The joys of automated democracy?

Joke the vote, pun the bets

Barring last-minute surprises in the election count, the Noynoy-Nognog tandem will lead the next casting at Malacañang Palace in the next six years, according to funny-boned Filipinos.

Nognog, dark-skinned Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay in real life, will also be installed as the country’s “first black vice president,” they say.

Two characters from the popular cartoon The Simpsons portraying “Noynoy” and “Nognog”

But before he could become president, Noynoy, who goes by the full name Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III, may need to convince closest rival Joseph Estrada to concede.

Estrada can’t and won’t, supposedly because when he voted, his victory had been guaranteed. Proof of this, and so the tale is told, was that after Estrada fed his ballot into a PCOS machine, it popped this message: “Congratulations!”

In the most serious moments, trust Filipinos, acclaimed to be among the world’s happiest peoples, to joke and pun and laugh at themselves.

The last elections, a historical moment for being the country’s first national automated balloting, sparked a bumper harvest of humorous tricks and treats across media old and new. The jokes have been played most often on the candidates for national office by jokesters of all political persuasions.

It is not that poverty and politics are a laughing matter. On the contrary, these are matters so serious with implications so grave hence the resort to humor by some Filipinos.

For one, through jokes anyone could fire off sharp commentary without inflicting real or serious injury. For another, because jokes are made to provoke laughter, the jokester is allowed to submit the most acerbic opinions with minimal accountability, or even complete anonymity.

Painless, faultless

Criticizing in a painless, faultless manner – that could well be the reason why Filipinos resort to jokes in the era of elections or other acute political debates, according to anthropologist Dr. Clemente Camposano, director of the Institute of Political Economy in the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P).

Jokes, he says, allow people to talk about real problems “in a manner that does not create tension.” In a sense, the lightness of jokes allows Filipinos, deemed to be generally non-confrontational, to engage in political debate with minimal complications.

And because hard political talk is the acclaimed domain of the intellectual, the affluent, and the elderly jokes have turned into an accessible platform for political discourse for those much younger and with less money and education. The problem emerges, however, when to the average Juan and Juana, the joke remains just a joke, a laughing matter.

Dr. Maria Rhodora Ancheta, who has studied patterns and images of humor, says, “the comic’s object… as people will remember it is really just (to elicit) laughter. Parang as soon as I laugh, okay na ’yung joke na ’yan.”

Public conversation

But political jokes in particular are an important public conversation, except that its content values are too often eclipsed by facetious form, she says.

For instance, she says comedians tend to always play on the periphery to mask the seriousness of politics, leaving to their audience a big burden: how to sift the serious messages from a comic rendering of the big issues.

Ancheta, a professor at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, also studies the cultural context of images in literature. Sometimes, she says, political jokes veer away from folk precepts well established in literature.

She says: “Sabi nila, ’pag may dwende sa bahay, swerte raw at masagana ang buhay. Eh bakit may dwende sa Malacanang pero mahirap pa rin ang ’Pinas?” [They say that a house where a gnome dwells is a lucky and blessed house. But there is a gnome at Malacañang, so why is the Philippines still so poor?]

Dwende sa Malacañang” is a moniker that some Filipino comics have bestowed on outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in reference to her Lilliputian frame.

In this instance, Ancheta notes that the joke suggests that Malacanang Palace and the home are parallel concepts, poverty is the problem, and that Arroyo is to blame for the people’s destitute state.

Yet aside from Arroyo, those who seek to succeed her have found themselves too often at the receiving end of jokes.

B1go Teodoro

Bigo, C-5 at Tiyaga

Online, jokesters have christened administration candidate Gilberto ”Gibo” Teodoro Jr., who championed the campaign ”Galing at Talino,” as ”Bigo” Teodoro.

