Finding humor in strange places: New films at Tribeca

Hey, what’s so funny?! Thats not a joke! What makes you think you’re so funny? Are we preoccupied with determining what’s funny, and when and where it’s appropriate to laugh?

Well, several items at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival this year directly address these issues, and humor, like everything else, has its political overtones.

In the opening scene of Tickling Giants, a Jon Stewart production, we see a sign on the wall asking: “Why sarcasm? Because kicking the shit out of people is illegal.” This is on the wall of heart surgeon Bassem Youssef, nicknamed by many as the Jon Stewart of Egypt. Why would a successful doctor give up his practice to become the host of a comedy TV show? His parents would like to know that also. Well, strange things have been happening in Egypt, and across the entire Middle East, but with the hopes and dreams of Arab Spring being shattered, many Egyptians are finding other options to survive. Comedy is one of the more dangerous choices.

Youssef has a natural gift for humor, an approachable charismatic personality that attracts a gag of young writers who join his eclectic team to produce the most popular comedy show on Egyptian TV. Millions watch him insult and joke about whatever leader happens to be in power at the time. The Show has gone through several leaders, Mubarak, Morsi (elected), the military coup, then El Sisi, and each reacted differently to his interpretation of freedom of expression.

When the show started he got tremendous support from Jon Stewart and even appeared as a guest on Stewart’s show. He reciprocated by having Stewart on his show in Egypt as a surprise guest brought on with a hood over his head. Stewart jokingly referred to himself as the Bassem Youssef of America. But this was at the time Youssef was losing favor with his audience (and leaders), being threatened by opponents of his “American style” humor with its incessant swearing and insults.

The surgeon-turned-comedian began to be seen as someone who is against any authority, and since El Sisi won 98% of the vote (rigged or not), that’s an awful lot of opposition. Eventually the show was forced off the air. Youssef was sued by his British TV sponsor for not delivering promised content and was forced to leave the country, moving to a colder climate in the U.S., forbidden to return home. Tragically, his father – and greatest supporter – died in a car accident, and he wasn’t able to return for the funeral.

Despite Youssef’s charm and charisma, many questions are raised in this film about what constitutes a “legitimate target” for humor. Youssef keeps challenging authority – is that the game? All leaders are bad? Or is the freedom to attack leaders the important part? When El Sisi won 98% of the vote against a left-wing candidate, why didn’t Bassem support his progressive opponent instead?

Eventually he loses support of the public, which apparently wants a powerful dictator to bring stability. He started getting opposition during the Morsi period, when he was considered a pawn for the American empire. The film also doesn’t address CIA and U.S. involvement in his country. This too, The Show chose to ignore.

Although few governments support culture geared toward overthrowing the system, now in Egypt there are more and more reporters being jailed simply for what they say or write. General El Sisi in an appearance on the Charlie Rose Show said he was not responsible for shutting The Show down, and certainly Youssef himself would have to admit he lost his audience. But the funnyman regains his faith by realizing that “A revolution is not an event, it’s a process.”

A preview and trailer can be viewed here.

“Survival, there can be humor in that”

Probably one of the most obviously accepted off limit targets for humor, is the Jewish Holocaust. Even Jewish comics steered clear of the subject, and Mel Brooks still cringes to think you could laugh about it. But many funny people, including the likes of Carl and Rob Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried, Larry Charles and Sarah Silverman, not only have crossed the line, but offer insights into exactly what is funny. Rob Reiner offers an explanation: “The Holocaust itself is not funny. There’s nothing funny about it. But survival, and what it takes to survive, there can be humor in that.”

Director Ferne Pearlstein’s The Last Laugh suggests that Holocaust victims between themselves told the most offensive jokes, seemingly as an insider’s release valve for survival. “You can only cry so long, then laughing is the healing,” states Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone, who leads us through many iconic humorists and an engrossing study of the limits of humor. But except for Sarah Silverman mentioning the “other” holocausts (Armenian, Palestinian), and Firestone mentioning Rwanda where a million died in only 4 years, the film is always referring to the “Jewish” Holocaust.

Clips are shown of the Inquisition from Mel Brooks’ History of the World, and he surmises that it must be far enough removed in time to laugh at. What topics for comedy are off-limits today: Child molestation? 9/11? Lynchings?

Firestone mentions, “The second generation has a very dark sense of humor. They can say things only to each other, a private humor.” References are offered for study, including the book My Parents Went Through the Holocaust and All I Got Out of It Was This T-Shirt; the highly successful but controversial film, Life Is Beautiful; and Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried, the most sought-after unseen film in Hollywood. Mel Brooks, who directed the widely famous Nazi parody The Producers, makes a sharp distinction between satirizing the Nazis, a time honored target, and humor at the expense of the victims. But this movie shows that everyone has different tastes and limitations.

Scripted or improvised or captured in action?

A very humorous documentary about Scientology probably doesn’t fit into this discussion, but unassuming British satirist Louis Theroux stars in a “tough to categorize” film, My Scientology Movie.  As a Michael Moore-type inquisitor, Theroux, who actually assisted in many episodes of Moore’s TV Nation, wanders around Los Angeles hoping to get a deeper understanding of how the Church of Scientology works. With tongue firmly implanted in cheek he requests interviews and meetings with church leaders and of course is rebuffed. He enlists the support of former members, who are known by the church as “squirrels,” to lend insight and film recreations of events in the history of the church, and of course this inflames the church even more. They send out their notorious film crews to harass and document the actions of former members. Theroux then sets his film crew out to film their film crew in action, and hilarity ensues as they are driven away in confusion.

John Dower directs with uncanny timing, capturing the power of silence and inaction. At times it’s hard to tell if the film is scripted or improvised or captured in action. Theroux’s deadpan wit lends even more incredulity to the happenings as he begins to question the truth of his lead character, former high level official of the church, Marty Rathbun. Soon the viewer loses all perspective and just joins in on the unpredictable roller coaster ride. Whether you are interested in the Church of Scientology or not, you should find this film creative, funny and at least important in the process of exposing cult groups and the harm they cause society.

A trailer for the film can be seen here.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.