny world that often doesn't make sense. Given laugh or cry (sometimes the only choices), laughter is generally preferable. An Irish-style wake is a beautiful thing to walk away from, filled with ways in which the dearly departed is still relevant to our lives, still a source of joy and comfort. It is an appreciation of gifts already given, but perhaps not yet fully received without the passage of time. Comedy is a populist business about common denominators, and the elite are often the butt of the joke. Such is the price of being one of the few who get to benefit so tremendously from the society we all agree to hold together. If the rest of us can embrace being known and mocked by our peers, why not them too?

I see occasional signs that the system has not squelched all humour from the process, like when Guy Scott, while speaking for the PF in response to voter questions about MMD claims that, if victorious, PF intended to euthanize old people by drowning them in the nearest river, he allegedly replied, "Yes! Sata will jump first, and I will be close behind him!" How else should one respond, when the obviously political allegation amounts to an accusation of being both murderous and suicidal? Will anger and indignation help? How better to emphasize that the electorate needs to use their own sense and make up their own mind about what criteria they will base a vote upon? Do I now need to be concerned that readers will assume me to be some sort of PF cadre because I think something Guy Scott said was funny? Must we all be so partisan that we cannot like athletes each seek to learn from one another in our own pursuit of improvement?

Elections are very important, but they are not forever, and five years will pass whatever the outcome, and then everyone gets together and does it all over again. Let's all have laughs either way in the meantime, and whoever wins, please let the other half laugh at you long and heartily, so that you can be one family laughing at itself. Let freedom of speech reign, and if someone says something you cannot abide hearing, please find a way to make fun of that statement without slander or libel against the speaker, or trying to take away their tongue. If something is really funny, then it is probably also true on some level. Find your homegrown Zambian John Stewarts, Kambiz Hosseinis and Saman Arbabis, let them get to know the system well enough to satirize it effectively. Let them view the folly of all parties and persons wherever and whenever foolishness occurs. If they can make you laugh every day about the truths of the system you have all agreed to follow, then they probably have also learned some things worth listening to about how to improve it. Comedy is part of the essence of what it means to be human. Satire is a gift of the Free Press.

Peace and Laughter For All!

Yakima (Guest Blogger)


  1. I.P.A. Manning (Chosanganga)20 September 2011 at 09:30

    Heard of Kalaki?

  2. Indeed I have! Kalaki is very experienced in political satire and (in my opinion) both knowledgeable and talented. I have long been impressed by his courage and am pleased that his tongue is still wagging even after being trampled on by an angry elephant some years ago. I certainly didn't mean to imply that there weren't Zambian comedians in existence, just that there is no good reason to try and stop them from performing their function as a check against the natural arrogance of the powerful. Also, as a non-citizen commenting on Zambian politics, I don't feel that it is for me to say which comedians should be trusted by citizens to be both funny and profound.

    What I see ailing in Zambia is not the comedic spirit, nor the ample material available for satire of politics and the established media, but rather the enabling environment for citizens when faced with the absurd, to speak out about "embarrassing" public problems without fear of reprisal from the "embarrassed". I disagree with the apparent official position that a respected leader cannot be made fun of and still be considered respectable. I think that one of the things that makes a leader respectable is how well they can take a joke, knowing that as one increases in prominence in people's lives one inevitably invites greater scrutiny, therefore imitation, therefore comedy. A leader that can take a joke about themselves seems more likely to me to be also able to learn a lesson about leading when confronted with accurate satire of their leadership.

    The press aides and political strategists should stop trying to stifle jokes about their bosses and start looking at comedy as an opportunity to improve their image and review the implications of their stated policies. There are very solid political reasons why every US President, every year hosts a dinner event for the entire White House press corps where the primary activity is to show off how well the commander in chief can both take and tell jokes about themselves.

  3. I think the comedic talent to create intelligent satire in Zambia is harmpered by a lack of platfom and culture.

    I cannot see goverment controlled ZNBC hosting a program such 'the daily show' or 'Have i got news for you'. Zambian politicians are just too thin skinned and pompous to allow a program that would poke fun at them. They just don't do self depreciation!

    The brialiant 'kalaki' is hilarious in written foam but would not work on TV...a white male no matter how zambianised can not carry it off. Satire is also about laughing at ourselves.

    By the way , if you are a fan check out Jon stewart expose and destroy Fox 'News' in an unedited interview on his website after Fox tried to set him up by airing an heavily edited version on their sorry a** channel..pure gold.


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