Friday, June 17, 2011

PD: No Laughing Matter?

 But not really. Source
My friends and I recently came across a deadly book called "5,600 Jokes for Every Occasion," whose entries--barely recognizable as humor--would have made the most hackneyed vaudevillian cringe. Here's an example of the sort of hilarious exchanges the book contained:

She: What can I wear to prevent sunburn?
He: A jacket! 

As one of my friends noted, that's not a joke; that's sensible advice. The entire book was filled with these militantly unfunny offerings, prompting me to reflect with sympathy on the plight of the humor-impaired.

That thought was in my head again this week as I read an Atlantic article about Cambodian comedians who double as government mouthpieces. Here's a riotous quote from a popular comedy program cited in the article:
Krem: Phnom Penh municipality now has less garbage and is cleaner. Do you know who did that?
Oeurn: Who?
Krem: It is because of Excellency Kep Chuktema, the governor. He has educated people and broadcast it on television not to litter, so now there is less garbage and no more bad smell.
I apologize if that hilarious punchline made you laugh so hard that you did yourself bodily injury. I myself am so amused I need to wipe off my computer screen due to an unfortunate snarfing incident. No, really. Please go on and tell us more hilarious stories about the government's civil programs! OK, snarking aside, I realize that a great deal of humor is culturally informed, and I will be the last person to claim that I have my thumb on the pulse of the Cambodian humor scene. But can I be alone in thinking the above exchange ... lacking?

According to The Atlantic, this yukfest is a common occurrence in Cambodia, where "comedians" often double as bodyguards for the nation's prime minister. Or, to be more accurate, the government's armed bodyguards frequently perform on comedy programs.

As writer Julia Wallace notes, "The country's dozens of 'colonel comedians' underscore the extent to which [prime minister] Hun Sen and his CPP have consolidated power over the past two decades, successfully marginalizing not just rival politicians but also dissenting artistic and cultural voices."

Because nothing shuts down a heckler faster than a comedian who's packing heat.

The article focuses mostly on the domestic impact of the state-centric "comedy," but there's a takeaway for all people involved in message transmission, be it domestic or international.

On the one hand, it's nice to see that Australian reporters don't have a lock on misdirected attempts at humor, but I do think this is a limited strategy. By all means, use humor to make a point, but propaganda with a punchline falls into a category that's all its own. If I may paraphrase: explaining political policy through a joke is like dissecting a frog; you understand it better, but the frog dies of it.

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