Tickling Giants: How Comedy & Satire Can Challenge Politics

To learn more about how satire and comedy can influence politics, I spoke to Dr. Bassem Youssef (whose story is told in the film ‘Tickling Giants,’ by Sara Taksler), Hasan Minhaj (host and creator of the weekly comedy show Patriot Act on Netflix) and Prof. Amber Day (author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate).

I looked at the airport building, then back to Cairo’s skyline.  I wondered if this would be the last time I set eyes on it.  How did it come to this? Why did I have to flee, while tyrants and thieves got to stay? I didn’t steal, didn’t abuse my powers, and certainly didn’t hurt anyone.  All I did was tell jokes…”

These are the words of Bassem Youssef, an accomplished heart surgeon who- in the midst of the Egyptian Arab Spring- quit his day-job to become a full-time comedian.  His satirical show, Al Bernameg, quickly became the most viewed television program in the Middle East, with 30 million viewers per episode.

Egypt is a country where free speech, a right many of us take for granted, is not settled in law.  Bassem and his team endured threats of physical violence, protests and legal action, eventually leading to him fleeing Egypt with his family to seek political exile, and safety, in the United States.  All because of a few jokes.

At a time where our even our most liberal democracies are transitioning into oligarchy, where police are becoming militarised, and where the liberal values of tolerance and hope are being upended- it’s more important than ever that we have the mechanisms of satire to observe, challenge and interpret our political leadership.

To learn more about how satire and comedy can influence politics, I spoke to Dr. Bassem Youssef (whose story is told in the film ‘Tickling Giants,’ by Sara Taksler) ), Hasan Minhaj (host and creator of the weekly comedy show Patriot Act on Netflix) and Prof. Amber Day (author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate)

[bios]Dubbed the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” Bassem Youssef was the host of the popular television show Albernameg which was the first political satire show in the Middle East.  Originally presented as five-minute videos on YouTube, Albernameg grew to become the most watched television program across the region, with 30 million viewers tuning in every week.  It received wide acclaim around the world, with coverage on some of the biggest media outlets, topping off with Youssef’s appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in June 2012 and April 2013.  In June 2013, Youssef hosted Jon Stewart on Albernameg in Cairo, marking the second season’s peak.

Some of Youssef’s accolades include being named one of Time magazine’s most influential people of 2013, being recognised by Foreign Policy magazine as a leading global thinker of 2013, and being awarded the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists that same year.

Youssef’s most recent project is Democracy Handbook, a ten-part series exploring topics of democracy on Fusion.net.  Youssef was also a visiting scholar at the Center of Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), Stanford University, and continues to give talks around the United States.

Youssef majored in cardiothoracic surgery, passed the United States Medical License Exam (USMLE), and is a member of the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS).

Hasan Minhaj is the host and creator of the weekly comedy show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj that premiered on Netflix last October. The series, which has won a 2019 Peabody Award, explores the modern cultural and political landscape with depth and sincerity through his unique comedic voice. Minhaj earned rave reviews for his one-hour Netflix comedy special Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King that earned him a 2018 Peabody Award, and for his performance hosting the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The first-generation American joined The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2014 as a correspondent and continued on in that role after Trevor Noah took over through August 2018.

Amber Day is the author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political debate, and the editor of DIY Utopia: Cultural Imagination and the Remaking of the Possible. She has articles in Social Research, Popular Communication, The International Journal of Communication, The Electronic Journal of Communication, Communicazione Politica, and the anthology Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post Network Era. She is editing an anthology titled DIY Utopia. Her research focuses broadly on the intersections of art and political speech, including ironic and satiric communication, political performance and activism, and public debate.[/bios]

Q: How do tyrants and regimes acquire power?

[Bassem Youssef] People have lost their belief in the establishment, they believe that the outsider who would bring anger and chaos is much better than the status quo; even if that is against their own interests.

Fear is a great weapon, and tyrants use fear against their people to encourage them to vote for increases in military spending, even when infrastructure, education and healthcare are suffering.

To create fear, you need an enemy; so those in powers create one.  The enemy could be the establishment, refugees or even the rest of the world.

Creating an enemy gets people to back a cause, even when that cause is false.

Q:  How did comedy come into your life?

[Hasan Minhaj]:  Growing up, I was a speech and debate kid – and I realised that anytime I made the judges laugh, I would automatically get 10-15 points higher on my final score!  Comedy, and making people laugh, has the power to engender empathy and to make people like you – I just hadn’t realised (at the time) that it was an artform… I just thought I was being funny or clever….

When I got to college, a friend of mine showed me a one-hour long Chris Rock comedy special and it was the first time I’d seen something like that – I was watching it and I was like, ‘oh my god, that’s actually just funny speech and debate! Chris is doing speech and debate, but just being funny… presenting an argument… !’

