Using comedy to strengthen Nigeria’s democracy

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In the U.S., the notion that comedy has a positive role in democracy has taken a hit recently. But now it’s being exported.
A news-satire series modelled on “The Daily Show” aims to empower viewers. Will the joke get lost in translation?
By Adrian Chen
One day last July, the five writers of “The Other News,” Nigeria’s first prime-time political-satire show, sat in an office in Lagos, trying to figure out how to make fun of a king. The Ooni of Ife, the traditional ruler of the Yoruba people, had recently made headlines for an incident that occurred on a flight to Ontario. As the Ooni’s entourage boarded, one of his aides, dressed in a flowing white robe, blessed the plane by rattling a couple of shakers above his head. A passenger caught the rite on his phone and posted a video to YouTube, where it quickly went viral. The writers were working on the pilot episode of the show and hoped to begin with a few jokes about recent news items; the clip, some of them thought, would make perfect fodder.
David Hundeyin, a twenty-seven-year-old writer, argued that the video showed how Nigeria’s traditional rulers had failed to keep up with the times. “They are literally relics of the dead past in the modern world,” he said. Hundeyin has an acerbic sense of humor honed by years of watching “South Park,” and he thought that “The Other News” should take a similarly no-holds-barred approach to Nigerian culture. The writers were huddled in a corner of a small room at the headquarters of the Nigerian news station Channels Television, which was producing the show. It was not an ideal environment for writing jokes. Construction on the building, part of an expansion of the station, had stopped months before, after Nigeria’s economy sank into recession. Two rooms on the top floor, along with a studio, had been hastily outfitted with electricity and air-conditioning for “The Other News.” An empty elevator shaft gaped at the end of the hall, there was no running water, and a cinder block sat treacherously in the middle of a staircase. The Internet was patchy, and when Hundeyin pulled up a photograph on his laptop it loaded slowly. The photo showed Queen Elizabeth II driving herself around London in a Jaguar. He suggested that they compare her modest road trip with the Ooni’s preflight ritual. “If it’s good enough for the Queen, isn’t it good enough for the Ooni?” Hundeyin asked.
Some of the other writers urged a more cautious approach. The Ooni is seen by some Yoruba as a descendant of Oduduwa, who was sent down by God to found the Yoruba kingdom. “Sometimes we need to go to the other side of the audience or other people’s culture and try to see how it’s going to look to that person,” Sodi Kurubo, one of the two head writers, said. Nkechi Nwabudike, the other head writer, pointed out that the host of “The Other News” was Igbo, another major ethnic group. “We have to be careful, because we have a host from the east, so we can’t really make fun of someone’s traditions,” she said.
Ned Rice, a longtime comedy writer from the United States, looked on. He had been hired to advise the writers by Pilot Media Initiatives, a Brooklyn-based company that makes television programs modelled on the news-parody format popularized by “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” with the aim of spreading democratic principles in developing countries. Rice had arrived two weeks earlier. He had run a week of workshops, then the team had spent another week writing and filming a test episode. Now they had just one week to write and produce the twenty-two-minute pilot.
Rice reminded the writers that comedy necessarily offends some people. “If you do a comedy show, you’re going to step on toes,” he said. In Nigeria, there are a lot of toes to step on. The country has three major religions and more than two hundred and fifty ethnic groups, which sometimes coexist uneasily. During the colonial era, ethnic tensions were exacerbated by the British practice of indirect rule, in which traditional leaders were pitted against one another for resources and political power. Since the country’s independence, in 1960, its leaders have continued to exploit these rivalries. Disputes can flare into violence. For the past few months, Igbo separatists in the southeast had been agitating for an independent state, prompting fears of a replay of the Biafran war of the late nineteen-sixties. Judging from the photos of hundreds of members of the Indigenous People of Biafra marching in the street, fists raised, they did not seem inclined to take a joke. “I’m not against starting a crisis,” Nwabudike said, laughing. “Just not in the first episode.”
One writer suggested that they read the comments on the video of the Ooni to get a better sense of the public’s reaction. Rice shot the suggestion down. “Jerry Seinfeld used to say, ‘Never read your fan mail—only crazy people write letters,’ ” he said. The writers decided that they would gently rib the Ooni for the disruption he’d caused on the plane. The brunt of the critique was reserved for Nigerian politicians’ obsession with private jets; no ritual would be elaborate enough for them to fly commercial. It was not the most scathing take, but they now had a few minutes in the can, which is about the most a comedy writer can ask of a morning’s work.
