Trump tweets against Saturday Night Live but Saddam Hussein ordered his satirists dead. The powerful see danger in humour, writes Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.

Even in Iraq in 2003, with Saddam Hussein still in power, with US bombings about to begin, comedian Mahir Hassan could find a reason to laugh: Saddam Hussein himself. Hassan told his favorite Saddam joke to the Guardian in March 2003: "Saddam is addressing a convention of the blind in Baghdad on the eve of the American attack. He tells them: 'God willing, you will see our victory.'"

Saddam ordered assassins to kill the entire cast

Hassan was one of Iraq’s most famous comedians, but he could only dare to lob his political humour from Northern Iraq, which was under Kurdish control. Hassan had become infamous for producing a comedy film sending up Saddam in the 1990s after the Kurds had taken the north, relaxing restrictions on freedom of expression – at least a bit. Hassan recruited his Hussein lookalike friend, Goran Faili, to play the reviled leader. In the film, 50 Kurdish guerillas hired to play Iraqi soldiers marched around singing Long live Saddam in a parody of the TV propaganda Hussein’s regime regularly aired. Faili’s Saddam was a rambling madman, with an emphasis on the leader’s Tikrit accent and slow movements.

When the film aired on Kurdish television, it was a hit. Saddam ordered assassins to kill the entire cast. Faili spent years in hiding and survived several attempts on his life. Kurdish authorities eventually arrested the would-be assassins, who were apprehended carrying a list of their targets.

Trump's election has rekindled the idea that comedy can speak truth to power

Hassan and Faili’s willingness to take grave risks for a bit of satire shows how vital the right to political comedy is to freedom. Throughout history, comedy has proven to be one of the most effective forms of resistance, especially for those under tyrannical rule; comedians can claim they were just kidding, after all, or subtly mock a leader without naming him or her. It’s such an important release valve for any society that even some medieval monarchies made room for the masses to laugh at their leaders during the annual Feast of Fools, in which masters served slaves and peasants played at leadership positions, led by an appointed Lord of Misrule as king.

The right to laugh at leaders has been taken for granted in longstanding democracies such as the US and the UK, but the election of Donald Trump as the United States’ new president appears to have renewed interest not just in speaking truth to power but poking fun at it too. 

Laughing bigly

When Trump’s victory first became apparent, many US comedians didn’t want to laugh at all: comedy filmmaker Judd Apatow tweeted on election night, “One thing I do not want to watch right now – comedy about any of this.” The first broadcast of satirical show Saturday Night Live (SNL) after the election featured cast member Kate McKinnon as failed candidate Hillary Clinton seriously singing a mournful version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Even the comedy show didn’t have the heart to laugh.

But since then, as Trump moved towards the White House, US comedians were recalibrating their approach to skewering him. SNL moved from its pre-election strategy of poking fun at his mannerisms and speech – and early in the campaign, even having the candidate on as a host – to a harder hitting approach. In one more recent sketch, he was depicted as a distracted rube too busy preening on social media to take intelligence briefings – and literally being advised by Satan (a depiction of Steve Bannon, the chief executive of Breitbart News). Trump himself noticed the more cynical depiction of him, and live-tweeted his ire (“unwatchable!”) without apparent irony. He’s even suggested that the show might be cancelled soon, despite its 41-year history: “Frankly, the way the show is going now,” he said in a phone interview with the Today show, “who knows how long that show is going to be on?”

While the comedy transition parallels Trump’s transition into office, it’s instructive to look at how comedians around the world have historically taken on those in power, whether their targets were leaders of ostensibly free societies like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi or dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Even Margaret Thatcher, who posed no threat to democracy, inspired an influential ‘alternative comedy’ movement through sheer dislike. One thing’s for sure: the comedy may get bleak, but it never dies. 

Stern faces at the top

Perhaps the most Trumpian figure to precede Trump was Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s on-again, off-again Prime Minister for nine years in total between 1994 and 2011. The similarities are almost overwhelming: Berlusconi was a controversy-stoking populist, a plutocrat with a penchant for pancake makeup, and a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in construction and used it to build a TV empire. And he did not take kindly to any of this being made light of.

