Global Stewarts

Graphic by Nama Khalil.

Graphic by Nama Khalil.

Jon Stewart, the premier political satirist of his generation, is one of a kind. Or is he?

In this survey of the Global Stewarts, Foreign Policy In Focus goes around the world to find the comics who would be Jon Stewart. It’s an interesting mix: a surgeon, a superhero, a mimic. In some cases, Stewart would welcome the comparison. But at least in one case, that of a French anti-Semite, Stewart would meet the anti-Stewart.

In all cases, however, these global Stewarts are challenging orthodoxy and making people uncomfortable. Gadflies have never been funnier.

Canada

Rick Mercer is the host of CBC Television’s The Rick Mercer Report, a weekly half-hour comedy news show combining parody, sketch comedy, politics, and editorials in the style of The Daily Show and Canada’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Mercer has interviewed several prominent Canadians, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and the former Leader of the Opposition, the late Jack Layton. Considered by some to be left-leaning, Mercer notably urged young Canadians to vote in the 2011 Canadian election.

Among his several accolades, Mercer has received over 20 Gemini Awards for his television work, as well as several honorary university degrees.

Mercer famously asked former President George W. Bush about his response to being endorsed by Canadian Prime Minister “Jean Poutine.” Of course, the prime minister at the time was Jean Chretien. Canada has a fast-food item called “Poutine” (originally from Quebec), which is an order of fries topped with cheese curds and brown gravy. Mercer’s “Jean Poutine” joke played masterfully on the widespread impression that the former U.S. president had a generally limited curiosity about the outside world.

China

Zhou Libo became a huge hit in Shanghai and the surrounding area in 2008. His material has focused on finding the humor in the trivial details of life. But he has also taken aim at difficult periods of the past, such as the earlier days of rigid economic planning. And he is willing to make barbed comments about current Chinese political life as well: “The difference between labor unions in China and in foreign countries,” he has quipped, “is that the Chinese ones organize people to watch movies together and foreign ones organize strikes.”

One of the popular segments on Zhou’s talk show involves his mimicry of the four generations of Chinese leaders — Mao, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Wen Jiabao — and how they would react to certain situations, such as the collapse of the stock market. Whenever he performs, Zhou is careful to present himself as a Chinese nationalist, which perhaps makes his political commentary more acceptable to the authorities.

Egypt

Bassem Youssef, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is a political satirist who took to the airwaves of the country’s fledgling democracy. What started off as five-minute webisodes on YouTube during the Egyptian revolution turned into a fresh kind of programming for Egyptian television. His show, Al Bernameg (The Program), now appears on Egyptian satellite broadcaster ONtv.

Bassem had long been a fan of The Daily Show since he first saw it while on a visit to the United States. He longed for an Egyptian version of the show, but it would have been impossible prior to the revolution due to the nature of state-controlled television. Youssef describes his show as “the ghetto version of Jon Stewart,” but is currently trying to raise the funds to expand his show to include a live audience. It would be the first show of this kind in the Arab world. On June 21, 2012, Yousself finally appeared on the The Daily Show, where Stewart called Al Bernameg “sharp and well-executed.”

France

Dieudonné (“God-given”) M’Bala M’Bala is a black comedian and political activist in France. He performs live comedy in theaters throughout central Paris and frequently appears on radio shows. Although his comedy career began alongside his Jewish childhood friend Elie Semoun, Dieudonné is perhaps best known today as a vocal anti-Semite. In 2007, he ran for president on an anti-Zionist “utopian-anarchist” ticket. He is passionate about struggles of indigenous people throughout the world, especially Pygmy children in Cameroon (his father’s country of origin).

In recent years Dieudonné has fostered a close relationship with Jany Le Pen, who is married to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of France’s ultra-right-wing and anti-immigrant National Front party. Ironically, Dieudonné entered French politics during the 1990s to combat the National Front’s racist agenda.

