BERLIN — It’s time for Christmas gifts in Europe, and comedy sketch writers here have rarely considered themselves to be so fortunate. As the continent’s very own Brexit drama is turning into a dark comedy, President Trump is a gift that keeps on giving to satirical shows.
Europe’s star comedians are doing their best to return the favor. Last week, Germany’s top-rated “Heute Show” satirical broadcast awarded Trump its so-called Goldener Vollpfosten (Golden Idiot) award for the fourth-consecutive time — a keenly anticipated decision by the public broadcaster that made its way into the nation’s more serious news outlets. Trump shares this year’s award with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, among others.
Meanwhile, in Brexit-distraught Britain, viewers appeared relieved that things may still look messier in the White House than on 10 Downing Street and picked a Trump joke as their annual favorite. Some 2,000 Brits followed a call for action by British comedy channel Gold and picked the following line as 2018′s most hilarious one: “What does Donald Trump do after he pulls a cracker? Pays her off.” Pulling a cracker, according to Urban Dictionary, is a British “phrase used during the festive season to describe going out with a view to hooking up with an attractive person” — a not-too-subtle reference to the hush money payments by Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen.
Now, there is an abundance of research trying to explain why Americans sometime struggle to laugh at British jokes, besides the language barrier. But if Trump ever decided to test whether he is an exception, now might be an especially bad time to try it out. In Europe, where Trump-friendly viewers are rare, broadcasters go to little or no lengths to soften their mockery of the U.S. president, and they appear to have recently become even more emboldened.
For instance, one recent sketch by a German comedian that has been widely shared on YouTube imagined a discussion between “God” and Trump after his death, with “God” investigating whether he belongs in heaven. Let’s just say that Trump didn’t fare too well in the fictional conversation.
In the United States, the much more veiled late-night ridicule of Trump has resulted in a heated debate about the purpose of humor and its limits. A frequent target of shows such as “Saturday Night Live," Trump doubled down on earlier criticism this weekend and suggested that some jokes could be illegal.
“A REAL scandal is the one sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal? Only defame & belittle! Collusion?”
The tweet drew ire from members of his own party, including Republican Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw (Tex.), who wrote that the “1st Amendment is the backbone of American exceptionalism.” Crenshaw himself recently experienced the sometimes brutal humor politicians face on late-night television, when he was mocked by SNL’s Pete Davidson for wearing an eye patch. (Davidson later apologized.)
Humor as an element of the political debate isn’t unique to the United States, of course, nor is the debate over its limits. In Europe, stricter defamation laws and prior trials have produced an abundance of research on a difficult question Trump is now raising: How far can humor go?
Very far, say those who emphasize the societal functions of humor, “to change or reform society by means of humor,” as the Israeli researcher Avner Ziv summarized in 1988. To determine how free citizens really are in a country, it helps to check how politicians deal with satirical portrayals of themselves, the academic suggested.
“Its victims fear it as a threat to their power and position. Thus in totalitarian countries satire directed against the ruling powers is banned, and any manifestation of satire earns harsh punishment,” he explained.
Still, some researchers have cautioned that satire and comedy can indeed breach limits, especially when they reinforce existing stereotypes. By laughing at or mocking certain groups, "comedy can be a way of passing on nasty ideas,” as University of Kent researcher Sophie Quirk phrased it in an interview with the BBC in 2016.
The question is what qualifies as a “nasty idea" in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.
In 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to find out. He sued German comedian Jan Böhmermann, who had recited a poem mocking the Turkish president on the same TV channel that has now awarded Trump the “Golden Idiot” award. At the time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel cleared the way for Böhmermann’s prosecution, saying that “it is not up to the government to decide."
“Prosecutors and courts should weigh personal rights against the freedom of press and art,” Merkel said, indicating that there are limits to freedom of speech in Germany. Erdogan was suing the comedian based on a German law that prohibited insulting heads of state.
In the ensuing trials, several German courts largely sided with Erdogan and prohibited the German comedian from continuing to recite 18 out of 24 of the poem’s lines that included unsavory accusations against the president.
So, could Trump sue German TV instead of SNL?
Not exactly. Stunned by the legal fallout, European lawmakers decided to expand critics’ free speech rights rather than restrict them. Norway and the Netherlands announced they would abolish similarly dated laws prohibiting mockery of foreign heads of state. In Germany, the Justice Ministry said it would scrap its own “outdated and unnecessary" law last January.
In a twist that did not go unnoticed, the announcement came just in time for Trump’s first days in office.
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