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Brazilian elections no joke. Literally.

Anti-humor  law calls for fines that can reach roughly $100,000 against the broadcasters who allow comedians appearing on their station who violate it.

Last modified: 25 Aug 2010 00:50

It’s Monday night in Brazil and that means one of the countries top-rated comedy shows is on the air.

It’s called CQC and features three studio hosts offering live commentary in between pre-packaged news and comedy skits filmed by the show’s team of in-the-field reporter/comedians.

More times than not, politicians take the brunt of the jokes. These are some of the most popular segments.

But in the next few weeks before Brazil’s national elections, the show might not be as funny as before if politicians have their way (more on that later).

Often times CQC comedians will chase down lawmakers in Congress, at public events, or press conferences and ask them common knowledge questions. When they don’t know the answers, or stumble in their response, they are ridiculed with comic-book-like caricatures and goofy sound effects inserted later in the edit room.

And like the wildly popular Daily Show in the United States, CQC often uses humor to explore serious subjects or hold public officials accountable via humor.

Sometimes politicians don’t appreciate the humor laden attention and react violently. On a recent program congressman Nelson Trad attacked a CQC cameraman inside the congress building after the shows comedian, Monica Iozzi, questioned the law maker on why he signed a fake petition he obviously didn’t bother to read. (Watch the segment here).

Another time, bodyguards tackled CQC comedian Danilo Gentili as he tried to ask an important lawmaker a question as he exited the congressional building to his waiting car. Watch the segment here. (The law maker is Jose Sarney, a former Brazilian president and current Senate President, who was under intense scrutiny recently for alleged wrongdoing but whom rarely speaks to the press). 

But not all of CQC’s biting humor is aimed at powerful national figures, the show also exposed (via humor, of course) small town corruption largely avoided by the mainstream media.

CQC once uncovered public officials in a medium sized city in Sao Paulo state for taking a flatscreen television donated to a school in the city for education purposes, and putting it in the private home of the public official for personal use.

CQC, aired nationally on Rede Bandeirantes, is just one of about a half dozen increasingly popular (especially with the younger generations) comedy shows on Brazilian television that has sprouted up in recent years. But it is CQC that has perfected the comedy-news format; their reporters, who always dress in black suits and ties and wear signature dark sunglasses, have become celebrities in Brazil and are instantly recognizable to most people.

Political Mockery Banned

While many Brazilians are amused by the comedy directed at politicians, the countries superior electoral court clearly is not. 

The agency is enforcing an electoral law that prohibits, “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.” The law is valid for the final three months of the campaign. 

Brazil's 2010 national elections - where over 22,000 candidates running for municipal, state and federal offices (including president) - concludes on October 3.

The law is clearly aimed at comical shows such as CQC and others, and calls for fines that can reach roughly $100,000 against the broadcasters who allow comedians appearing on their station who violate it.

The anti-humor law recently got international attention when the story was picked up by media sources, such as this AP report which was subsequently re-published all around the world. The law has been on the books for over a decade, but this election cycle is being more strongly enforced and comedians, in turn, are more forcefully pushing back.

 Comedians Outrage

 “Obviously this is censorship,” comedian Fabio Porchat told Al Jazeera. “This is almost unconstitutional because it is stopping me from expressing my opinion….It’s like the politicians are telling us, ‘be quiet a little bit, I will get elected, and then after than you can do anything you want.’ But we comedians want to do our job whenever we want and in whatever form and should let the voters and the public decide if it’s funny or not.”

Marcelo Tas, the host of CQC and who has been a comedian for decades, told Al Jazeera the law harkens back to darker days in Brazil’s past.

“This law comes from a long time ago during the time of the military dictatorship, when we did not have freedom of expression in Brazil,” Tas said. “Curiously, Brazil became more democratic and this law was forgotten, but it was left in place by the same politicians that brought us democracy. I believe that it means these politicians do not like full freedom of expression.”

Above: Marcelo Tas, the main host of CQC comedy shot in Brazil. Photo: Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera.

Tas said the law stems from politicians who take themselves too seriously.

“Humor serves as a way to remember that we are human,” he said. “I believe some Brazilian politicians think they are not humans. That they are perfect and cannot be criticized or ridiculed.”

Most of the defenders of the law (many of whom are politicians who have been the brunt of jokes) usually don’t want to speak out publicly about it in fear of sounding like they ‘can’t take a joke.’ But they say the law is necessary to level the playing field and avoid having one political candidate get an advantage by his or her opponent being mocked by comedians on the airways.

An electoral court spokesperson says the law is not censorship, but referred all requests for more information on the law to the national congress.  

A rep at the regional electoral court in Rio de Janeiro, where many of Brazil's comedians live, denied a request for an interview about the law, saying they could not offer one of the judges to speak about it because they would then appear biased.

Humor as Political Communication

Not all lawmakers react badly towards comedy focused against them. Many have grown to understand the comedy shows as a way to reach new, young voters.

“The first year on air we got a lot of lawsuits against us,” Tas said. “But our show has brought in a lot of people who previously hated politics. So we have a love-hate relationship with politicians. Politicians now realize that out microphone is a communication channel to an audience who previously probably didn’t care about them. That is good for democracy.”

Brazil’s most powerful politician is also one of CQC’s biggest fans.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva often jokes with CQC reporters (and other comedians) and usually 'rolls with the comical punches.' Lula once reached over a rope line to tell a CQC comedian, “Congratulations on your program. When I am at my house I watch it, just to have a little fun.”

Tas, the comedian from CQC, on live TV one night called the direct line of the Palacio da Alvorada - the president's official residence - to wish Lula happy birthday. An operator connected Tas directly to first lady Marisa Leticia Lula da Silva who said the president was asleep after a hard day at work, but she bantered with the host for several minutes about how much she loved his program. (As the first lady spoke, you could hear the show was playing on TV in the background).

Above: Comedians Claudio Torres Gonzaga, Fabio Porchat and Leo Lins - three Brazilian stand up comedians who helped organize a rally against the law. The shirt reads, "Humor Without Censorship." Photo: Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera

Comedians Pushback

Brazilian comedians have begun a national campaign on the airwaves and in social media forums to push back against the anti-humor law.

An estimated 600 people showed up in Rio’s famous Copacabana beach this past Sunday to rally against the law. It was a ‘who is who’ of Brazilian comedy. Many people wore t-shirts saying “Humor Without Censorship,” and dressed up in comical outfits to bring attention to their cause.

They signed a petition asking that the law be over turned, but that appears highly unlikely as the complicated process to do so probably can’t be accomplished in time for this election.  

So Brazil’s election will go on - perhaps with lots to laugh about - but with no one on TV or radio making any jokes. At least not at politicians expense.