According to The New Yorker, “Dieudonné’s humor is rooted in an intense, anthropological examination of French society that goes far beyond mocking Jews. A brilliant mimic, he manages to transform himself, in a few deft gestures, into dozens of characters. His shows, which are usually sold out, aren’t primarily attended by young minority men or skinhead rabble-rousers but by hip middle-class white Parisians; many seem to be couples.”

India

Launched in August of 2009, JayHind! (translation: “to India!”) became the first late-night comedy sketch show in India to appear exclusively to Internet audiences. Since its launch, JayHind!’s website has been viewed over 100 million times. Its YouTube channel boasts over 16 million total views. The network’s numbers are all the more impressive considering India’s culture of social propriety.

JayHind! owes much of its popularity to its charismatic anchor, Sumeet Raghavan, an actor-turned-comedian who is India’s self-proclaimed “most offensive humorist.” Indeed, Raghavan’s comedy is outrageous, edgy, and unapologetic. He has been known to dis India’s famous literary icon, Salman Rushdie (who “got into trouble for another boring epic”), the food served on Indian domestic airlines (“so toxic that it has altered the structure of my DNA”), and Indian culture more generally.

Much of Raghavan’s humor is politically focused. In a recent episode of his new show, The Late Night Show (which, unlike JayHind!, is broadcast to TV audiences), Raghavan rips into Italian politicians for “liking Swiss Bank accounts but apparently not being good at remembering such large prime numbers” (a jab at Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who reportedly stole funds from the Italian treasury). Raghavan continues his stand up by claiming that Berlusconi and his colleagues “are more comfortable with the number of their IQs. Yes, they like double digits, including inflations.”

Of course, as Raghavan is Indian, jokes about Pakistan are common. “Have you heard about their political situation?” he rhetorically asks in one particularly provocative sketch. “It’s been the same for forty years: fucked.”

Ireland

Formerly a law student in Ireland, Keith Farnan worked in a public defender’s office in Georgia and on a prisoner innocence advocacy project before becoming a comedian. His “Cruel and Unusual” tour highlights the dangerous iniquities embedded within the U.S. justice system, particularly concerning the use of capital punishment, which he calls “barbaric.” Farnan also lends a healthy outside perspective on how the rest of the world views U.S. politics.

Farnan’s routines are insightful and sarcastic toward contemporary society and its values. He meets the issues he addresses with seriousness underneath the slapstick aspects of his routines. Farnan’s standup is sharp, ironic, and certainly not always politically correct, but it drives the point home. “You can hang someone, shoot them, electrocute them and poison them,” he has said. “But under no circumstances should you have someone executed by dropping a giant jelly bean on their head, by a dwarf, in a penguin suit. Because that’d be cruel… and unusual.”

Italy

beppe-grillo-movimento

An Italian organization known as the Five Star Movement is leading the fight against the European austerity and hyper-democracy movements. At the head of the party, which recently won the Parma mayoral elections, is the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo.

He’s been called the Italian Michael Moore, and he’s been the subject of a 2008 documentary The Beppe Grillo Story from Al Jazeera. His Five Star Movement blog, started in 2005, was an honoree at the 14th annual Webby Awards. Grillo’s comedy carries an anti-political message, but his politics have been gaining momentum. Indeed, although Grillo insists he is more interested in good government than politics, his anti-consumerist, web-based campaign —deemed too radical by more traditional Italian politicians — is starting to hit home with voters, with 18 percent of the population currently supporting the Five Star Movement.

Despite all the hullabaloo, there is still some mystery surrounding this profane politician and comedian with a bear-like stage presence. Grillo himself cannot seek office, due to an incident in the 1980s in which he was convicted of manslaughter.

Japan

hikari-ota

Japanese television, while full of social satire, offers little in the way of political humor. Most performers, even the widely popular stand-up comedians, avoid political topics. Breaking the mold is the weekly prime-time comedy Hikari Ota: If I Became Prime Minister, starring Hikari Ota.