Seeing performers like that made me realise I could do that… I had been doing that.

Q:  Why are people so drawn to comedy?

[Hasan Minhaj]:  Comedy delivers the cerebral and the hyperbole, it can be funny and serious.  You can see that ability for the pendulum to swing both ways when you watch the best comedians perform.

Interestingly, comedy is built on the idea of building pressure…. Building tension and then breaking it… a great punchline cuts after a ton of pressure you build up on a premise, and you know what? That’s just how life works, and perhaps that’s another reason people are so drawn to comedy.

We’re also at a time where political culture has become popular culture – in other words, it’s become a central talking point for everyone… it’s become the water cooler conversation – and political comedy and satire have really come to the fore; I could never have planned it, but that was exactly the timing that worked out for me being at the Daily Show and then launching my own show.

Q: What is the role of comedy in political discourse?

[Bassem Youssef] Comedy chips at people in power, particularly those who use tyrannical power.  It strips their fake respect, and destroys the fake fear they create; and these are people who rely on being respected, and being feared.  They don’t want to be held accountable, questioned or made fun of.

Comedy and satire make the emperor look naked.

Tyrannical and borderline dictatorships are very funny.  To be that tyrannical? To want to be a dictator? To want these things means you have separated yourself into a different world; and in my opinion, that’s very, very funny.

In the United States, satirising political leaders is nothing new.  We see it with Trump, but it has always been there with George W. Bush and many others.  There is an old-tradition, a kind of appointed satire which pushes back against those in power.

[Amber Day] I am originally from Canada, but now live in the United States; and historically the US has not really been known for satire, particularly visual satire.  But there has been an enormous outpouring of really interesting, politically engaged material that has emerged- particularly after 9/11 where the press felt it was almost unpatriotic to be critical of George W Bush.

That was a problem… A lot of hard questions simply weren’t being asked in the lead-up to the Iraq War and it became the satirists who took charge- pointing out the hypocrisies and inconsistencies.

Around the world, our political debate has become choreographed and staged- the PR machine has got really good.  You then have the rise of cable news who made the decision to hire basically political hacks as so-called pundits, who will repeat those talking points.  This creates one thing; drama, you have people having arguments and screaming at each other- but there are no substantive discussions of learnings.  So what’s the truth? It’s just people repeating the narratives and that does a disservice to the public, and to public conversation.

Jon Stewart was one of the first in terms of the televisual satirists to really kind of lead the way in political satire, and he has made a big name of himself for a good reason.  He taught people how to engage in media criticism, in some way.  He would pull back the curtain a little bit and kind of say ‘why is it that this same phrase is being repeated on all of these television stations?’ and he’d put all the footage together and then it looks absurd when you see it back to back to back to back.  He pointed out how those talking points were made and pointed out the way in which that political conversation is being scripted.

There’s a hunger for hearing that critique.  There are a lot of us, not everybody, but a lot of us want to hear that critique being made, and I think it’s coming through the strongest presently, often within the realm of satire.

Q:  How do political leaders respond to satire?

[Amber Day] I think generally, most leaders within political democracies have, no matter what they’ve thought in private, tried very hard to feign disinterest or to even be a good sport and sort of go along with it.  In democracies, we do assume that people have the right to make jokes, and so Donald Trump is clearly interesting, because he’s not afraid to show his thin skin in an odd way (a behaviour that tends to be more the response of autocratic leaders who are very worried about their own particular image).  Trump’s image is so important to him because so much is riding on it, and it’s something that he (and individuals like him) put so much energy into sustaining.  It’s usually more seen in autocratic regimes that you have leaders going after satirists in particular- they may end up saying it’s about them insulting religion or insulting the state and not making it personal but of course it usually is.

Q: Can satire change public attitudes or indeed political outcomes?

[Amber Day] it’s almost impossible to isolate the effect of any one thing and say that a particular show or a particular sketch, caused this massive shift.  That is, I think, a very simplistic way of thinking about satire and thinking about how political citizenship works.

People usually conceptualise satire as a one-to-one action.  The single whatever this pretty good satirist is doing, and this sketch here…. Are they really going to change an election? …the answer to that is usually no, and it’s not usually how satire works.

People aren’t so fickle that they’re sort of massively swayed from one opinion to another by just seeing one text, viewing or reading, satirical or otherwise; even a political speech.

However, popular opinion does shift over time, and culture in general is where that shift happens.  Satire is part of that culture, and I think satire can have real effects but the effects are usually seen in more shifts in the public conversation.  And that may sound unimportant, but satire can bring previously peripheral issues into the mainstream public consciousness, or it can shift the frames that we use for thinking about a particular issue, or give urgency to something that has been there but it’s one of many issues but to kind of pull it out and bring it to the surface and give it some moral weight.

