As a way of expressing ourselves, jokes are less destructive than riots

Bassem Youssef is probably best known to Western audiences as Egypt’s Jon Stewart

Share

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 more than 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’re not afraid of it. When comedians make millions of people laugh, authority figures get nervous. That’s why the Burmese government jailed Zarganar in 2008 (thankfully, his 59-year sentence was 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 AD54, he tolerated satires from Seneca and Petronius. But, as his political position grew weaker, he lost his sense of humour. By AD66, both men had been forced to commit suicide. In AD68, Nero did the same and civil war followed. There are worse things than being the butt of a joke.

Too good to not be true

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview