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Why the President of Venezuela Should Learn to Take a Joke

by Mark Hay

May 20, 2015

Over the past few months, comedians in Venezuela have found it increasingly hard to get new gigs. The bars and clubs they used to frequent are increasingly getting shuttered and their performances are getting canceled. At first blush, this seems like another symptom of the oil-rich nation’s tanking economy, where even essentials have become so rare and expensive that procuring the basics has become almost a full-time job. In this environment of scarcity, comedy might seem like a frivolity. But there’s a demand for comedians in Venezuela, where jokes about toilet paper shortages and the price of water versus the price of oil are seen as therapeutic. The economy is not the problem for these comedians—instead, it’s a hyper-sensitive government, eager to quash criticisms of the once-beloved socialist system set up by the late Hugo Chavez, as it succumbs to external pressures and internal corruption under the regime of his bumbling successor, President Nicolas “Mango” Maduro.

“They think that because we did jokes about Chavez or Maduro, we are going to bring down the government,” local comedian Alex Goncalves recently told National Public Radio.

Although Maduro and his government deny all charges of cracking down on comedians, local funny men like Luis Chataing, Goncalvas, and Laureano Márquez all insist they’re being shut out of government-run venues and denied performance permits in towns run by Maduro supporters. Most are getting by performing at private clubs, in opposition-held towns, and for corporate event audiences, but some have still suffered in incidents that directly seem to implicate the government. Chataing for one, lost his beloved talk show the day after he mocked the government’s persistent claims—always backed up by iffy evidence—that sinister forces were plotting an imminent coup against them. And last year a major political cartoonist got sacked for jokingly depicting the national health care system in shambles—a bit of commentary that was dangerously (for him) on the nose.  

Laureano Márquez, Venezuela's most populat stand-up comedian, has been fined and otherwise pressured by the government for his political humor. Image by the Committee to Protect Journalists via Wikimedia Commons

This comedian crackdown may seem like just one minor element in a larger trend towards iron-fisted authoritarianism in Venezuela. Whether this trend is a desperate reaction by a nation beleaguered by destabilizing forces or just a sign of a failing, once-beloved socialist system under bad new management is a whole different debate. But in truth, the decline of comedy in the nation is like the silence of a canary in a coalmine. Just about as long as we’ve had human society, comedy has been one of the great bastions of critique and dissent, capable of maneuvering even the most treacherous terrain. Its collapse robs people not just of a vital mental vent, but a necessary form of speech and protest.

Many of us have become used to seeing our “socially conscious” and overtly political comedy acts as a chance to withdraw, snarl, or roll our eyes, rather than a stirring call to action. Yet comedy’s original function, in the form of the fool archetype, was expressly political and dissenting. The role of the fool, epitomized in the medieval jester, was to voice concerns that others feared to make in otherwise oppressive societies. The insight of these fools became vital to decision-making processes, as well as the wellbeing and sanity of common peoples who might have otherwise felt themselves stymied and alone. After all, while critiques from an opponent told point-blank can sound bitter and insulting, critiques coming from disconnected observers who take issue with everyone sting a bit less. And for those not directly involved in power structures, but just observing comedy, the spoonful of sugar that is a punch line can make a grim reality feel more amusing and convivial than depressing.

Luis Chataing's satirical news show was canceled just one day after he criticized government paranoia

Historians like to note the direct influence of the jester Jenny von Stockach, who advised the Duke of Austria on war strategy in the 14th century, as an example of fools’ direct political power. But individuals like Charlie Chaplin, whose works made salient-yet-slapstick points on the life of the industrial worker and fascism to wide audiences, had perhaps even more power via their ability to nudge entire societies’ viewpoints around. Sometimes these bids for mass critique backfired, as when some Athenian nobles tried to persecute Aristophanes for his wry critiques of the local political climate in public performances. But throughout history, while occasionally a jester or two did get run through by a saber, a shocking number of fools managed to make important points while escaping any major danger.

While men jumping around in institutionalized motley faded with the decline of those antiquated court systems, modern comedians have carried on the tradition of providing unique insights and influencing the public sphere. Just think of Jon Stewart and his creative progeny, whose contributions have become an indispensible facet of modern news culture, inveighing against and prompting activism on numerous social and political issues. And there are similar comedians tacitly but powerfully contributing to political dialogue and nudging the world of public policy left and right all over the world, even in places where public dialogue and influence seem weak in the face of government control.

“Humor is the last place of liberty,” Venezuelan funnyman Laureano Márquez told NPR. “When you lost freedom [sic] in other places, freedom can be alive in humor.”

President Nicolas Maduro, who doesn't seem very funny. Image by newsonline via Flickr

Attempts to silence Venezuela’s comedians (or censor Brazil’s comedian pundits, Egypt’s Bassem Youssef, Myanmar’s Zarnagar, or any other political jokesters) don’t just constitute a petty move by thin-skinned rulers. The effort is an assault on a major pillar of public discourse, and one that becomes even more important in general environments of censorship and authoritarianism. It’s hard to predict what will happen in a given nation when you take that outlet for discourse and therapy away. Given the overall crumbling of Venezuela, the crackdown doesn’t seem likely to relieve pressure on Maduro and company. Far more likely is that the attempt at censorship will prompt the kind of silenced desperation that spills over into less channeled, more direct, and even violent dissent. The regime probably would’ve been better off growing thicker hides and letting the comedians crack wise about them. But that’s a lesson they’ll have to learn the hard way.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

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Why the President of Venezuela Should Learn to Take a Joke