In the show, Ota presents a bill in the form of an impassioned speech to Parliament. The bill is often radical, even ridiculous. Ota then presides as prime minister over the proceedings as guests, including actual politicians and entertainers, debate the merits of the bill, however silly it may be. Bills that are approved by the assembly are actually proposed to the Diet of Japan.

Ota’s approach may seem mild by American standards, but in Japan, the show sends strong messages about controversial topics – like one skit featuring a parody of the Japanese prime minister saying “no” to an American president. Many of Ota’s speeches deal with controversial national and international issues, and though the tone of the show may be light, the discussions are often profound. Ultimately, though Ota’s job requires perhaps more finesse than that of the average American comedian, he manages to make people laugh while subtly pushing a reexamination of widely held political views.

Nigeria

Ikenna Azuike is a very funny member of the Nigerian diaspora. Azuike’s “What’s Up Africa” video blog has been growing in popularity since its inception in early 2011. Broadcast from the Netherlands, WUA covers what’s hip, outrageous, and politically important in sub-Saharan Africa.

Azuike’s program combines the flashiness of Ray William Johnson’s video blogs and the cheeky satire of The Daily Show, his top two inspirations. Although he speaks about Africa from afar, this bold comedian proves his savvy for policy and African pop culture in every episode. “WUA is not just about pointing out good stuff,” he says. “I use my show to be critical about serious issues, and comedy is undoubtedly a powerful tool to change people’s attitudes.”

Pakistan

Umer Shareef is a Pakistani stand-up comedian as well as a stage, film, and television actor. Shareef rose to fame due to his dynamic stage presence and spirited sense of humor. His stage shows are considered among the most popular in Pakistan.

Shareef is a master of improvisation, to the consternation of many of his directors. But his improv chops have proven useful for hosting his own program, The Shareef Show, where he interviews a variety of celebrity guests from the worlds of film, television, music, fashion, sports, and politics. The Shareef Show stands out not just because of its impressive guests but also for Shareef’s willingness to challenge Pakistan’s rich and famous with the most audacious questions. Shareef does not censor himself and jokes about anything and anyone. Here is one example of an old joke that is considered still hilarious: “Why do women die less? They wear so much make-up that when they take it off at night, the angel of death fails to recognize them.”

Russia

Victor Shenderovich has been a thorn in the side of Russian governments going back to the Yeltsin period. From 1994 to 2002, he was the mastermind behind Kukly – or “dolls” – which was the Russian version of the British political satire Spitting Images. In both shows, puppets represented prominent political figures.

The government of Vladimir Putin didn’t take to Shenderovich’s satire and shut the show down. Shenderovich went on to host several other TV programs before ending up as a columnist for the liberal newspaper The New Times. He was a prominent backer of the anti-Putin rallies that mobilized tens of thousands of people in Moscow last year. When Putin said that he would send a representative to debate his political opponents, Shenderovich quipped that such a strategy was comparable to asking a friend to fulfill your marital duties with your wife. Ironically, Shenderovich was caught in a sex sting rumored to have been set up by the Kremlin, an embarrassment that ultimately did little to tarnish his reputation.

South Africa

South Africa has recently produced a number of comedians, but the comedic duo of Nik Rabinowitz and Tats Nkonzo stands out with its blend of risqué banter and hilarious musical numbers. Together, their performance is both hysterical and healing for the country. The two artfully maintain a connection with their audiences through their jokes and music while tackling the kinks of post-apartheid racial tensions and stereotypes. Rabinowitz and Nkonzo see themselves, according to a profile in Digital Journal, “as the watchdogs of society in South Africa, pointing fingers and exposing the absurdity of the rigid mindset.”

South Korea

In Teletubbies of Yeoido, a recurring segment on Saturday Night Live Korea, four characters resembling the Teletubbies stand in for different political factions: the president, the conservative party, the liberal party, and a character that changes every week. Up in the sky, instead of a baby’s face, the sun features the image of President Lee Myung Bak. The characters often use direct quotes from political events. Yeoido is where the Korean parliament meets, and these political Teletubbies are constantly in conflict, fighting with one another and whining about everything.