Nacionalista Party candidate Manuel B. Villar Jr. had proclaimed himself as the aspirant with ”Sipag at Tiyaga.” In the jokesters’ book, that reads as ”C-5 at Taga,” in reference to a controversial road project that supposedly benefited Villar’s real estate project and earned a huge right-of-way payment for his family-owned company.

Liberal Party candidate Benigno C. Aquino III, thrust to national prominence by his pedigree as son of democracy icons Cory and Ninoy Aquino, did not have a personal pitch. He got this from the comics: ”Mama at Papa.”

Impersonator and satirist Willie Nepomuceno likens jokes amid a heady political exercise to popping candies because “it perks you up a little, pass it on and delete and it’s just a thought.’

Nepomuceno has parodied nearly all male Philippine presidents from strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos to Fidel V. Ramos to Joseph Estrada. These days, Nepomuceno parades on television as “Noynoy Palaboy,” his comic styling of winning presidential candidate Aquino.

While candies offer a sugar fix or a virtual adrenaline shot, Nepomuceno says jokes amid the confusion and noise that mark elections are also “a way of letting off steam… of (making) you think.” This seems especially true, he notes, for two groups of citizens – the most politically aware and the most unhappy about the country’s state of affairs.

Decade of jokes

The past two decades may well be considered the halcyon years of political jokes in the Philippines, judging by the volume and speed of spread of jokes, across old and new media platforms, vented at political personalities.

And it is probably not only because Filipinos have gotten funnier. Greater assertion of freedom of speech, text messaging, as well as blogging, social networking, and a slew of freeware applications on the Internet have all allowed a downpour of comic content online.

Put a check to vote for “C5 at tyaga”

What used to be the domain of trained professionals, online publication has become accessible to anyone with message or content to push in a jiffy, thanks to Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and blogs.

Without any firm standards of quality, the Web has allowed everyone to post or upload funny or serious commentary, and instantly, it spreads virally — exponentially, unpredictably — through networks of readers across the globe. This is also the route that has been charted by the untraceable, if virtually unstoppable, group text.

The May 2010 elections yielded jokes of varying shades of green, black, brown and dark. During the campaign period, social networking sites and popular blogs meshed caustic commentary with piping pranks.

On Facebook, fan pages poked fun at the presidential candidates. One of the most popular was the anti-Villar fan page called “Sige MANNY VILLAR ikaw na ang MAHIRAP.” It has enrolled 126,082 members.

Other popular pages include the “Sige Noynoy, Hindi ka na Magnanakaw at Anak ka na ni Ninoy at Cory,” and the “If Erap Estrada is elected president again, I’M LEAVING THE COUNTRY!”

On these fan pages, the edited images of the candidates have been uploaded beside which fans could post their own quips and status messages.

‘PCOS’ tweets

Twitter has also become a playground for political satire.

On Election Day, tweets by an anonymous twitter account named “PCOS machine” started to draw traffic. It posted tweets on the glitches and mishaps in the automation process such as, Please don’t blame us PCOS machines. We’re doing our best. Just shade the bilog na hugis itlog and I’ll do the rest for you.” Another read: “@CF card – I’m not talking to you. You almost ruined my career.”

“Sige Manny Villar, ikaw na ang mahirap…”

Three days after the vote, the authorities found 60 PCOS machines at the house of a technician in Antipolo City. The incident sparked this tweet from the “PCOS Machine”: “f I find out that they’re actually having an outing in Antipolo and I wasn’t invited, somebody gonna get a hurt real bad.”

Political humor has become a staple fare of bloggers. “Professional Heckler,” a popular blogger, has become an even bigger name on the web for his relentless bashing of politicians. YouTube has hosted a smorgasbord of funny video clips, including spoofs of the candidates’ political advertisements. Villar’s “Dagat ng Basura” ad has morphed into various jocular versions.

But it is not only the candidates who have commanded top billing on the humor mill.

Toward the end of the campaign period, Acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra grabbed the punters’ attention after he issued a resolution absolving two members of the Ampatuan clan from the Maguindanao Massacre. For his action, he became the “Agra-vating” or “Agra-byado” weekly special on the web.