In a 2001 interview, Italian TV journalist Enzo Biagi asked comic actor Roberto Benigni what he thought of Berlusconi, who was about to be elected to his second of three terms. Benigni answered with a long, hysterical laugh – a laugh that continued far longer than was natural, so long that Biagi couldn’t help but join in out of sheer discomfort. Benigni finally followed with a monologue: “Who is Berlusconi? He is someone who always wants to be in on the act. He wants to be everywhere. He wants to be the star. There's a meeting, he talks. He goes to a wedding, he wants to be the bridegroom. He goes to a funeral, he wants to be the deceased.” Biagi continued laughing, and Berlusconi noticed. After the leader’s victory, he wielded his newfound power, accusing Biagi of putting public television “to criminal use”; Biagi’s show, Il Fatto, was taken off its network, RAI 1, a government-run channel.

Today’s Russian comedians aren’t so lucky. The country’s only independent TV channel, Dozhd, recently scuttled an animated series called God, How Embarrassing about an angel and two demons who live inside Putin’s head. “They told us it was a step too far,” creator Sasha Filippenko told The Moscow Times earlier this year.

One show devolved from sharp satire to uncritical praise of Putin

When Putin first took power in 2000, comedians freely joked on the air about his KGB background and stern demeanor – not exactly hard-hitting humour. But as he engaged in a power struggle with Russia’s oligarchs, the country’s comedians stepped up their efforts against him with pointed comparisons to Stalin. Soon, and perhaps not coincidentally, the Putin-related comedy slowed to a quiet trickle. A puppet satire called Kukly, which depicted Boris Yeltsin lamenting having begotten such an ugly successor, was pulled from the air. Comedy eventually began focusing on safer targets, such as Putin’s advisers, rather than the president himself. And Russian TV’s longest-running comedy series, Club of the Funny and Witty People – known by the acronym KVN, and airing since 1986 – has devolved from sharp satire to “songs about the great leader,” as Filippenko put it, along with racist, sexist, and xenophobic jokes. Putin is an avowed fan.

Putin may not be known for his humour, but he clearly appreciates the political power of a clown. He will have observed from the sidelines how Trump morphed from a disruptive, entertaining candidate whom no one took seriously to the president of the United States. And Putin has found another ally in none other than a comedian-turned-political leader: Beppe Grillo, co-founder of Italy’s rising Five Star Movement. Grillo, whose network of websites traffics in pro-Putin propaganda, has risen to popularity on an anti-establishment platform like Trump’s, and he celebrated Trump’s victory in his inimitably entertaining style, saying it was “a big f-you to the world.”

After the laughs

With clowns in the ascendant, we may find ourselves, paradoxically enough, in need of some seriously subversive humour. As the case of Muammar Gaddafi shows, only one thing can kill the instinct for political satire: the demise of a dictator. 

 

The Libyan leader made for a dangerous target when he was at the heights of his rule: dissidents were imprisoned, tortured, disappeared and killed from the 1970s through to the 2000s. But comedians’ approach to him shows just how much satire means to oppressed populations – and isn’t nearly as vital to them once they’re freed. Libyan comedians such as Milood Amroni spent decades slipping Gaddafi jokes to the masses before the uprising of 2011 pushed the dictator out of office and ultimately led to his death. Amroni’s sketches avoided naming Gaddafi – a smart move when making fun of a genuinely violent autocrat – but the target was obvious: in one, two military recruits being terrorised by their training officer joke, "This is good practice for when we're bullied by the top commander."

But once Gaddafi’s power faded, Amroni lost interest in needling the leader with humour. "I felt that if I make jokes about Gaddafi they wouldn't be good jokes because he's too weak now and it's not good to make jokes about a weak guy," he told Reuters after the uprising (but before Gaddafi’s death). In fact, Amroni added that the sudden cultural freedom meant that anyone on TV and radio, or even civilians, could openly joke about Gaddafi, so he no longer needed to. "We've never been in this sort of situation, to talk openly about politics, to make jokes about politicians," he said. “Now the people are making the jokes and we're laughing.”

So the next time you notice that the laughter has gone quiet, it probably means one of two things: either freedom reigns supreme, or a despotic leader has silenced it.

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