Tunisia

In the days of the revolution, at the height of protests in Tunisia, an iconic photograph showed a man single-handedly defying anti-riot police with a baguette held like a machine gun. This image inspired a new Tunisian character, Captain Khobza (bread, in Arabic). Captain Khobza wears the traditional fez hat, a red superman cape, and a mask. He has a cigarette dangling from his lips and carries a French baguette everywhere he goes.

tunisia-protester-baguette-cigarette

Captain Khobza’s appearance is cartoonish, but his French baguette strikes a deep chord in the country’s popular and political culture — he has already attracted some 200,000 Facebook followers. In a series of YouTube videos, Captain Khobza injects political satire into Tunisian press. He pokes fun at members of government and other powerful people in the country. There was no place for satire in the old dictatorship. The emergence of Captain Khobza’s satiric humor is symbolic of a changing society that no longer fears to let its voice be heard.

United Kingdom

A graduate of Cambridge, Mark Watson rose to stardom in 2001 after wowing audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Although not technically Welsh (Watson was born in Bristol to Welsh parents), Watson is known for adopting a Welsh accent in many of his skits, as the comedian has stated that he is “more comfortable talking in a voice that I don’t recognize as my own.” Watson has appeared on numerous radio shows, including the BBC Radio 4, has written three novels, and is the star of Mark Watson Live, a DVD collection of his most popular stand-ups. He has also performed at the Apollo.

Although Watson’s comedy focuses on topics from bottled water to England’s weather, his funniest—and best—stand-ups are politically focused. Watson has said that the book that has influenced him most is George Orwell’s 1984, because “it still has political resonance 50 years on.” In one routine, Watson muses about what he would do if he were Prime Minister, declaring an affinity for “Cabinet meetings in a 20-seater Jacuzzi and a £500 fine for annoying ringtones.” And how, might you ask, would Watson as PM respond to a challenge from a younger, more fit political rival? “An enormous smear campaign is the usual tactic, I think. I’m pretty active on Twitter, so I’d probably start there. By the end of the day he’d be ruined.”

Venezuela

The Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez has been accused of many things, but a sense of humor about itself has never been among them. In addition to tightening controls on unfriendly news outlets, the Chavez government has cracked down in recent years on a variety of entertainment media, including web sites and television program deemed disrespectful of the regime.

The three founders of Chigüire Bipolar, however, have soldiered on undeterred. Named for a canine-sized rodent native to South America, the satirical website draws inspiration from U.S.-based outfits like The Colbert Report and The Onion to skewer Chavez and other Latin American leaders with phony news stories and parody cartoons. In 2010, the site published a viral cartoon parodying the television show Lost in which various Latin American leaders were stuck on a desert island together. According to The New York Times, the video “depicts Mr. Chávez and Bolivia’s leftist president, Evo Morales, as star-crossed lovers who dine on American bald eagle. Colombia’s right-wing president, Álvaro Uribe, comes across as a prude, and Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as a temptress who entrances Brazil’s Mr. da Silva. King Juan Carlos of Spain makes an appearance in which his dentures fall into the sea.”

Though the website is fond of ridiculing Chavez’s self-importance and blustery style, it has also poked fun at a number of anti-Chavez figures — including media executive Alberto Federico Ravell, the father of one of the site’s founders.

For its part, the Chavez government has characterized the trio as “anti-Chavez drug addicts.” But with Chigüire Bipolar’s web traffic beating out major outlets like the Caracas daily El Nacional, more than a few Venezuelans may be addicted too.

FPIF contributors Giorgio Cafiero, Peter Certo, Erin Chandler, Yunping Chen, Eric Cheng, John Feffer, Miriam Hauser, Boseul Jeong, Nama Khalil, Gabriel Rossman, and Brent Soloway contributed to this collection.