The Backlash Against Brazil’s Anti-Humor Law

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Welcome to beautiful Rio de Janeiro. Home to the world-famous Carnvial, Christ-the-Redeemer, Stan Getz’s Ipanema, caiprihinas, samba! And also home to a lot of Brazilian comedians, many of who took to the streets last August to protest censorship. And when I say streets, I mean Copacabana beach — this is Rio after all.

Depending on your familiarity with Rio de Janeiro, you may think it’s all sunshine, dancing, and men in speedos. And you wouldn’t be totally wrong. But the Brazilian government as a whole still struggles with staggering corruption percentages and crime in Rio continues to be a problem. But all eyes are on cleaning up Rio in preparation for not only the World Cup in 2014 but also the Olympics in 2016. Lucky girl. And Brazil’s economic rise promises to pull it into a league of first world power, as its days of military dictatorship fade into history. Well, except for one archaic law that decided to rear its head in last year’s election.

Enter our protesting comedians. According to Time Magazine, in 1997 the Brazilian government passed a law “that prohibited the broadcast media from ‘in any way degrading or ridiculing candidates, parties or coalitions’ running in the October elections for president, Congress and state governments.” The law was purportedly passed quietly, so it stands to reason there was no major incident precipitating its creation. And it continued to be a kind of non-issue legislation, perhaps due in part to the lack of political comedy programs on Brazilian television.

Fast forward to 2010. In the two years it has been on air, political comedy program Custe o Que Custar (Whatever It Takes) has become one of the most wildly popular shows in Brazil. The original format was imported from Argentina, where it has received international accolades, and features comedian reporters in suits, ties and sunglasses — a uniform reportedly inspired by Reservoir Dogs.

It is tempting to label satirical political shows of the world as “The Daily Show of _____,” but I will resist the urge in talking about CQC. The program features three anchors sitting behind a large desk on a flashy stage, replete with flashing lights and bright colors. They may be satirizing the politics of the day, but set décor alone is a far cry from Jon Stewart & co. Unfortunately for the purposes of comedy tourism, there don’t seem to be any episodes available online with English subtitles. But, here’s a clip of one of their recurring segments called “Top Five” that should give you at least a feeling for the show.

The weekly roundup show also skewers pop culture, entertainment and sports, all of which would be safe from the prohibitive law mentioned above. But CQC is notorious for taking politicians to task, often in person, and it is the political content that would come to be threatened by a new amendment to the 1997 law passed in July of 2010.

Last year, the superior electoral court decided to start enforcing what quickly became known as the “anti humor” law. Al Jazeera described the details as no “trickery, montage, or other feature of audio or video in any way that degrades or ridicules a candidate, party or coalition or to deliver a program that has this effect.” Pretty much the same deal as the original version of the law. But here’s the kicker, the law only goes into effect the last three months before the election.

Want to make a Presidential candidate look like an ass on TV? Go for it… you know as long as the presidential campaign is over. Imagine not being able to make fun of Sarah Palin back in 2008. I know it’s hard because every second of every comedy program was saturated with her potent quotables. If anything, the last three months before an election offer a cornucopia of comedic material; it seems crazy to deprive hungry comedians their chance to feast.

That said, the logic wasn’t totally off base. Supposedly, the satire ban was intended to “level the playing field,” so that one particular candidate doesn’t get a disproportionate amount of negative or positive attention. Our US broadcast networks must adhere to fairness rules during election seasons to ensure that no candidate gets an unfair amount of coverage or is shut out. But, the FCC stops at jokes. Jokes are fair game. Which is how comedians in Brazil felt it should be for them.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the bald and bespectacled host of CQC claims the real motivation of politicians is hubris. He tells the reporter “I believe some Brazilian politicians think they are not humans. That they are perfect and cannot be criticized or ridiculed.” Hard to refute his point. My guess is that if American politicians could find a loophole in our legislation, they would be more than happy to try and cordon off ridicule when trying to get elected — or in general.

And so 600 people, many of whom were comedians from CQC or the stalwart satirical sketch show Casseta & Planeta and many other comedians, took to Copacabana demanding “Humor Without Censorship.” They also staged a social media campaign, as new media remained untouched by the law.

The fact that the Internet got off scott-free from the anti-humor crackdown is illustrative of perhaps how out of touch some Brazilian lawmakers might be. Angry comedians and viewers took to Twitter with fervor to trade jokes and barbs that were no longer allowed on broadcast airwaves. And censoring comedians made some powerful enemies. CQC co-host and stand-up comedian Rafinha Bastos currently has over 2 million followers on Twitter. Someone who gets paid $4,000 a tweet, at least according to Wired, may not be someone you want to alienate with an archaic law. Or someone you can censor, for that matter.

A few days after the protest, a Supreme Court judge lifted part of the ban but the law still remains. Comedy is certainly not a new phenomenon in Brazil, but stand-up comedy and political satire both have become increasingly popular in the last decade. The political outfit of Brazil may be more accustomed to the slapstick of yore that left them relatively unscathed in the mass media, but the cultural tide does not seem to be turning in their favor.

A former professor of mine described the Brazilian sense of humor as “notoriously ironic.” They take their coffee like they take their humor: black. So it’s ironic in trying to rein in comedy, politicians are just pushing comedy to a medium they can’t control. Okay, maybe ironic isn’t the right word. It’s funny.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.