Disarming Comedy

In the face of national tragedy, even the sharpest comedic minds can be stupefied. Last week’s تشويش واضح، “Clear Confusion,” a Jordanian comedy series that began on YouTube but now also broadcasts its newscast-style sketches regularly via the television channel Roya, naturally had to cover the death of Muath al-Kasasbeh. But anyone expecting a fresher or ironic take on the matter was to be disappointed. Though the basic elements of its style were still there, in the end the programme’s viewpoint was pretty much indistinguishable from any other expressed by public outlets during the protracted days of media obsession with the martyrdom.

Clearly Confused

A bit of context first. “Clear Confusion” is a video series that provides an ironic take on the newscast genre. A single presenter – Muath al-Bzour – comments on various local Jordanian news stories, often in a cynical or critical manner. The humor comes from Bzour’s treatment of the issues – often interspersed with short clips from Roya TV’s more ‘serious’ programmes, as well as Jordan state television – together with his (all-male) cast of colleagues, who play the part of producers, studio guests, or simply “citizens” that had somehow found their way into the studio and intrude upon the newscast to offer their own comments. There are ample non-sequiturs and absurd ‘behind-the-scenes’ glimpses, and also occasional short sketches located outside the ‘studio’ where the team takes on different comic roles.

Bzour serves mostly as a ‘straight-talk’ commentator, but he’s able to offer comic gems as well. This short exchange (from about 2:43 onwards in the YouTube clip below) is taken from the 28 January episode, busy critiquing the Jordanian government’s planned increase in electricity prices:

The issue is whether Jordan’s parliament would be able to challenge the government’s decision to raise electricity prices by 15%. The host on the TV clip asks his guest Hall wasaT? – “compromise?” (literally “middle solution”) – and Bzour immediately picks up on the expression, playing on the polysemy of the word wasaT (“middle” or “medium”) – which is also used colloquially to say how much sugar you would like in your coffee:

حلّ وسط؟

لا لا حلّ ع الريحة أحسن (..) أو لا السادة (..) فوق السادة


No, no, a solution “with a bit of sugar,” it’s better… Or, no, black! More than black

Here Bzour rifles through the entire range of options for coffee sweetening. وسط wasaT is with sugar; ع الريحة، with a little bit of sugar; سادة، saada, black. (The last expression – foog al-saada – is also the name of the company that produces “Clear Confusion.”) All in all, an inspired way to highlight the absurdity of the haggling spectacle played out between the parliamentarians and the ministerial side.

As mentioned, not all the show takes place from behind the newscaster’s table. Along with clips from ‘serious’ broadcasting, there are also original sketches by “Clear Confusion”‘s cast. The following, from the same episode as the coffee gag, re-imagines the “meeting between parliamentary committees and the government” on electricity prices as a back-room card game. The joke, again, depends on polysemy, this time of the word nazzil, “to reduce” or “bring down” – whether cards, or the planned increase in electricity prices, it’s not quite clear (and presumably, from the standpoint of the politicians involved, totally irrelevant). See the clip from 13:16 onwards:

(In the end, electricity prices would go up by 7.5%, following a deal between the government and the relevant parliament committees – even as parliament had in fact ended up voting against any kind of price increase.)

Political theater, indeed.

[tashweesh wadih] 1 - card game still

In Honor of the Martyr

The episode of “Clear Confusion” posted on YouTube on 10 February began with the familiar sight of Bzour sitting behind his newscaster desk with the shot of an urban panorama behind him. But from the very beginning you could tell there was something off’ about the whole thing. Bzour’s body gestures were more restrained than normal; his language, similarly, was a more elevated style of colloquial Arabic, with many formal words and expressions. All signs that this, now, was something serious.

And so it was. There was no sarcasm, no cutting comments. The out-of-studio sketches were replaced by black-and-white clips of members of the “Clear Confusion” team, reading out messages to Muath al-Kasasbeh – and his family, and the King, and the Jordanian people – all without a scrap of irony.