Aquino’s youngest sister, television star Kristina Bernadette Aquino, earned her fair share of jokes as well. This happened after Kris’s younger son Baby James Yap blurted out the name of “Villar” when asked at a campaign rally about his choice of presidential bet. An abundance of online jokes has also focused on a supposed plan by Aquino to hire Kris and showbiz buddy Boy Abunda as Cabinet members.

The top TV networks that are incessantly locked in a ratings war were not spared, too. The so-called hologram technology that ABS-CBN Channel 2 and GMA7 separately claimed to be their cutting edge in the coverage of the elections triggered this comment from “Professional Heckler”:

“GMA News and Public Affairs ushered in a first on Philippine television. Howie Severino became the first Filipino to be beamed in ‘a hologram’ on live TV. But rumors say it wasn’t really Howie but his boss, Jessica Soho, who was supposed to be beamed first during the coverage. There wasn’t just enough ‘beam’ to make it possible.”

Always with zing

Truth is, according to impersonator Nepomuceno, political jokes, while meant to entertain, “always offer purposeful commentary, message or comic object.”

As a matter of course, he says he puts a light touch to important news so he could help raise awareness without alienating people. “I’m just a facilitator… More or less okay na sa akin basta may naiwan na akong seed of thought.”

While all media platforms have been invaded by jokes during the elections just concluded, Nepomuceno says text jokes are his favorite because these are “simpler and raw, easily digestible, nothing fancy.”

“I’m not a techie, and (gets) easily bored with too much text copy. They’re too fancy for me,” he says, adding that “too much jokes in one serving gives you an overdose and makes the whole thing bland.”

They are fun and light but there is a downside to jokes, according to UP’s Ancheta. Sometimes, after a good laugh, she rues that ”nobody thinks about thinking.”

Camposano of the University of Asia and the Pacific says that as much as Filipinos love to laugh about politics, they also take politics seriously. “People die for their candidates. People kill for their candidates. People spend billions [on] their campaigns…. Why would you invest 220,000 pesos for a 50-second spot on TV? It’s serious.”

Still and all, he sees a need to distinguish between a serious discussion of politics and the way Filipinos take politics seriously. “Elections are very much a personal enterprise,” he says. Whether it is some kind of reward, relationship, or opportunity, elections affect the future interests of individuals, she notes.

In her published studies of the hugely popular comic strip Pugad Baboy (Swines’ Nest) of cartoonist Apolonio “Pol” Medina Jr., Ancheta illustrates why the fictional Pugad Baboy community appeals to Filipinos. In the comic strip, “distant things are internalized, we share our personal struggles with the community, the micro and the macro are deeply intertwined,” she says,

Politics matters

Adds Ancheta: “Remember the parallelism within the Gloria-dwende joke? Apparently, in the Filipino mindset, we liken any space we occupy or value to our concept of home. Thus, politics matters to us.”

Camposano laments, however, what he calls the lack of a civic culture, hence the lack of “inclusive and serious political discourse,” in the Philippines. To candidates and voters, politics seems to be built largely on selfish interests,” and this, he says, may explain why many Filipinos end up trivializing politics rather than becoming involved.

In Ancheta’s view, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. It is said that Filipinos should consider themselves “lucky” if they could get honest public officials elected. If luck remains the arbiter of elections, how is anyone supposed to trust the public sphere enough to do more than laugh, and finally work for change? “We have yet to see a reward for good citizenship,” she says.

“Much of the laughter that we have is really a lack of space. We laugh a great deal because we need to survive… to cope with pressure,” adds Ancheta.

“[And because] we’re not a talk-about-it people… we’re the culture that says, ‘Sorry, yeah, hayaan mo na lang, bahala na, bahala na s’ya’… given the misery of our situation, joking becomes our outlet.” - PCIJ, May 2010