What can American satire learn from political comedy in countries with authoritarian streaks?

Hi everyone! We’re @Maznah, @mmindeel, @patozf, and Ike, and we come from Pakistan, Chile (via Argentina), and the U.S. Thank you for your input in the introductory thread about our TPM-NYU project! Based on your comments and feedback, and on your active participation in the Cartoons threads, we’ve identified satire as a point of interest, and we want to develop a TPM story on the topic with your continued involvement.

(Also, a big thank you to @aaron and @alphadad for their responses about satire in the original thread!)

So this is what we’re thinking…

In the Trump era, American political satire has been deemed ineffective by comedians and cultural critics. Some have called satire “lazy” or “dead,” while others wonder if it’s even possible. But three of us come from countries where authoritarian leaders have been common throughout history, and where satire has taken a more aggressive form.

Because of this, we want to compare the state of affairs of political satire in both America and our home countries. We are going to explore which techniques work best, how they could – if adopted – make American satire more effective, and what they could mean for the future of satire in the U.S.

Of course, we want to hear from YOU, members of The Hive, about your personal views of political humor, so here are some questions for you:

  • What is the role of satire?
  • How would you define effective political satire? If you have examples in mind, we would love to know them!
  • What’s working in mainstream American political satire? What isn’t?
  • What would you like to know about political satire in our home countries?
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You mentioned that it’s more aggressive back home. Can you expand on that a little bit?

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Hi @alphadad !

When we talk about political satire being aggressive in Pakistan, we mean that despite the censorship, satirists and cartoonists expressed views that would otherwise not have been allowed on mainstream media. I have found traces of Juvenalian satire in the works I have seen. Sometimes they got away with it but a lot of the times it did land them in hot water. Despite that, political satire continues to grow in Pakistan and it has found new creative ways to reach to the public (songs, movies, youtube talk shows).

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Hey @alphadad!

Great to have you here.

Regarding Argentina and Chile, satirists, comedians and monologists have left behind the artsy ways in favor of low blows, nasty images and straight offensive messages. It would seem that the tradition of smart irony and creativity that has defined the form has lost priority to being as aggressive as possible.

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Are you able to post some examples?

For me, I like political satire to offer a new perspective. I think some of the best of our satirists use silly analogies and humorous parables to drive a point which often gets lost in the bullshit that politicians and the media so often swim in. It’s a form of truth-telling, as opposed to just mud-throwing.

Does satire in Argentina and Chile do that, and does the aggressiveness help or hinder in that regard? Do they inform and provide insight, or do they just get people angry? Is it effective in moving public opinion?

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I like satire that has a clear and well made point. It can be gentle or mean, as long as the point is paramount. (It helps, of course, if I also agree with the point made.)

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Honestly, one of the US satirists that’s been getting me through the Trump era has been Andy Borowitz:
https://www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report

I’m not sure I can properly articulate why his political satire seems just so much better than others at this moment in time, but it does to me.

Under GWBush’s presidency, I found the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report to be similarly well timed:


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So, for me the best political satire is not coming from the major networks, it comes from John Oliver and Hasan Minaj, who are locked away in paid networks or available on youtube, or Sam Bee.

Why your public transportation sucks - Hasan Minaj Patriot Act

Authoritarianism - Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

I enjoy the monologues of the late night comics. But for the primetime ‘situation comedy’ landscape there is nothing that addresses the political moment in any effective way. I should be clear even the people I have highlighted don’t always cover the onslaught against our democracy. Part of it is down to the relentlessness of that onslaught, part to the intermittent nature (26 times per year) of their programming and mostly down to the original ignorance of most Americans about their own government and our place in the larger world. Americans have been privileged to have good government for most of the past 100 years and what corruption we had was hidden - we didn’t confront it in our daily lives. In fact there was a book about how most of American government works invisibly. This is clearly not the case through most of the world. In consequence we are almost disarmed in our press response as well as our comedy. We’ve developed habits where there are clear boundaries on what is “acceptable” and people are censured (think Kathy Griffin or Michelle Wolf or the aforementioned Samantha Bee) for even marginally stepping beyond those boundaries. We want entertainment, not enlightenment, as if those things are not compatible goals.

So, to answer your questions, I see the role of satire as shining a light on the society, especially its ruling classes or ruling ideas, and puncturing their air of inevitability and invincibility by pointing out their ridiculousness. As in the Oliver piece I linked on authoritarianism, where Putin and Duterte are ridiculed on the way to explaining Donald Trump, where we can come to understand the risks of Trump while disempowering him on one level. Good satire makes us see we can separate ourselves from our situation and then change our situation. It gives us hope.