Q: What makes great satire? 

[Amber Day] Satire is contextual, and it has to speak to the particular context of where society is at.  There are activists doing really great satire and there’s film makes who are doing interesting satire for the purpose at hand, but satire is most effective when it pulls back and looks at something more systemic.

I actually make the distinction between political humour and satire.  Political humour is the stuff that goes after personalities and individual politicians and their funny ways they talk and walk and what not.  That stuff is very funny sometimes, but it’s not particularly substantive… okay, that politician might be gone, eventually we’ll get rid of him and there’ll be another peacock.

Good satire really gives us a fresh perspective on things from a bird’s eye view, and it’s not just about the personalities, but about the hypocrisies, the inconsistencies, the parallels that might have gone unnoticed.  Pointing, revealing patterns in the way society or the political structure or political conversation is happening.  And some of the weaknesses there.

Q:  Has technology changed how people consume and engage with comedy?

[Hasan Minhaj]: The rise of hyper-political commentary and culture combined with having massive amounts of connectivity on our mobile devices has created this appetite for content that’s able to distil these huge esoteric topics down into bite-size forms, whether that’s podcasts, explainers or short videos.

Q: How do you personally keep the strength to fight?

[Bassem Youssef] In Egypt, I had my show- that was my job, and I held onto that for strength.  When it was too difficult to me, I couldn’t continue- I’m not a freedom fighter! When there was a genuine threat to my safety, and the safety of those people around me – I stopped the fight.

Q:  What pressure do you feel in your role?

[Hasan Minhaj]:  The biggest pressure I feel is being able to balance the two types of story we have; things that you care about, and things you should care about.  The latter is much harder than the former.

When you think about the things we all care about, those are topics like student loan debts…. Worker conditions at Amazon… Social media….. regulations…. These are the issues where the rubber meets the road…. You care about these things because they affect you directly, you may use the service, be part of the group, whatever it might be….

The things you should care about are tougher sells, and for me it’s much harder to put these topics across in a way that connects them to our day to day lives.   We did an episode on Sudan, we’ve covered the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, the pricing of prescription drugs, oil and climate change…. These are issues that may not obviously affect people’s lives, but they’re still super-important.

I’m proud of the fact that we’re able to cover everything from reselling sneakers, to Saudi Arabia.

Q: Can comedy change people’s perspectives?

[Hasan Minhaj]:  Nothing changes people’s perspectives as organically as interacting with people in their day to day lives.  Popular culture, music, movies, TV shows and artists all have the power to make an impact, to touch people, and stimulate their interests… but nothing will replace human interaction as the source of those, ‘oh wow! I never really considered that…’ moments.

It takes human interaction to change people.

Q:  How do you deal with abuse and criticism?

[Hasan Minhaj]: We have an amazing team, I’m surrounded by brilliant writers, researchers, producers, runners and crew.  And it takes that team working hard together to make the show happen!

I like to create things when it’s really quiet, without the chatter of multiple browser tabs! You have to be able to quiet the noise, and create from an honest place – listening to yourself and your close collaborators.

When we create, we work hard to make sure we’ve crossed our t’s and dotted our I’s so that we are argumentatively accurate.  When we put a piece out to the world, with the news, the jokes, the data, the graphics… all edited together… we’re really proud of it!

What we don’t do is double-back and check in and see what people are saying to pull us away from that sensation of pride.  Digital noise is trying to pull you away from that constantly.  We do everything we can to make each show honest, truthful and as great as we can – and it’s amazing how one comment on twitter can completely mess up your day – and that’s the death of creative flow.

Q: What would be your advice to the next generation?

[Hasan Minhaj]:  Showbusiness is one of the most exciting and terrifying careers you can have (though I think it’s more exciting than terrifying).  Previously, there was a monopoly of gatekeepers that held the keys to you getting a career in the industry – when I started out, there were only so many places you could perform, only so many ways to get a platform… but now? an iceberg has hit and the number of gatekeepers has diminished… there are so many places you can put up your work, and that’s amazing.

This is also an amazing time for diversity.  All 7+ billion of us on the planet are interconnected through the internet, and can connect to an audience.  The notion of mainstream appeal is dead – it’s about finding and cultivating an audience.

We live at a time where every quirk, every community, every point of view has an audience, and you just have to reach them.  There’s no better time to be an artist, and that’s awesome and encouraging.

[Bassem Youssef] You have to question everything, and bring everything out in the open.  You cannot let anyone tell you what to think.

Questioning is the one thing that scares everyone and scares power.  Whether you ask your questions through debate, through comedy or through satire- question everything.

Questioning is the prequel of the revolution.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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