Qadhafi: Not Funny?

Your blogger is usually irritated by efforts to make humor out of Mu’amar al-Qadhafi’s clothes or speeches or whatever other superficialities he used to play the fool with foreigners (some of the ‘Zenga Zenga‘ videos were amusing in a brainless way). Such things are usually more vulgar than amusing, more profane than insightful. Saturday Night Live‘s effort at lampooninging his General Assembly speech, for instance, played into the distraction and offered virtually no satire or humor at all. An even more recent one, where Qadhafi appears on SNL’s fake news program and satirizes the rationale for the American intervention in Libya, manages to get lose its satire in a series 80s jokes and references to Qadhafi’s wardrobe (the jokes about the American domestic debate over the no-fly-zone and Hillary Clinton are so full of pained effort the viewer laughs in pity). These are objections both to the messaging (or absence of messaging) in a great deal of North American humor (supposedly) at Qadhafi’s expense and to its quality as political humor.

Political satire, like much art, is a kind of propaganda. It is best if its authors can recognize that much. When they attempt to do otherwise it damages their craft and the audience’s experience. But many of these attempts, especially SNL’s, are not merely poor pieces of political satire in their constitution; they are also unfunny and not clever as television comedy on their own, which is not a controversial thing to say about Saturday Night Live. ‘The Official Visit,’ an episode of Yes, Minister (ancient, sure)offers a fictionalized satire of western politicians hungry for African business and domestic plaudits bringing wrangling with an ideologically objectionable (though in the end pragmatic) dictator in a way that somewhat closely resembles the rehabilitation of Qadhafi. Characteristic of the series, ‘The Official Visit’ is direct in its invective and offers many laughs (some of them ethnocentric for sure) without losing sight of its political message. Too much contemporary late night political humor is aimless (or tries too hard to say a lot while communicating nothing) and pointless. In any case, unlike recent Qadhafi-humor, the clip above manages to be somewhat funny.

The skit is interesting in some different ways:

1. Qadhafi is sent to hell for killing innocents with ‘terrorist explosives,’ to kill westerners; not for oppressing his people or torture or the rest of his consistent crimes. It manages to remain deliberate and funny while avoiding a too preachy tone despite taking place at the Pearly Gates. It is single minded: Qadhafi gets sent to hell; this is a revenge skit more so than strict satire. And it is about the viewer and Qadhafi. The whole this is quite uncomplicated.

2. One suspects that if Qadhafi did find himself in hell his response would be similar to the one in the video; Qadhafi was generally regarded as a religious fellow, giving foreigners the impression he was a ‘fanatic’ or ‘fundamentalist’ even in the 1970s and 1980s and he used his attachment to some varient of what he called ‘Islam’ for public affect the same way virtually all Arab dictators do. The skit itself includes no reference to Islam at all.

3. The version of the ‘pearly gates’ here seems to be a vaguely Christian one though no mention is made of Qadhafi’s religious affiliation (the imagery can also be taken ambiguously). This Qadhafi, speaking in TV hocking-a-lugie non-Arabic, expresses no religious mania other than a rather obvious aversion to being cast into hell. By politically correct standards it is more allowable for a spoof of Qadhafi to disallow him a claim to religious piety than to paint him as a misguided or false worshipper or the like; the depiction is not ‘Islamophobic’ and only offensive if one has a place for Qadhafi in his heart or his political universe. Otherwise one easily comes away with the impression that Qadhafi is contemptible, without any ambiguity. (This could be expected given the political climate of the time when the skit aired and the relation between the ‘innocents’ killed and the viewer.) Whatever participation the viewer’s own polity might have in wrongdoing or evil is beside the skit, which speaks only of ‘innocents‘ — not of soldiers or even members of the political class — Qadhafi is judged by a transcendent authority, evidently by God through Saint Peter (or someone like him). Qadhafi is thus presented as objectively wicked rather than subjectively a bad guy. Straightforward, consciously both political and funny.

As a piece of political humor this is funnier than any similar recent attempt on Qadhafi, most of which are plainly juvenile and vulgarian, usually lacking any moral clarity or intelligence. Where they are not profane contemporary skits making fun of Qadhafi are confused or highly subjective in their appraisal of him. The man who appears on SNL does not appear as a wicked man whose regime left people in tiny cells without charge until their limbs could no longer function or a happy civilian killer. Instead the late night American Qadhafi is a child-like clown, a jester who points out American hypocrisy whilst appearing as the target of crude (and repetitious) sartorial jokes, which appear as satire by means of struggling rationalization. The result is usually pitiful rather than humorous. Typical of the cynicism seen in youth-oriented American comedy is an effort to pat around bad spirits never getting so square and arrogant as to single out any one party for fault or flaw, to take a moralistic approach. The satire is distributed broadly and chaotically to the point where there is almost none at all. And the viewer is cheated out of his political funnies.