What works, for me? The shows I highlighted (and additionally the Daily Show) all work by taking some aspect of the dysfunctional world (as in the Transportation piece by Hasan Minaj) and pulling apart its pieces to show how power works and how it has real world effects that we can see. If the system is designed to work invisibly then the corruption also becomes invisible. Then the Koch Brothers are a slogan- people we are told to distrust, but we don’t understand why. Unmasking their actions, making the invisible visible is not essentially comedy, but the comic stance makes the exposition work in a way that a PBS documentary often doesn’t. We can’t engage with an issue in the same way if it is larger than we are, comedy makes it smaller than we are.

It is difficult to know what I want to know about satire in other countries because it needs to be organic to be meaningful. What I mean by that, to go back to Hasan Minaj as our example, looking at how he treats the subject, how would that same topic be conveyed in a Pakistani satirical piece or an Argentinean political cartoon? I am pretty sure that corruption in public transportation is a feature in both those countries and its effects are even more consequential (or more obviously consequential). Rather than being explored only for 1/2 hour segments from four commentators once every two years I am pretty sure the topic is hotly debated socially. I hope my question isn’t so vague that it is unanswerable, but that is the kind of thing I am curious about.

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Although not satire as such, your post brings to mind the manner in which science fiction was used in this nation, some decades back, as a means of engaging in social commentary that would get past book publishers and TV network censors. Is there a form of satire directed at the authoritarian leadership that is being advanced in plain sight, but without the authorities recognizing it for what it is?

There’s a satirical element, certainly, but I think that both efforts can be described as education through comedy – taking an important subject that would bore most people and, through the use of humor, making it accessible and entertaining without losing the educational element. I believe that both Oliver and Minaj have commented on how hard their fact-checking teams work to ensure the accuracy of their claims, beneath the humor.

Minaj’s experience with censorship, I think, reflects what happens when you attempt a head-on approach to a subject that will antagonize an authoritarian leader.

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Hey @alphadad I’ll let Pato address your question in the context of Argentina but in the context of Pakistan, the aggressiveness has helped people gain insight into the political landscape of the country instead of just making them angry or throwing mud at the politicians etc, for the most part. It is intelligently done even if it’s aggressive. A lot of satirists have resorted to channeling their satire through films, songs, youtube shorts etc. and that has helped their case. For instance, Pakistan has had its share of military leaders or apparently democratic leaders backed by the military or establishment, and the current primetime shows such as Khabarnak (aired on one of the most prominent tv channels in the country) focus on bringing the internal politics of the country to the forefront through aggressive and ironic humor. The show (there are similar shows running on other channels in Pakistan) is loved throughout the country, hence the prime time which is also a living testimony to the fact that they are impactful. Similarly, recently a film called Donkey King was released and it did humungously well for an animated movie in a country where not much attention is given to anything animated as such but just because people could see the satire in there, they flocked to the cinemas. There are numerous other examples of cartoonists, youtube shorts, songs etc. that have played their part in moving public opinion to some extent and we’ll try and explore them through the piece. Hope that answers your question in some way.

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That’s helpful, thank you for sharing!

Hey @aaron this may answer your question.
Additionally, in Pakistan, we definitely have songs (for instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CtKDzmBEpk), movies (donkey king being one example) and youtube shorts that are directed at the authoritarian leadership but since there is nothing direct there, they are basically being advanced without authorities recognizing it (I am sure they can tell but they have no way of proving it.) So yes, we definitely have plenty of hidden-in-plain-sight satire. I’ll share more on that as I talk to some of these singers/satirists in the coming days.

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  • What is the role of satire?

To subvert authority, particularly political and corporate authority, by rendering it absurd.

  • How would you define effective political satire? If you have examples in mind, we would love to know them!

The Jon Stewart version of the Daily show was highly effective, for a time. It ven managed to destroy CNN’s crossfire and to hobble Jim Cramer.

  • What’s working in mainstream American political satire? What isn’t?

I loved the show Veep and basically all of the work of Scottish satirist Armando Ianucci. I find it highly effective. I also liked Vice and love the work of Adam McKay.

The problem is that people with power in America have learned to embrace the absurdity of their positions. They have become shameless. If you point out the emperor is naked, the emperor brags about what a great body they have.

  • What would you like to know about political satire in our home countries?

