The power of satire

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Krista Kafer

Satire is more than funny; it’s sub­ver­sive. From the fifth-cen­tury Greek play­wright Aristo­phanes to “Satur­day Night Live,” Voltaire to Stephen Col­bert, satirists ex­pose folly, cor­rup­tion, and hypocrisy.

Whether through a late night tele­vi­sion joke, an “SNL” skit, an edi­to­rial car­toon, or a bit of cheeky po­lit­i­cal theater, satire pro­vides a voice and a re­spite for the frus­trated. Satire can also in­spire the sat­i­rized to change. Laugh­ter, like a spoon­ful of sugar, helps the medicine go down. Whether we find it funny or not, satire is pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal speech that should not be taken for granted.

Case in point: The In­de­pen­dence In­sti­tute filed a new bal­lot ini­tia­tive, called Fix Our Damn Roads, to re­quire the Colorado leg­is­la­ture to al­lo­cate ex­ist­ing funds in the state bud­get to pay for roads rather than raise taxes. With a wink and a smile, the ges­ture sends a more pow­er­ful mes­sage than a pol­icy white pa­per could.

Con­ceiv­ably, the Fix Our Damn Roads ini­tia­tive could make its way through the com­pli­cated process to get on the bal­lot and pro­vide a com­pet­ing so­lu­tion to a sales tax in­crease ini­tia­tive. So is it a threat or a satir­i­cal ob­ject les­son? Prob­a­bly the lat­ter. Jon Cal­dara, the In­sti­tute’s pres­i­dent and mas­ter of po­lit­i­cal theater, has said he’d pre­fer the leg­is­la­ture do the right thing, as he sees it, and can the tax in­crease. Is it work­ing? Is it a co­in­ci­dence that law­mak­ers are now con­sid­er­ing other leg­isla­tive op­tions to the tax in­crease?

Law­mak­ers may not be laugh­ing, but what can they do? Joel Warner, the Colorado-based au­thor of “The Hu­mor Code” (along with Univer­sity of Colorado pro­fes­sor Peter Mc­Graw), notes that, “In times and places where other means of re­sis­tance and op­po­si­tion are hard to come by, satire has proven to be a po­tent tool. Skill­ful satire leaves its tar­gets in a no-win sit­u­a­tion: They ei­ther have to look the other way as peo­ple ridicule them, or com­plain about it, thereby prov­ing they can’t take a joke.”

In the face of satire, law­mak­ers can grouse about it, per­haps via Twit­ter (Over­rated satire! Sad!), ig­nore the joke, or change di­rec­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, there’s an­other op­tion: si­lence the court jester. There are many places around the world where speak­ing truth to power, even obliquely through satire, is not tol­er­ated. Free­dom of speech is not a right but a privilege ex­tended to those who con­form to gov­ern­ment ex­pec­ta­tions.

On Tues­day, Den­ver’s Mayan Theatre will fea­ture a screen­ing of “Tick­ling Gi­ants,” the story of Bassem Youssef, the “Egyp­tian Jon Ste­wart” who dared lam­poon Egypt’s dic­ta­tors and state-con­trolled press. The film tracks Youssef ’s jour­ney from heart sur­geon and part-time YouTube po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor to the talk show host with the most pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion pro­gram in the Mid­dle East, av­er­ag­ing 30 mil­lion view­ers per episode. Through hu­mor he ex­poses the cor­rup­tion and van­ity en­demic to Egyp­tian pol­i­tics, gov­ern­ment and its syco­phan­tic me­dia. Yousef and his staff dis­play a kind of courage not re­quired of U.S. po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors as they face threats by the Morsi and el-Sisi gov­ern­ments, an­gry cler­ics, an­grier mobs, and even their own tele­vi­sion sta­tion.

Tick­ling Gi­ants is more than an en­ter­tain­ing film about an ex­cep­tion­ally funny man or a touch­ing por­trait of Egyp­tians as they strug­gle through the Arab Spring and its after­math; the film is a poignant trib­ute to free speech and the sub­ver­sive power of po­lit­i­cal satire. No one will leave the theater with­out a deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the free speech pro­tec­tions Amer­i­cans en­joy that let us so freely laugh at our lead­ers and our­selves. Krista Kafer ( is co-host of “Kel­ley and Kafer,” which airs 4-7 p.m. week­days on 710 KNUS.

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