Making Jokes About Egypt

It can’t be easy to write comedy about the stuff that happens around the world. If the President, whose job it is to have opinions about these events, can’t come up with a coherent response to developments in Egypt for a week, think about how hard it must be for comedians to react immediately, to predict what the unformed public opinion will be, and to do it funny. So let’s give credit where it’s due. Overall, the comedy that’s come out of the recent uprising in Egypt has been very impressive. (I’m referring to American comedy about Egypt, of course, not Egyptian comedy, but that may also be doing gangbusters for all we know.)

The challenges facing good foreign comedy are clear. The biggest obstacle is unfamiliar subject matter. By the time a foreign event makes it onto our radar, it tends to already be in crisis mode — whether that be war, uprising, tsunami, or sex scandal. This means that everyone has to get up to speed on something they’ve been ignoring, and quickly. This means cramming. It also means background info, and a discourse on historical context can really drag on the attention span while you’re waiting for a punchline.

Foreign comedy also means a greater demand for invention. When we’re dealing with domestic problems, we can rely on our politicians as stock characters, like recurring characters on SNL. Halfway through a term, jokes about our President are supposed to write themselves. With these international crises, often we are forced to create humor out of nothing. At its least harmful, unfamiliarity can lead to misunderstanding or simplification of the events. At worst, foreign comedy turns to stereotypes, falling back on funny accents or traditional costumes while painting over the issues at hand.

If this bothers you, you probably want to blame it on typical American lack of interest in the world outside our borders, but that isn’t really it. (And also, that’s kind of another stereotype, and also, we’re really busy with all we have going on here so you could cut us a little slack.) To their credit, comedians are always trying to make recurring characters out of international figures, hearkening back to the days when we had reliable enemies to mock. For a while we had Saddam Hussein to kick around, and Osama bin Laden came in and out of fashion over the years before finally slipping away, since at this point all his appearance does is remind us that we never caught him. (Exception that maybe proves the rule: the Daily Show placing Osama in the State of the Union audience last week. “I don’t understand why we didn’t we just grab him?”) This is why comedians keep trying to make fun of Kim Jung Il, he of the funny hats, funny glasses, funny hair, and funny jumpsuits. But North Korea is just one country.

Contrast this with the coverage of events in Egypt, which reacted to events instantly and overwhelmingly in favor of the protesters. Comedians (namely the Daily Show, Craig Ferguson) were already joking about Egypt a week ago, before the story even really went big, while real news organizations were still obsessing over Michelle Bachmann.

Overall, jokes relying on the old Middle-East-as-violent-hellhole stereotype have been rare. Instead, the most pointed jokes ranged from criticisms of Egypt as a puppet regime of the United States (The Onion: U.S. Negotiating Mubarak’s Severance Package) to the inevitable and apt comparisons of Hosni Mubarak with Jay Leno (Jimmy Kimmel, half of Twitter).

The dithering of the U.S. response, both among our leaders and our media, has created some of the most hard-hitting comedy. Take Wednesday night’s interview between Stephen Colbert and Christiane Aman-purr.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Crisis in Egypt
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I particularly enjoyed Fred Armisen’s impersonation of Mubarak on Weekend Update. This has received mixed reviews, because some thought its focus on Time Warner cable was misdirected, but let’s think about that premise some more.

This sketch is comparing apples with apples: there are dictatorships, and there are cable companies. There’s all the suffering that a people must endure under a dictatorship, not to mention the total power and control dictators wield over their population, and then there are the cable companies. It’s helpful to recall America’s worldview up until the war on terror. For most of the twentieth century, at least from World War II through the Cold War, dictatorships were held up by our politicians and in our schools as not just enemies of democracy, but as a force — a metaphysical force — bent on the destruction of freedom itself. They were a personification of evil so totalizing that to die fighting against it would be honored as heroism, even martyrdom. So you have all that, and then you have the cable companies.

Democracy, Leno, cable. It’s all about keeping our problems in perspective.

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.

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