It’s a reliable sign that a society is in trouble when it starts locking up its comedians. Which isn’t to say that the thought didn’t cross my mind once during Comic Relief, but luckily I have no legal authority.
The Egyptian comic Bassem Youssef isn’t so fortunate: after a couple of years performing satirical routines at the expense of religious fundamentalists and Mohamed Morsi, he was arrested on Saturday and bailed after three hours of questioning.
Youssef is probably best known to western audiences as Egypt’s Jon Stewart. He even appeared as a guest on The Daily Show last year, talking about his former career as a heart surgeon and his plans to start recording his own shows in front of a live audience, before having a meltdown when he realised that he was sitting in the same chair that Catherine Zeta-Jones had occupied the previous week.
Youssef’s influence is not in question: his show, El Bernameg, is watched by over 30 million viewers across the Middle East. And while people have complained about his act before, Egypt’s attorney general hasn’t taken legal action until now.
No wonder they fear him. Laughter is the ultimate defiance of repression. When we laugh at something, we’re explicitly saying we aren’t afraid of it. When comedians make millions of people laugh, authority figures get nervous. That’s why the Burmese government jailed Zarganar in 2008 (his 59-year sentence was thankfully cut short in 2011).
But tolerating criticism and mockery is a sign that a society is healthy. No-one likes to be made fun of, but that is the price to be paid for being in a position of power. Mocking those whose daily decisions have an immense impact on our everyday lives is one way of expressing our feelings: we can’t vote politicians out of office every week, and jokes are clearly less destructive than riots. If enough jokes hit the mark, the politician loses face, and sometimes office (though Sarah Palin found a new career as a celebrity pundit).
As comedians grow more serious, the gap between them and the politics they mock disappears. Beppe Grillo has gone from clown to kingmaker in Italy, where his jokes at the expense of his country’s famously corrupt politicians have struck a chord.
Italians voted for him in the last elections, perhaps because they looked at their history books. When the Emperor Nero came to power in 54AD, he tolerated satires from Seneca and Petronius. But as his political position grew weaker, he lost his sense of humour. By 66, both men had been forced to commit suicide. In 68AD, Nero did the same and civil war followed. There are worse things than being the butt of a joke.
There are some news stories which you long to believe, and Cleo Rocos is responsible for this week’s best one. Can it really be true that Freddie Mercury once disguised Princess Diana as a man and snuck her into a gay bar alongside Rocos and Kenny Everett? If it isn’t, it should be.
Freddie Mercury hasn’t let death damage his career: a hologram of him at last year’s Olympic closing ceremony was still more compelling than every living act who performed. And a BBC documentary last autumn reminded viewers just how passionate and funny he was.
Rumours have been flying around for ages that a Freddie Mercury biopic is in the offing, featuring a less miserable Sacha Baron Cohen in the lead role. Fingers crossed this scene is being hastily added to the script.