What’s the most dramatic political or social change brought about by or sped up by satire in your lifetime?

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Hello everyone!

Sorry for the late response. I have been following the critical Chilean situation very closely -state of emergency has been declared due to violent protests- and have not had much time left.

@alphadad: I have a couple of examples, though most of them are audiovisual pieces spoken in Spanish, so it may be a little hard to explain. Basically we have monologist and comedians straight-up insulting political figures and their followers (Baby Etchecopar, a very popular far-right monologist in Argentina, for example, has called Nicolás Maduro, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara “sons of bitches” / “pieces of shit”. If it helps, here’s the link), and satirical media outlets using aggresive imagery for their covers (Find a selection of three pieces of the Chilean leftist newspaper The Clinic here).

Surely, these are some of the most extreme cases, but they certainly represent an important part of the scene in both countries. Neither Etchecopar nor The Clinic are underground, or small-sized voices. On the contrary, they gather thousands of followers, and their sayings usually resonate heavily in social media.

Hope this clarifies things a little more

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Who needs professional satire when we have so many accomplished (and mostly hopelessly self-unaware) amateurs on the Internet?

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I thought it was going to go “Who needs professional satire when we have trump, who makes himself look like a ridiculous buffoon, and does such a great job that professionals find it hard to, well, trump that.”

Or something along those lines.

Although in a way, trump is the very definition of a hopelessly self-unaware amateur on the Internet.

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That is more like “How can satire exist when we have Trump.”

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Hi @aaron!

Actually, yes. I was talking to the producer of Pakistan’s most prominent political satire show and he told me that they aren’t allowed to criticize the establishment in any way so they have found a creative way to bypass it. They take a situation from the real world and rewrite it as a story. For e.g there was a Dam Fund collection called by our Chief Justice (Head of Supreme Court) and everyone could see how ridiculous the idea was because what they planned to do required a massive sum which was impossible to get through donations from the general public. Media companies did criticize this initiative but it went as far as the chief justice claiming that he is examining if he could charge treason to those opposing the construction of dams. Now of course, mainstream media was hesitant about covering criticism about the dam fund so this show created a story where a bureaucrat was collecting funds for a village pond and behaved ridiculously when he was unable to do so. The audience could understand the similarity but that wasn’t picked up by the authorities.

They have done similar things with the military and the government. He called it “Hitting the target while avoiding the target”.

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I think effective satire (at least as I’m familiar with it in the U.S.) strongly communicates a point that the listener or viewer may not have considered, or in a way that the audience may not have considered, in a way that both makes the point clear and entertains - usually with humor, usually in a way that ridicules a mainstream, popular or official interpretation of reality.

Two examples that immediately come to mind:

  1. Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” from 1965 ridiculed unthinking patriotism and support for the Viet Nam war. I especially like the final lines invoking (and ridiculing) American consumerism, in a time when “be the first one on your block” was used in advertising to sell new products:

send your sons off before it’s too late
and you can be the first ones on your block
to have your boy come home in a box

  1. Lynzy Lab’s “A Scary Time for Boys” from 2018 ridiculed a view expressed by some men, during the “Me Too” movement and specifically when Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, that it was scary that past events could come back to haunt them, very effectively contrasting the caution that women exercise to avoid being assaulted, raped or murdered with the fear that some men felt because

It’s really tough when your reputation’s on the line
And any woman you’ve assaulted could turn up anytime

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I draw your attention to a recent column in The Guardian that was critical of political satire, a genre that is done with great skill in the UK. I put in the opening paragraph below.

It was a point of view that I had not considered. Certainly the leading political satire shows all have a ‘preaching to the choir’ about them, allowing us to retreat into a good humored laugh, rather than taking action for change. I do not know how many people change their opinions, or votes, due to satire.

The situation in the USA is quite different from those in places where political satire is actually dangerous and has to be more indirect and clever. I assume the researchers are aware of the use of alternative pronunciations and appearances of kanji in China to make political points a bit safely - the mud grass horse phenomenon as an example. I put in a link just in case you have not seen it. https://www.informationactivism.org/en/chinas-river-crab-and-grass-mud-horse.html

Satire props up what it should destroy. Chris Morris, a satirist himself, understands this as well as anyone. “Satire placates the court,” he told Jon Snow on Channel 4 news recently. “You do a nice dissection of the way things are in the orthodox elite and the orthodox elite slaps you on the back and says, ‘Jolly good. Can we have some more?’”

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