[tashweesh wadih] 2 - bw still

(Caption reads: “A message to the comrades of Martyr Muath”)

The only possible traces of a more ironic slant were the standard ‘citizen intrusions’ into the studio. But, even here, Bzour’s performance pretty much took out all the punch. At 17:48 in the clip, we can see one of his colleagues burst into the studio and begin to explain to him about a “fresh” piece of news (presumably, on Daesh / ISIS) he’d gotten from a news website with impeccable credentials – so many “Likes” on Facebook, so many تغريدات taghriidaat “tweets” per day, everything arranged with هاشتاغات haaštaaghaat “hashtags”…

[tashweesh wadih] 3 - rumors still

Bzour stops him before he can continue. He begins to explain, in an authoritative tone, how such websites have taken to spreading rumors, and that all their social media followership doesn’t matter if they’re spreading information that can’t be trusted. And, in any case, this isn’t what’s important. ISIS have made their message clear – that they’re horrendous criminals; any further mucking about with online news and tweets and hashtags is unnecessary. What’s important, now, is for all of “us” to stand together, shoulder to shoulder, and protect “our homeland.”

To this, the guest can say nothing but صحّ – “Yes, it’s true” – and leave the issue be.

In another mini-sketch (see clip above from 7:42 onwards), two other “citizens” burst into the studio and begin arguing about who is “truly” behind ISIS and has made the organization as powerful as they are. One guy claims America; the other, Iran. Their style of argumentation, their intonation, the phrases they use, their hand gestures: it all perfectly reflects the kind of heated ‘politics-argument’ that one could expect Jordanians (or, really, Jordanian men) to have over a cup of tea.

[tashweesh wadih] 3 - fitna still

Since it’s all going nowhere, Bzour again takes it upon himself to claim the floor, and save the day. But as in the news websites sketch, he doesn’t leave anything open to interpretation. Such debates happen every day – on Facebook, on Twitter, at the dinner table, and probably elsewhere – but end up resolving nothing. If anything, they’re harmful: they’re فتنة، fitna, the worst form of dissension, difference of opinion within a community that really should stand as one. If we find the argument funny, Bzour is here to tell us that, no, really, we shouldn’t. We should fight against this, and be one against ISIS and other forces of evil that sow dissent among the nation. The voice of reason here also stands for the national consensus, one which all Jordanians should follow.

There have been some ripples recently in academic work on Arab media, on the potential of Arabic web comedy series to challenge the media status quo. Layan Jawdat has analyzed this in the case of two YouTube comedy series from Saudi Arabia; Alexander Magidow, from a more language-oriented perspective, for بث بياخه، “Silly Broadcast,” another Jordanian creation. “Clear Confusion” may be different from these in that its aim is not entirely comic. As Bzour has previously explained (for example, in this interview for Radio Monte Carlo), the core aim of the programme is presenting local political and economic news – in a sarcastic manner, sure, though also one that allows people to absorb the information itself, even if they might find conventional news broadcasts tedious or boring.

And, perhaps, gain a critical viewpoint or two along the way. Jawdat makes a compelling argument for how this may work in the case of the Saudi videos:

“The messages… reveal sophistication and self-reflexivity in communicating weighty ideas related to issues of culture, society, economics, and politics. The satirical tools employed in the production of both shows enable the encoding of these messages in a pleasurable and entertaining way… Their sardonic take on media reporting indicates an actively engaged and analytical reading of the news that slyly calls viewers to do the same”

(Layan Jawdat, “Laughing in the Kingdom: On Saudi YouTube Comedy,” Jadaliyya, 11 November 2014 (LINK). Accessed 17 February 2015. Emphasis added)

Following Jawdat, and taking a page (or a couple) from Bakhtin, there is a dialogic aspect to this kind of comedic newscast – the sense that the message isn’t supposed to be just a clear reflection of reality, but that it can be challenged, understood from a different viewpoint than that which simply takes it at face value. Contrasted to this are monologic messages: those transmitted by authoritative voices, messages that are true, that have to be believed, or obeyed. (Or else.)

Normally, “Clear Confusion” riffs on the newscast genre in a way that challenges precisely these kind of claims to unilateral truth. The guests, and sketches, and intruders are left to stand on their own merit: up to the viewer to judge whether they, or Bzour with his critical commentary, might be the ones more correct in their treatment of issues.

But when talking about the nation’s beloved martyr, there was no alternative. The Kasasbeh episode ended up promoting a single voice – that embodied by Bzour: the voice of reason, one to clear up all disputes, standing ultimately for the Jordanian nation’s unblemished unity. So even web comedy was subjected to the silencing – or, better maybe, the unchallenged consensus – that swept local Jordanian media following Kasasbeh’s death. Only more proof, perhaps, that subversiveness can only ever go so far.

Disarming Comedy

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