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The Case for Political Comedy in International Development

Political and news satire media of all forms have changed the United States. From satirical talk shows to sketch comedy, this broad genre has inspired critical thought and produced a new generation of comedians. In short, satirical programming has become part of America’s social fabric.

Jon Stewart, arguably political satire’s most popular front man, was routinely voted America’s most trusted journalist, including in a 2009 online poll administered by no less than the far less satirical TIME magazine. The academic research on the effects of political comedy’s flag-bearers, such as Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, documents its positive impact on the highly coveted 18-35 year-old demographic. These shows complemented rather than transplanted traditional news. Consistently, they have challenged fans to think critically about mainstream political and news discourses, improved viewers’ confidence to understand current affairs, and prompted their audiences to participate in political activities.

So if news and political satire has so much to offer a healthy democracy, more should be done in the international development community to exploit this popular media genre. Simply put, it’s a proven tool for democratic engagement. All of its outcomes are consistent with the aims of international development.

The importance of satire made headlines in 2015 when the U.S. lost its leading satirist voices from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Nobody expected a replacement of Colbert’s right-wing pundit character, and Stewart was succeeded by South African comedian, Trevor Noah. Pundits, academics and politicians alike lauded Stewart for bringing a much needed commentary to American news. Having evolved from America’s increased mixture of entertainment and information talk shows, news and political satire has demonstrated its ability to come in many shapes and sizes.

While Stewart embodied the sensible newsman speaking truth to political and mainstream media powers, Colbert crafted his show around an egotistical right-wing buffoon. Former Daily Show correspondents John Oliver, Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee have advanced the genre further in their own political comedy spin-offs. For instance, John Oliver has built episodes around investigative journalism segments in which he devotes 15-20 minutes of in-depth coverage to one topic.

Such talent, of course, is not exclusive to the west. Dr. Bassem Youssef, popularly referred to as the Jon Stewart of Egypt, quit his day job as a cardiac surgeon when his satirical take on Egypt’s 2011 revolution made him a media sensation. His show Al Bernameg was a critical success with up to 40 million TV viewers per week, according to the host CBC channel. However, after a series of government intimidations and broadcast suspensions that limited the operating environment in Egypt, Dr. Youssef ended the show and fled to the U.S. in 2014 as a Harvard Professor.

Given the political constriction faced in Egypt, it’s no surprise that Al Bernameg was suffocated. In 2013, Egypt was rated as Not Free by Freedom House’s Global Press Freedom Rankings, and in 2012, Egypt ranked 166th out of 179 countries in Reporter’s Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. The main challenge satire faces in emerging markets isn’t a lack of talent; it’s a lack of political space.

But not all TV markets are so limited.

For instance, despite press freedom being rated as Not Free by Freedom House, Kyrgyzstan is considered more open due to other democratic strengths. In 2013, I had the privilege of working with local comedians and filmmakers in creating the country’s — in fact the region’s — first-ever news and political satire TV show, Studio 7. Supported by innovative actors in local TV and international development, the show hooked young people through satire to learn about current affairs. Censorship wasn’t a problem, politicians were happy to be guests, and such issues as corruption, language legislation and frequent power outages were satirized. The laughs came. The country noticed. The world kept revolving.

This story evidences that satirical news can have significant traction in more tolerant environments while being tailored to local issues and senses of humor. In South Africa, the Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola started satirizing post-apartheid issues in 2010 and earned an International Emmy Almanac nomination for Best Comedy in 2013. In Armenia, the satirical news show ArmComedy brought a new media perspective to the local Presidential campaign coverage in 2013. And Kambiz Hosseini has been satirizing the Iranian regime for years through TV shows and podcasts.

All international development carries with it some risk. Some may shy away from satire out of concern of provoking extreme responses, such as in the tragic Charlie Hebdo attacks. Yet news and political satire distinguishes itself from such forms by respecting societal sensitivities, basing its comedy on journalistic integrity and fact-checking, and not alienating audiences. Satirical news can thrive when the production team has a touch of tenacity, their mission is to entertain and inform, and the political climate is right.

The internet of things is reshaping the TV landscape and providing new means for innovative marketing strategies and viewer engagement. Because the political comedy genre appeals to male and female audiences from 18-35 years-old, shows can generate marketing revenues from its valuable fan base, thereby serving as a model for creating financially and editorially independent media programs.

Moreover, sites like YouTube and Facebook allow viewers to watch and comment on episodes, and apps like Snapchat can diversify media distribution strategies. What's more, Twitter hashtag campaigns can create interactive opportunities for citizens to weigh in on important issues. All of this means satire media, if programmed cohesively, can promote media development across multiple platforms.

International development has a strong track record in catalyzing change through education and entertainment (edutainment) soap opera programming in radio, TV and web media, which is laudable. But while popular and effective, not all segments of society watch soap operas. And traditional news talk shows can be tired, unappealing, or downright suspect to many youth. In the end, young people gravitate toward satire. Just as traditional forms of entertainment and information evolve and expand, so too should the formats used by the international development community to reach different demographics.

Of course, there are limitations to every development initiative: news and political satire favors communities with internet access; fans tend to be better educated; and enhanced critical thought is a tricky outcome to measure. But the potential of this genre is undeniable.

In a 2015 interview, The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah explained the integral relationship between democracy and comedy in his native South Africa. “Comedy really only became a thing once we got democracy. The two sort of go hand-in-hand,” he said.

With such a mutually reinforcing dynamic, satire can be a boon for international development. Satire may rely somewhat on open democracy; but so too does democracy rely on satire. If those of us who are invested in development’s grand aims fail to see that crystal clear opportunity, the joke’s on us.


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