You might not recognise Bassem Youssef if he sat beside you on a train, but last year Time magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people on earth, alongside Pope Francis, Sheryl Sanderg and Barack Obama. Bassem Youssef, however, does not come equipped with moral authority, money or mandate: he’s powerful simply because he makes people laugh.
Often called the Egyptian version of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, Youssef was a heart surgeon spurred in to amateur satire by the Egyptian revolution of 2011. He’d gained five million views on YouTube within months, soon followed by a television show. After three busy years of lampooning the old government and its two replacement regimes, the comedian has been repeatedly targeted for arrest, legal action and harassment, culminating in his show being pulled in November last year. And yet the bidding war from other networks for his new show this year is testament to his popularity – and his power.
The Burmese junta likewise took a dim view of being mocked by satirist Zarganar, a case championed by Amnesty International. In 2008 he was sentenced to 35 years in prison for criticising the government’s response to a devastating cyclone. He had previously been jailed following his insertion of a running kidnapping gag into his films, ensuring heroes always shouted “We must free that lady!”, in a coded reference to Aung San Suu Kyi. He and The Lady are now both free, but Burma Campaign UK reports that hundreds of political prisoners have been left behind.
From ridicule to revolution
Rachael Jolley, of international organisation Index on Censorship, says that suppression of comedians is often a sign an elite is worried it’s losing control. Conversely, a comedy scene that takes on controversial topics shows a “strong society that is not afraid of discussion and debate. We should worry less about offending people and more about why we feel the need to ban and clamp down on conversation”.
Governments like those of Burma and Egypt fear satire because they know it can be a small step from ridicule to revolution. The same terror even prompted Europe’s last dictatorship to arrest people for smiling.
President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has been in power for 20 years and opponents to his rule often ‘disappear’ or end up in jail in a country where insulting the President still earns a prison term. European observers have never ruled an election in Belarus to be free and fair and the announcement of Lukashenko’s third ‘victory’ in 2006 drew thousands of protesters to the capital’s main square. Those demonstrations, as expected, were broken up by police and the main leader of the opposition was jailed.
So far, so depressingly predictable. But what makes the story of the protesters of Belarus stand out is what they did next. Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody tells the story of how his opponents, running out of options to both defy the President and show the world his true nature, decided to try something new: they laughed in his face.
Can’t take a joke
Surrealist flash mobs gathered in large groups for wild group crimes like ‘reading newspapers’, ‘eating ice cream’ and ‘walking around the square smiling at each other’. As dissidents were hauled away for having dessert or a cheerful countenance, international journalists were there to document it all. While Lukashenko is still in power, he is now not just a pariah but a laughing stock. As Shirky puts it, “nothing says ‘police state’ like detaining kids for eating ice cream.”
But it’s not just governments in highly repressive regimes who can’t bear to be the butt of jokes. In 2010 Brazil attracted international attention with what became known as ‘the anti-joking law’, rules which threatened broadcasters with losing their licence and fines of up to £72,000 if they satirised a candidate in the presidential election. In the same year, Index on Censorship reported that a Nicaraguan government adviser was accused of bribing a comedian: the stand-up was offered mortgage payments in return for removing gags about the president from his set.
Here in Britain, where national newspaper cartoons regularly stretch a condom over the prime minister’s face, it’s hard to imagine a politician ever expecting to get away with asking to be left alone. Gordon Brown was supposed to grin and bear it when he was viciously assailed by comics, including one who felt a childhood accident which cost him his sight in one eye was fair game for playground insults. Likewise Roy Hattersley, despite a long and distinguished life in politics, was reduced to being represented by a tub of lard on the quiz show Have I Got News for You?.
With you not at you
For Brits, laughing at the powerful has long been part of our national life: from Punch to Private Eye, Beyond the Fringe to In the Loop, our unofficial national archives show a country more inclined to mock elites than defer to them.
All politicians know, then, that jokes aimed at them can hurt their fortunes, but relatively few understand how jokes can help their reputations too. When Mitt Romney recruited Clint Eastwood to speak at the Republican national convention, Barack Obama’s opponent was guaranteed global air time. At the event, though, Eastwood’s bizarre speech addressed to an empty chair allowed the President to crack into the Republican news cycle with a devastating three-word rejoinder. Obama’s response was simply to tweet a photo of the back of his head emerging from a leather chair marked ‘The President’, with a simple, funny caption: “This seat’s taken.”
It’s who tells ‘em…
Female politicians, of course, are expected to be endlessly forgiving of ‘jokes’ made at their expense. Conservative MP Nadine Dorries has taken up many causes I disagree with ‒ restricting access to abortion, compulsory ‘abstinence classes’ for teenage girls (but not boys) and opposing gay marriage among them ‒ but her agenda of sexual and social conservatism deserves a more dignified response from the prime minister than his puerile innuendo that she is just “extremely frustrated”. Likewise Oona King complained of male MPs shouting “melons! melons!” and making breast hand gestures whenever the new influx of women politicians stood up to speak in 1997 ‒ a form of bullying new MPs like Sarah Champion say continues today.
It’s hard to believe that such sexual harassment ‒ a serious disciplinary or sacking offence in any other workplace ‒ continues in a Commons chamber which has already had a female Prime Minister. Thatcher herself was notoriously humourless, but she does deserve credit for being willing to give it a go. Her conference speech in 1990 is remembered mostly for her adaptation of the famous Monty Python sketch about the dead parrot, used to mock the Liberal Democrats for their new yellow bird logo.
And how you tell ‘em
The trouble was that she’d never seen the sketch, and even when her speech writing team showed her she didn’t get it. Her staff spent weeks trying to persuade her that people would laugh, and even in the moments before she went on stage she was still trying to find excuses not to do it.
Her final, last-minute exchange with her Political Secretary John Whittingdale is deeply revelatory about her relationship with both popular culture and those around her:
Thatcher: “John, this Monty Python, are you sure he’s one of us?”
Whittingdale: “Absolutely, Prime Minister, a very good supporter.”
Thatcher, of course, would be gone within two months, a brutal reminder of the old maxim that all political careers end in failure. I, for one, remain thrilled to live in a country where we are all free to laugh when they do.
Kirsty McNeill is a writer, former Downing Street adviser and a strategy consultant for campaigning organisations. She tweets @kirstyjmcneill