Is Funny Forbidden? The History of Comedy and Censorship in Brazil

By Nadiyah Fisher

Freedom of expression. As Americans, it is one of the first unalienable rights we learn about in our 5th grade social studies class. Expression is not rigid and can compose a plethora of messages subject to interpretation. Along with the right to wear whatever I choose and dye my hair 300 colors; I have the right to express myself through comedy or satire. What would Twitter be without the political memes and debates over the two-party system? Imagine Comedy Central without Trevor Noah imitating Donald Trump? Unfortunately, Brazilians do not have this luxury. In 1997, the Brazilian government passed what some Brazilians call “The Anti-Humor Law.” The law prohibits the media from broadcasting satire regarding candidates and parties in October elections and was newly amended in July 2010 by the superior electoral court (Garrison, 2011). The ban was intended to make Brazilian elections fair, avoiding negative connotations toward a specific candidate, but many Brazilians find this explanation to be a scapegoat for censorship (Garrison, 2011). 

This is not the first time Brazil has enforced censorship. During the military dictatorship from the 1960s to the 1980s, Brazilian President Castelo Branco pushed for Institutional Act 5 which established widespread censorship, closed legislation, and revoked political rights (Wilkinson, 2018). Shortly after, Branco announced Institutional Act 2 which gave the government the power to “make all future elections of president, vice-president, and governor indirect” (Brown, 2012). This legacy of control continued after Branco’s presidency. His successor Costa e Silva expanded on the institutional acts. Institutional Act 5 allowed for the military to suppress political rights for 10 years and “let the president rule by decree” (Brown, 2012). Branco and Silva’s successors; Medici, Geisel and Figueiredo continued to use censorship and torture to control the masses. Ironically, fifty years later, Jair Bolsonaro was elected. Bolsonaro praises this bloody period of censorship and oppression as “20 years of order and progress” (Wilkinson, 2018). The “Anti- Humor Law” is deeper than comedy. 

During Bolsonaro’s presidency, Custe o Que Custar or “whatever it takes,” became one of the most popular shows in Brazil—this is Brazil’s Daily Show and Rede Bandeirantes is Trevor Noah. The Trevor Noah of the show claims that many Brazilian politicians feel that they are above being human and not meant to be ridiculed like regular people (Garrison, 2011). At the opening of the show, the comedians are in suits dancing in front of a live studio audience. Throughout the program, the comedians interview people in the street, have animations and sound effects in the background. Their content ranges from making fun of a priest with a runny nose to asking questions to lying politicians. The content is virtually harmless and serves as a distraction from the corruption of political leaders.  

About 40 percent of political leaders in Brazil have been found guilty of corruption to various degrees (Downie, 2010). Helio de la Pena from Casseta de Planeta; another popular comedic show in Brazil, responds to the government's “reasoning” for banning comedy surrounding politics. He claims that "taking the humor out of the electoral process does not elevate the level of the campaigns, it doesn't enlighten people, and it doesn't make our politicians more respectable,"(Downie, 2010). TV and radio shows can face fines close to $12,000 for their humor (Downie, 2010). In response to the ban, many of the comedians on the show used social media to create a campaign and exchange jokes through Twitter. Even Brazilian artists felt the need to protest the ban. Adão Iturrusgarai, a Brazilian cartoonist, engages in more political mockery through his art now than ever before. Many of his political cartoons compare Bolsonaro to Trump. He claims that “it is easier to make humor during disastrous governments. Still, I prefer good governments” (Garcia, 2019). Even off air, fighting back is a risk. Famous Youtuber Felipe Neto received death threats for his jokes regarding Bolsonaro’s administration and even instructed his mother to leave Brazil (Garcia, 2019).  

 

Throughout my search for Brazilian comedians, there is a popular motif: the absence of women. Along with the dangers of being a comedian in Brazil, being a woman has an extra layer of suppression, especially under Bolsonaro’s rule. In the Netflix stand-up comedy, Lugar de Mulher or “Place of a Woman, the title of the show is already a play on words. Usually, the “place of a woman” is historically in the kitchen or doing housework. Women on stage making political, sexual, and raunchy jokes is, ironically, the last place a woman should be found. In episode four, Carol Zoccoli begins her set with politics. She claims that Brazil is divided and makes a joke that the audiences who sit on the left are leftist and vice versa. She even brings up an audience member from the left and the right side, stereotypes them and has them agree to respect each other's humor. At the end of her skit, she stresses the importance of comedy and the uniting power of jokes and laughter. Even jokes as simple as these could still be fined if she performs during election season.  

 Like painters and authors, comedians are artists as well. Art is activism. Art conveys messages in many forms and has a way of uniting people. The unsettling truth about Brazilian politics calls for this medium. Many Brazilians believe that politicians make the jokes themselves (Garrison, 2011). The history of censorship is rich in Brazil; gaslighting comedians and other artists under the guise of “a level playing field for elections” is a means of control. Under Bolsonaro's rule, Brazil’s history repeats itself and is commended for its previous power over the masses. The increased risk of expression not only silences Brazilians but also keeps women comedians and artists in their roles of a patriarchal society. The first stage of establishing a dictatorship is to control the thoughts of their citizens. If you can control their thoughts, they are trapped in the reality that you created.

 


References  

Brown University (2012). Brazil: Five Centuries of Change. Center for Digital Scholarship. https://library.brown.edu/create/fivecenturiesofchange/bibliography-vol-...

Downie, A. (2010). Banning Political Humor: No Satire Please, We're Brazilian. Time.  http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2013163,00.html 

Garcia, T. (2019). In Brazil, Artists Counter Bolsonaro’s Cultural Censorship Through Political Cartoons. Remezcla. https://remezcla.com/features/culture/brazilian-artists-counter- bolsonaro-political-cartoons 

Garrison, L. (2011). The Backlash Against Brazil’s Anti-Humor Law. Vulture. https://www.vulture.com/2011/05/the-backlash-against-brazils-anti-humor-...

Wilkinson, D. (2018). No Justice for Horrors of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship 50 Years On. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/12/13/no-justice-horrors-brazils-military-... 50-years#

 

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