This is not to say the above clip is much different but it manages to say Qadhafi is a very bad man without getting lost in its own attempt to be explicitly funny and lacks the subtle racism seen some recent efforts. This viewer finds it quite funny as a piece of humorous propaganda meant to belittle the leader of efforts to kill innocents, a hostis publicus. More recent segments similar to this tend to evince no actual political grievance other than verbosity or displeasure with Qadhafi’s robes. The above clip actually has a grievance it attempts to lash out at in revenge; the clips from the last few years linked above are rootless and frivolous without any sense of politics. The second link above from a 2011 episode of SNL is a very fine example of an unwillingness to identity with any wide public grievance. Qadhafi appears as a clown in an eclectic series of vague allusions to his actual behavior; the one it does attempt to take on (the partisan debate over the intervention among members of Congress) is parochial and hazy in so far as what the skit is trying to get across. It is difficult to determine exactly what the skit itself is about as well: is it about Qadhafi? Is it about no-fly-zone politics? Is the ‘war’ about oil, as SNL Qadhafi suggests and is almost cut off from saying? Is it just something to record that SNL’s writers knew the conflict was happening? The end result says very little about Qadhafi or American politics substantively, other than to repeat the apathetic refrain which saturates nearly all ‘political’ skits on SNL, How ridiculous! And this may be the point; like a great deal of reset American humor there is a meaninglessness in Qadhafi’s appearance; the man himself is not really the point of the skit and his meaninglessness directs attention to the various absurdities jumbled into the skit. Here he is playing the fool saying, Look how crazy this intervention, this dictator, this Congress and this outfit all are! This is the Humphrey Appleby manner of speaking truth to power mixed in with attempts at sophomoric humor, the point ends up tripping over itself. No one could reasonably take offense at this presentation of Qadhafi, not even a dictator who had only recently ‘got’ Murder She Wrote. SNL, which is regularly not funny, obviously differs from more concentrated satire programs dedicated to politics like the Daily Show or the Colbert Report where writers generally have a naturally stronger grasp of politics (and non-potty humor) in general.

The difference between the recent SNL skits and the one posted at the top is that the SNL skits are not taking on Qadhafi as a public enemy (in 2011 he committed atrocities against Libyans, not Americans) where as in the other Qadhafi is being condemned for killing members of the supposed viewers’ own public. The ambiguity of the reasoning for the Libya intervention perhaps accounts for some of the confusion, but this is mainly a tactical issue and does not account for the silliness of SNL’s other attempts at making silliness out of Qadhafi.

Qadhafi usually appears in SNL skits and popular comedy as either a plain clown, without any real political commentary embedded in pop culture-laden diatribes about ‘nothing’ or a vaguely Shakespearian fool pointing out our (American) inconsistencies and hypocrisy, almost always in a direct way (even paraphrasing Qadhafi’s own commentary) so that the skit is barely satirical and witless. These depictions do not involve the viewer: the audience passively and cynically observes Qadhafi as he lays out the ridiculousness of his predicament and the no-fly-zone and its supposed ulterior motives. The complicity of Britain or America in Qadhafi’s past activities are never mentioned and the audience as part of a specific polity is generalized and obscure and the viewer surely has no part in any of it. The hapless viewer watches a mock up of hypocritical powers that be bump into one another and the skits rarely issue a call to action or inspires him. At once the viewer is subjected to ambiguous characters and bad humor. It is less worrisome that such skits do not condemn Qadhafi in the way the one posted above does — the line taken on Qadhafi one way or the other is beside the point even if some people are bound to enjoy or dislike the skit posted above because they agree or disagree with it politically and some are bound to wince at SNL depictions of Qadhafi because the see them as insufficiently political or waffly. And there is almost always someone who will find this or that joke funny. (Aesthetic judgements are surely the result in part of the viewer’s prejudices, background, ignorance, and politics.)

The real problem is that these efforts at political satire are on the one hand they not strongly subversive of any authority (Libyan or America) and that on other they are mostly unfunny. One cannot help but suspect that this was precisely Qadhafi’s desire as far as he was concerned with crafting an image in western media. There was a long period before the February uprising when one struggled to find anything outside of human rights reports and academic publications that discussed Mu’amar al-Qadhafi beyond his outfits, hairdos, personal eccentricities or the like. Despite multiple hostile and friendly altercations over many years between Qadhafi’s Libya and the United States ignorance and wonder were dominant in cultural depictions of him till the very end. Unless one talked to the victims of state-sponsored terrorism, his Libya was treated like a joke in North American media especially. An episode of the Simpsons where Bart represents Libya at a Model United Nations exercise illustrates this rather well, in fact: While Bart masters the Qadhafi aesthetic he is utterly ignorant of the country’s economy and culture though he nevertheless gets away with it because nearly everyone in the room is too.

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