Early in my writing career, I dreamed of working for “The Daily Show,” and I contributed jokes to the Onion. As I spent long afternoons staring at the ceiling, trying to come up with the fifteen headlines that I needed to send in every week, I hoped that, by calling out all the ridiculous things in this corrupt and fallen world, I was performing a sort of watchdog duty, like an investigative journalist, only with dick jokes. Or was this just self-serving claptrap propagated by comedy writers? It’s an old question. But the idea that comedy has a positive role in democracy has taken a hit in the age of Donald Trump, when bigotry is packaged into ironic memes by white supremacists and any attempt to caricature the President inevitably falls short of the real thing. These days, comedy seems, at best, a tool too dull to defend democracy—and, at worst, one well suited to undermine it. I wanted Dillon Case, the thirty-six-year-old co-founder of P.M.I., to expound on the power, or lack thereof, of political satire. Case, however, is a veteran of international development, and is practically allergic to making any claim that isn’t backed up by a peer-reviewed article.
In Nigeria, Case had no time to ponder anything. He was never without a small notebook whose cover read “Comedy for Change,” in which he scribbled constant reminders to himself. P.M.I. was trying to make a polished TV show using equipment that, as one member of the team said, you might find at a U.S. community college. The technical staffers assigned to the show were overworked, and were hard to reach when they weren’t on set. There were also cultural differences. The appearance of a bunch of demanding white people and their handpicked team of young writers had caused some tension. One writer told me that, around the station, the crew had earned the sarcastic nickname the Super Eagles, after Nigeria’s national soccer team and its lauded stars.
Case is a tall redhead with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow. Growing up in Park City, Utah, where his mother worked briefly for the Sundance Institute, he had early exposure to the film industry. But, while many of his high-school friends tried to make it in Hollywood, Case got a master’s degree in international human-rights law, at the University of Essex. Case is not particularly funny, but he has a good sense of humor. He is amused by international-aid jargon—“capacity building,” “implementing partner”—but is also fluent in it.
Case first got the idea for P.M.I. while employed as a contractor for the United States Agency for International Development in Kyrgyzstan, after a revolution, in 2010, overthrew the country’s authoritarian President. “We were working on a program that was supporting good-governance activities and conflict-mitigation activities,” he told me. The agency wanted to engage young people in democratic politics. “We had actually had the idea in a brainstorming session and thought, Wouldn’t it be cool to be something like ‘The Daily Show’?” Soon after, a local sketch-comedy troupe had the same idea, and approached U.S.A.I.D. for funding and support. Case designed a project with them, which got approved.
To help the troupe, Case e-mailed Kevin Bleyer, a former writer for “The Daily Show.” Bleyer has a boyish face that is at odds with his deep baritone. He is aggressively funny, seemingly unable to string together three sentences without cracking a joke, and, for eight years, he wrote jokes for Barack Obama to deliver at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. When he got the e-mail from Case, he had just returned from North Korea, where he’d been shadowing Bill Richardson, whose memoir he was co-writing, as Richardson negotiated the release of an American prisoner. “I was in one vaguely Soviet country and here I am getting an e-mail from another vaguely communist, socialist country,” Bleyer said. Six weeks later, he flew to Kyrgyzstan. He didn’t speak Russian, so he relied on his translator, a hard-nosed woman named Gulmira, to act as a sort of barometer. If she laughed at a joke, he figured it was O.K. Four weeks later, the show, called “Studio 7,” aired its first episode.
In 2015, Case moved to New York, after ten years abroad, but the experience of working on “Studio 7” stuck with him. He is a meticulous researcher, and he started to read all he could about political satire and its effects on democracy. He read a study that claimed that the humorous dissection of complex issues helped viewers feel more empowered to participate in political change. He read a book called “Is Satire Saving Our Nation?,” which argued that “one of the strongest supports for our democracy today comes from those of us who are seriously joking.” He began to wonder why nobody had thought to systematically apply satire to international development.
There was a lot of literature for Case to dive into, because of a decade-long boom in political satire that had reached an apex during the George W. Bush Administration. Liberals, disgusted by the Administration’s lies and the media’s seeming inability to check them, had turned to a small army of satirists, “culture jammers,” and pranksters, who offered a more pointed critique. “The Daily Show” became the most potent source of liberal catharsis. Jon Stewart, who hosted the show from 1999 to 2015, paired a pitiless attitude toward hypocrisy and bullshit with a rigorous command of facts, which allowed him to directly address issues that mainstream media outlets, bound by norms of balance and objectivity, could only dance around. A much cited Pew survey, from 2007, listed Stewart as the fourth most admired journalist in the country, tied with Anderson Cooper. And studies found that those who watched “The Daily Show” and other political-entertainment programs were more informed, more critical, and more civically engaged than those who didn’t.
