Life can be cruel, but humorists don’t have to be

Brett Debritz asks: Are people in the Arab world too respectful to embrace the kind of satire popular in the West?

"Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.” So said Tom Lehrer, the Harvard-educated singer-songwriter who is synonymous with the satire movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

Satire – the use of humour to expose folly or vice – certainly became a thing of the past for Lehrer in the 1970s when he gave up a successful showbiz career and returned to what was always his main interest: teaching mathematics, at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

He has since said that his decision to quit the nightclub circuit and stop recording his popular comedy albums was not directly affected by the Vietnam War and America’s role in it, but he acknowledged that the world had certainly moved on since he wrote his first funny song in 1945.

But satire is alive and kicking – or should that be biting? – in many parts of the world in the 21st century – as The Onion website and its imitators can attest.

The problem, as Lehrer recognised, is that the lines between fact and fiction have become blurred. Something that may seem absurd to some people can appear to be perfectly reasonable to others.

So it was in 2012, when the Chinese newspaper People's Daily carried a story from The Onion naming North Korean leader Kim Jong-un the "sexiest man alive" as a real news item.

Hopefully nobody took it seriously back in 1729 when Jonathan Swift – the author of Gulliver's Travels – published A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. Its grisly argument is that the poor in Ireland should sell their babies to rich people – as food.

Swift's intention was to highlight a pressing social problem in an attention-grabbing manner. It worked. A Modest Proposal is still read as an exemplar of English-language satire.

By the 1960s, satire was being used as a tool to pillory those in high places, and especially those with political power. In Britain, it was championed by David Frost, who later became known for his controversial interviews with Richard Nixon, with the groundbreaking television programme, That Was the Week That Was.

Around the same time, the comedian Peter Cook and others launched Private Eye magazine, which continues to publish a mix of parody and investigative journalism to this day.

In the US, Lehrer's baton was taken up by the recently-retired Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and it is still being carried by his proteges Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.

But what about this part of the world? My Arab friends certainly love to laugh, and there are a few well-known observational stand-up comics from the Middle East, but there seems to be no strong tradition of political satire.

Bassem Youssef, nicknamed "the Egyptian Jon Stewart", hosted a satirical television show Al Bernameg for just three seasons, until it ran into a series of legal difficulties and ended last year. For a number of reasons, it just didn't work.

One of those reasons, I believe, is that people in important positions, much like senior family members, are afforded greater respect in Arabian culture than they are in the West.

In the 1980s British TV series Spitting Image, famous figures of the day were presented as puppets with grotesquely large facial features. One satirical show I saw in Australia parodied a female politician by putting a man in a wig and a dress covering a fat suit. The only "humour" they could find, it seems, was by exaggerating her size.

If it’s considered funny to criticise somebody purely based on their physical appearance, then perhaps this part of the world is better off without that particular form of cruelty.

Here, people take a gentler approach. There are, after all, plenty of things to laugh about in life without getting personal.

On Twitter: @debritz