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Stand up public diplomacy: is Comedy a New Approach?

by on March 24, 2014

There are various approaches that public diplomacy can take. We learn that, when a nation expresses its cultural and national identity, they show the world their traditions and norms that make them stand out from the rest. Finish embassies around the world are exemplary as they facilitate saunas for staff and occasional guests (Washington Post, 2010). As unusual as it may seem to be sitting with a group of men sweating the weeks stress out, it proves to show that a state institution is opening its self up, nationally and culturally, to their respected foreign publics. Defining public diplomacy can prove complex. However, its main focus is in the name, which is the public, rather than using the typical approach of nepotistic emissaries and state representatives usually given to the upper-echelons of society be it the guest or host nation.

It would seem questionable to put comedy and diplomacy in the same context, since one deals with pressing matters while the other takes nothing serious. However, comedy is a gateway to expressing ideas toward a public often finding the facetious side towards serious issues. Yet, regardless of how comical any issue is perceived, it is still being addressed. Many comedians, especially stand-up comedians, are made up of a diverse mix of backgrounds and lifestyles that express not only their life encounters, but also issues they find of intrigue, and with that, find the silver lining. Comedy is great in breaking the awkward barrier of addressing ideas that would fail miserably in the context of diplomacy, but what ties it with public diplomacy specifically, is the interlinked relationship of the theory of Soft power. That is, Joseph Nye’s theory to attract through culture.

The USA would arguably be the epicenter of comedy, whereby many original shows and ideas originate from. As the world is becoming more globalized, many can easily access content that American entertainment has to offer. Moreover, many of these shows have been passed on to allow foreign locals to enjoy in their own language. Currently the biggest comedy platform on television, Comedy Central, broadcasts to over 30 countries including, India, Latin America, much of the Adriatic region and brazil (THR, 2012). Many of these channels broadcast original productions in their local languages respectively, while they also broadcast American produced shows such as, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Office, and stand up comedy shows from English speaking comedians.

Jon Stewarts The Daily Show is of great importance, as its style of comedy revolves around satirically critiquing global as well as domestic politics. As a result of its popularity, the show eventually spawned a sister show based in Egypt called “Al Bernameg” hosted by Bassem Youseff. As it began in 2011, it gained prominence in the Arab world being the voice of the anti –establishment during the Arab Spring fever as it sends shockwaves to Arab governments openly criticizing their actions and motives. Despite its zany material, the foreign press have highlighted the general message of allowing an individual vent the everyday troubles of the country pointing the finger at the ruling, and most times authoritative, governments. It has also fueled discussions about the line between political satire, and freedom of speech, where America seems to enjoy both, while many across the world, particularly the Middle East, tend to find rifts between the two.

The relationship between The Tonight Show in the USA and Egypt’s EL Bernameg might not be a clear example of linkage between comedy and public diplomacy. However, Al Bernameg has shown foreign cultures can adopt an idea that the US and the West take for granted, the idea of entertaining the public at the expense of governmental incompetence and authoritarianism. Or as its universally known as, freedom of speech.

The most common format of comedy, stand-up, is effective in breaking down the awkward misconceptions of stereotypes branded on foreign cultures. Comedy troupes and even individual comedians have taken advantage of such iteration. Particularly toward Arabs and Islam after the events of 9/11. The Axis of Evil comedy tour composed of three Middle Eastern Americans, have shown the funny side of the culture that has surrounded them while being brought up in the USA. Their socio-political satire gained prominence, nationally and globally, countering the narrative of Islamic fundamentalism and sentiments of American hatred. All three members have gone on to hold talks around the world, addressing the issue of Middle Eastern stereotypes and how they use their lifestyle as a way of comedic means.

The comedy group,The Muslims are Coming, have toured through the United States, particularly in the Southern Belt breaking down the preconceived notions of what it is to be a Muslim and satirically expressing their experience as a Muslim-American. Such tours include, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi giving free performances in community centers, cafes and other public settings.

“On this tour specifically, the target audience is the people who have the wrong idea about Islam and Muslims”  Omar Elba, a member of the group.

As said before, Comedy and diplomacy in its purist cannot go hand in hand. Diplomacy is a foreign policy apparatus used as a means to ease the channels of communication between states, whether during a crisis, or even forming an alliance. However, the recent adoption of public diplomacy has helped forge alliances at a more human level. As the world is becoming smaller, and the public are becoming more aware, the idea of presenting one self to the peoples of a country rather than their representatives, gives more potency for a nation to nation, rather than a state to state relationship. In the context of comedy, being facetious has its downsides, yet it can be a great way to diffuse tensions when their high and allow the adoption of ideas that have long lasting effects on a society. The idea of Comedy isn’t just making people laugh, but is a way to address issues in a different manner. And when coinciding with public diplomacy, what great way is there than to lighten up the mood of a foreign public?

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2 Comments
  1. karo1990 permalink

    This is a very interesting blog entry. In Germany, we have the “heute show” which is the equivalent to the “The Daily Show”. It is such a good way to educated the public and to raise critical awarness of what our politicians are doing.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts on this interesting subject. Maybe we need an article or book on the subject of comedy diplomacy, as we have for jazz diplomacy. You make some interesting points and have illustrated them with good video clips.

    However, when revising this entry for inclusion in your portfolio at the end of the module, please consider the following:

    – I thought the entry might have been tied more closely and accurately to the central concepts of the module. For example, are the examples you use really cases of public diplomacy? Doesn’t the latter require some element of state involvement or orchestration? I can see that TV shows boost American soft power, but can this be described as public diplomacy? A few sentences on this conceptual issue would certainly improve the discussion.

    – In addition, please make some reference to the academic literature in your blog posts, to demonstrate you are making connections between the theoretical content of the module and the case study you have selected.

    – Finally, there are a number of typographical and grammatical errors (respected/respective, its self/itself, authoritative/authoritarian, its/it’s, their/they are, etc.). Please proof read and correct your entries before submission of the portfolio.

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