“The Daily Show” was only the latest example of the American tendency to look to satire as a means to advance liberal-democratic values. In the nineteen-fifties, as Stephen E. Kercher details in his definitive history “Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America,” political cartoonists saw themselves as defenders of free expression and civil rights in the face of an anti-democratic witch hunt. Some of these cartoonists suffered lost syndication deals and F.B.I. scrutiny, but their jokes had a lasting impact. It was the cartoonist Herbert Block who coined the term “McCarthyism,” and though his cartoons, which depicted Joseph McCarthy, in an oversized suit, as a shady peddler of hysteria, may not have put a stop to the Red Scare, they reassured other liberals that they weren’t alone in their outrage.
The idea of satire as a “weapon of wit” became so central to the liberal imagination that Gore Vidal, seeing a dearth of it in the cultural landscape of the late fifties, asked, “Should a home-grown Hitler appear, whose voice amongst the public orders would be raised against him in derision?” In fact, as Kercher details, satire was being transformed by a wave of performers whose barbs came swathed in urbane coolness. The most famous was the standup comedian Mort Sahl, who got his start in the San Francisco club scene and delivered jokes in a rapid-fire staccato frequently compared to the style of jazz musicians. He mocked Eisenhower’s golf obsession and his lax support for the civil-rights movement by saying that he hadn’t walked the black teen-agers who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in by the hand because he had trouble “deciding whether or not to use an overlapping grip.” The new satirists mostly admired John F. Kennedy, who was liberal, cool, and praised by Norman Mailer for his “dry Harvard wit.” The mainstreaming of satire threatened its role as a democratic check on power; Sahl himself wrote jokes for Kennedy’s campaign.
In the following decades, practitioners of “sick” humor, such as Lenny Bruce and the writers for Mad magazine, used comedy to shock their audience into insight, but softer fare prevailed on television. Throughout the seventies and eighties, according to the media scholar Jeffrey Jones, satire’s profile was limited by television executives, who worried about offending viewers and advertisers. Sitcoms and middle-of-the-road talk shows dominated the airwaves until the rise of premium cable channels, which provided commercially viable spaces for edgier shows, such as “The Daily Show” and “South Park,” and Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect.” This new liberal satire tackled the Bush Administration with the zeal of the McCarthy-era political cartoonists, and was rewarded with high ratings.
That changed with the arrival of Barack Obama, whose wit and coolness were regularly compared to Kennedy’s. In this magazine, Emily Nussbaum likened his White House Correspondents’ Dinner speeches to a “sophisticated small-club act.” As in the Kennedy era, satire came to seem defanged. The image of the heroic, dissenting satirist went abroad, where, it appeared, the struggle between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism loomed larger. In 2009, Voice of America produced “Parazit,” a “Daily Show”-style political-satire program that criticized the Iranian government. A couple of years later, a surgeon turned satirist named Bassem Youssef, often called “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” who hosted “Bernameg al-Bernameg” (“The Show Show”), became a symbol of the promise of the Arab Spring. His exile, in 2014, became a sign of its failure. Still, it was easy to see political satire as an innovation, like the Internet, that could help democracy take root around the world, not through patronizing and coercive “nation-building” projects but as a natural result of giving people a product that they wanted and enjoyed.
In 2015, Case and Bleyer launched P.M.I., with an international-media expert named Graeme Moreland. Case figured that they would get grants to start; then, since the show would be entertaining as well as informative, they could attract advertisers after the grant money ran out. This fit with the international-development community’s desire for “sustainability.” Yet Case found it hard to persuade anyone to provide funding to P.M.I. Jokes imply an irreverence that is at odds with the serious issues many donors wish to address. Case pitched the idea for months, unsuccessfully, until he and Bleyer were introduced to John Momoh, the Nigerian chairman and founder of Channels Television and a former broadcaster for the state-run Nigerian Television Authority. Momoh required journalists at Channels to wear suits instead of the traditional dress worn by state broadcasters. He insisted on balanced coverage, a rarity in Nigeria, where many news outlets are beholden to political players. Momoh told me that, during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, he had watched “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” religiously, and had started thinking about a Nigerian version. “Some of my colleagues and I thought, Look, we could borrow a little from this,” he said.
Case and Bleyer were thrilled. Nigeria is home to “Nollywood,” by some measures the second-largest film industry in the world, and a ready source of talent. The advocacy group Freedom House lists Nigeria as “partly free.” “That’s the kind of sweet spot we’re looking for,” Case told me. The show could help promote freedom of expression without undue threat of censorship or retaliation. Case approached the Open Society Initiative of West Africa with a proposal to partner with Channels to develop the show, and they were awarded a grant.
One day last summer, weeks before meeting with the crew in Lagos, I stopped by Case’s apartment, in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he and Bleyer were reviewing the applications of prospective writers. They had scheduled a Skype interview with Nwabudike, a Nollywood screenwriter who later became a head writer. It was the rainy season in Nigeria, which interferes with the Internet, and during a conference call with Channels two days earlier the connection had repeatedly cut out. Bleyer made a bit out of it, playing the chorus of Toto’s “Africa”—I bless the rains down in Africa—at inopportune moments, and Case gamely grimaced and shook his head every time. “Kevin has schooled me over time to put aside my international-development formality and just be a little more relaxed,” Case told me. Eventually, they were able to hold a call more or less uninterrupted. They asked Nwabudike what she would cover if the show ran that week, and she mentioned that the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, had been missing for weeks, after going to London for an undisclosed medical treatment. “That’s certainly a ripe premise for comedy,” Bleyer said.
