Image: ModoGráfico

“Let’s see, how do we make things funny?”

That’s a question all comedians ask themselves. But a Venezuelan comedian needs to ask himself another question: how do we keep making things funny?

Venezuela is flooded with bad and sad news. Everywhere we look, we see migrants on foot, testimonies of hunger, suicides, or something even worse: Maduro making decisions. Entertainment spaces like social media, are no longer places to relax. Twitter is a pharmacy, Instagram and Facebook are catalogs of gofundmes for people with diseases, and WhatsApp is your tía’s hallway for rumors and cadenas that result in anxiety and despair.

A comedian has to make people laugh within that context. It’s not difficult, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a delicate matter indeed.

A comedian has to make people laugh within that context. It’s not difficult, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a delicate matter indeed.

Last week, firemen Carlos Varón and Ricardo Prieto were imprisoned in Mérida for mocking Nicolás Maduro. They could face up to 20 years in prison for inciting hate after comparing “His Majesty” to a donkey. This is absurd and sad news, but that doesn’t make it any less real. It makes us feel we live in a spine-chilling comedy. How’s a comedian supposed to make people laugh, if the news are sad, scary jokes?

Humor is a defensive process that keeps us from suffering, psychologists say. It can contribute to our physical and mental health and help us adapt to life’s challenges. If we can’t change a situation that produces pain, we can always change our attitude towards disgrace. Famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl says: “Humor is one of the soul’s weapons in search for its survival; it gives it a proper distance toward its own suffering”. This comes from a man who survived the Holocaust and repeatedly faced humiliation.

Does this mean that our sense of humor helps us adapt because Venezuelans can’t take anything seriously?

Does this mean that Venezuelan sense of humor, the chalequeo and mamadera de gallo, help us adapt to the generalized collapse and growing crisis because Venezuelans can’t take anything seriously? It could, if this great political weapon backfires. But it could also help us conquer freedom, if we use it properly.

According to Freud, “Humor is not resigned, it’s rebellious”, and Hannah Arendt thinks the same way. She argues laughter is subversive and it’s “the best way to undermine authority”. Other psychologists say humor against oppressive men is a way to preserve the moral cohesion of the group, a sense of hope and self-respect. Powerful men know this, and they don’t find it funny at all. They understand the political power laughter represents.

Laughter is a liberating emotion. It releases endorphins, the neurotransmitter of pleasure, and decreases cortisol, the hormone of stress. When we laugh, we feel good. It’s an indisputable threat to an illegitimate government that knows his power relies on fear. Maduro wants us to be scared of him. If we are, we’re easy to control. If we laugh at him, we despise his questioned “authority” and overcome fear.

This means those two firemen did a better job making Maduro a less powerful man than the Asamblea Nacional declaring he abandoned his post.

Maduro wants us to be scared of him. If we are, we’re easy to control. If we laugh at him, we despise his questioned “authority” and overcome fear.

Laughter can make society bond through its feelings against illegitimate power, if the joke points it in that direction. It’s known that anger and outrage are big emotions that fuel political movements and change. But can humor mobilize us politically? Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson says that positive emotions like laughter and hilarity can “amplify the individual’s focus of attention, allowing a more flexible and creative way to resolve conflict”. So yes, humor can help us change, but only if we build a political discourse around it.

Think of Nanette, the Hannah Gadsby Netflix stand-up comedy special, which is a political statement on feminism and social justice. She says “laughter is not our medicine, stories hold our cure”, and I think she’s right. In that special, she mocks her lesbian looks as she admits she’s quitting comedy because she’s tired of humiliating herself in order to make people laugh. In the end, she reveals her rape story and her criminalization for being gay in her conservative hometown in Tasmania.  

This special caused such a revolt, that she decided not to quit comedy. She earned a bigger audience and increased the focus towards a political movement. That’s no joke.

To be fair, her comedy special is not that funny. Netflix set us up. It’s not a comedy special, but a political one. She uses humor to communicate her ideas better, but the whole point of her speech is to move people. Conmoción is the word I’m looking for. The etymology of commotion in Spanish has two levels: on an individual level, it means to cause deep and strong feelings, but on a social level it suggests political activities: agitation, violent movement, to disturb, to move, to stir up.

All this means a good political joke is one that reveals the indignity of the object of the joke; and a great political joke is one that reinforces our anger at the object of the joke. Political humor needs to take itself seriously.

A good political joke is one that reveals the indignity of the object of the joke; a great political joke is one that reinforces our anger at the object of the joke.

As writer Malcolm Gladwell points out, “Satire works best when the satirist has the courage to go beyond the joke”. A good example of this: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and his final speech.

How can humor help us do politics in our funny but sad country, where we laugh so we don’t cry? We need political speeches that move us and make us feel solidarity towards people’s suffering, but we also need a good sense of humor to defend our psyche from state terrorism. But, could politicians start doing politics through humor? Are the diputados going to welcome a donkey to the National Assembly on January 2019 to hear his annual Memoria y Cuenta?

Beware, diputados: don’t actually do it! And SEBIN: please, it’s just a joke.

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