Judging comedy writers in a foreign culture was an inexact process. For one thing, Case and Bleyer couldn’t understand many of the jokes that applicants submitted, since they were full of local references. One had written a sketch with a reference to the Liam Neeson movie “Taken,” in which a call from a kidnapper was interrupted by a lack of mobile credit. Bleyer thought that was funny. But, over all, Bleyer and Case were interested less in whether someone could structure a joke than in whether the person was well versed in the news and had a point of view that could give the show critical bite. “We’re not the ones saying, ‘Do this joke, do that joke,’ ” Bleyer told me. “We’re the ones saying, ‘Here’s how to get the joke to be the best form it can be, and here’s how you get this show done by Friday night.’ ” To that end, P.M.I. had created a manual running to more than two hundred pages that instructed writers on everything from constructing setups to pitching jokes and structuring their workday.
To find a host, Graeme Moreland had haunted comedy shows in Lagos. He settled on a well-known comic named Okechukwu Onyegbule, who performs under the name Okey Bakassi. Bakassi, who is forty-eight years old, has been doing standup comedy for twenty-five years, and has become a household name throughout West Africa for his film roles. He performs to sold-out crowds of African immigrants in London, Houston, and Salt Lake City. As soon as Moreland saw Bakassi perform, he said, “it was just game over for me, because he’s so adaptable. He’s a proper grownup.” Channels had offered Bakassi a four-month contract, the length of the first season. But Bakassi was holding out for a yearlong contract, which, Bleyer explained, is known in Hollywood as a holding deal. As leverage, Bakassi claimed that he was considering becoming the host of a different talk show.
“That’s bullshit,” Case said. “It’s not anything time sensitive. It would still be there if this show tanks.”
Bleyer’s face lit up. “I love it,” he said, gesturing toward Case. “He’s now using Hollywood talk. He says ‘If this show tanks,’ whereas the international-development language would be something like ‘If this show doesn’t find its audience,’ or ‘If this show—’ ”
“ ‘—doesn’t yield the results,’ ” Case said, laughing.
“ ‘—yield the results as prescribed in the grant agreement,’ ” Bleyer said.
“ ‘Too many challenges prevented it from reaching its desired output,’ ” Case said.
Eventually, Channels nailed down Bakassi. The first time I met him, he was sitting at the head of a table in the executive boardroom of Channels, watching the test episode. His assistant and a Channels producer looked on. Bakassi wore a linen shirt with a black-and-white traditional pattern, black linen pants, and an enormous pinky ring, which he tapped against the table when he was thinking. American comedians tend to be ill-kempt and socially awkward. Bakassi has a stately presence and not a whiff of self-doubt. A trained agricultural engineer, he speaks with a measured precision that brings to mind a newscaster from the golden age of American broadcasting. In his view, Nigeria is a great place for a comedian. “Our people, we’re full of drama,” he said.
Bakassi finished watching the test episode in silence. There was a long pause. Nobody was happy with it. The sound was off, and the editing was wonky. Bakassi had used a pair of white iPhone earbuds as in-ear monitors, and they showed distractingly on the screen. There was a general agreement that the content reflected too much of Rice’s voice, resulting in a watered-down, Jay Leno-as-Nigerian monologue, delivered uncomfortably by Bakassi. “A good effort,” Bakassi said—then he quickly launched into complaints. Some of the team members were “writing for a white audience,” he said. “We still have to make it local in terms of content.”
The son of an Army officer, Bakassi had travelled extensively in Nigeria as a kid, giving him a love for the diversity of the country. His emphasis on Nigerian culture occasionally put him in conflict with the writers, who were younger and well versed in American and British pop culture. Bakassi frequently replaced Western pop-culture references with Nigerian ones, striking a clip from “Harry Potter” in favor of a clip from a Nollywood movie, and simplifying wordplay for viewers whose primary language was not English. At one point, he argued to Case that the talent should wear Nigerian caftans instead of Western suits, showing him a variety of colorful fabrics. “There is a rising tide of nationalism, and they should nod to that,” he said. Case disagreed, saying that the show had to look like other Channels programming.
In the conference room, the P.M.I. staff assured Bakassi that the pilot would be more authentically Nigerian than the test episode. “The first show had a lot of my influence, and I wrote for white TV for twenty-five years,” Rice said. “But this show will be a hundred per cent Nigerian all the time.” (The New Yorker)

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