Friday ∗ 04 Nov 2005

Where Has All the Laughter Gone?

published in PCIJ i-Report, the investigative reporting quarterly, of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Issue no. 4, November 2005

FIVE YEARS ago, we had a president who made as much fun of himself as everyone else did. He even had his very own joke book and his very own think tank to make up stories and jokes that revolved around his supposedly being uneducated, as well as his being uncouth and unpresidential. Then came his impeachment trial, which provided us with all kinds of material for comedy.

At that time, everyone was fair game for parodies and jokes that came fast and furious in the form of text messages and email, standup routines, and comic strips. There was no escape. But since the Internet was and is the most liberal and liberating of media to work with—uncensorable, untouchable, maybe even incomprehensible to many—so much was published from the computers of hi-tech Pinoys who could deal with the Estrada presidency only by consistently putting down the man, his cohorts, and all those who voted for him. So much so that when PCIJ’s Alecks Pabico sat down to write “Pinoy Parody Online” (http://www.pcij.org/imag/Online/pinoyparody.html) then, a veritable mine of websites that poked fun at President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada was there waiting for him.

A failed Edsa 3 and a junked impeachment complaint against Estrada’s successor later, most of those sites that Pabico featured—even writer Bob Ong’s website (http://www.bobongpinoy.com)—are dead links (pun intended). And one can’t help but wonder why.

It cannot be that there’s nothing to laugh about at this point, can it? If all things humorous are really based on grains of reality, then laughter should not, and need not, end. The funnies can only survive. For sure, we continue to receive and forward funny text messages and emails of jokes, editorial cartoons, and comic strips from the print media that delve into the state of this GMA-Garci nation. And yet, as we reel from one political punch after another, there are hardly any good punchlines echoing from cyberspace.

This is not to say that nothing political is being written online. There are tons of complaints, many bordering on anger. But instead of sites dedicated to parodying or satirizing the daily events that should concern us, what’s proliferating are weblogs or blogs—online diaries that can be on anything and everything, with no pretensions to objectivity or truth, but with illusions of an audience that will want to read through text upon text of opinion, rants, and raves.

THERE ARE, of course, bloggers who have used the form well, basically because they know what they want it to be about—politics, for example, as with Luis Teodoro (www.luisteodoro.com) and http:///www.piercingpens.tk/; or Pinoy pop culture, as with Paolo Manalo (in the old www.psychicpants.net and the spanking new http://www.livejournal.com/~paolomanalo). These sites also seem to have a clear sense of an audience, limited though it may be. Manalo’s blog(s) in particular, is funny, not just because of its chosen concern, but because it is lightly and cleverly written. But it rarely talks about politics.

In contrast, there are blogs that are overtly political, such as www.angasngkurimaw.blogspot.com and www.ourthoughtsarefree.blogspot.com. But perhaps because of the seriousness with which politics do need to be dealt with, there’s rarely anything to laugh about in these political blogs. Often the funny blogs are nonpolitical, if not altogether apolitical. There’s the http://akosipaeng.blogspot.com/ blog by a Pinoy who seems to always write about his world as if he’s seeing it for the first time; and there are those blogs like www.tabulas.com/~apester that has always been fun easy reading, but talks about nothing else other than food in its recent reincarnation.

It is these types of Pinoy blogs that are more personal diaries than political commentary, more this-is-my-life than this-is-the-state-of-the-nation, which have made up much of our Internet production in recent years. In this sense, while the blog has been celebrated as something that can function as an alternative source of information (the PCIJ has its own blog, for example), it has for the most part been used by Pinoy techies as a form through which they may write without limits, even when they really have nothing much to say. It has even become the rule rather than the exception to be apolitical and apathetic in the blogs we create.

A personal blog like www.professionalheckler.blogcity.com is a rare exception in that it ridicules the political state of the nation by poking fun at its personalities—akin to Erap’s time. More known for his spoofs of political speeches, blogger Loi Reyes Landicho calls the site a humor blog born of his agitation over recent political events, which to him make for “desperate times that require desperate measures.” Yet because of the form that it takes, what Landicho really offers the blog reader is mostly a hodgepodge of thoughts on various issues and events that may be political (why is there no outrage over the junked impeachment complaint?) but are not always so (why didn’t UP win in a recent pep squad competition?).

Still, Landicho can be funny, especially with her Top 10 lists a la David Letterman. Just on September 23, he posted the “Top 10 (Silliest) Reasons Why GMA Won’t Resign”:

  1. Unlike the Ejercitos, her family does not own a posh villa in Tanay, Rizal. In the event that she goes to jail, she would languish at Camp Capinpin, deprived of the same luxury being enjoyed by her predecessor.
  2. She would never allow some guy named Manuel ‘Noli’ de Castro, a graduate of some school known as UE to take over the presidency. She did not spend years at Assumption, Ateneo, UP, and Georgetown only to give way to a UE graduate! [Taas-kilay to the 9th degree…hmmpf!]
  3. Resigning would enrage her god whom she claims to be on her side and who makes everything possible for her. Remember her father’s dictum that has become her
    favorite cliché? “Do what issh right. Do your bessht and God will take care of the ressht.” Whatever.
  4. Luck is still on her side. [As I discussed here before, she is fated to become president.] Filipinos have more important things to do than join rallies. Despite unfavorable SWS, Pulse Asia, and Ibon Foundation surveys showing unprecedented public dissatisfaction and distrust, fact is, these are just figures. People would rather feed their families than burn effigies.
  5. GMA won’t step down unless Cong. Mike Arroyo wins an acting plum. His latest movie, “Sablay Na, Pasaway Pa” [which had its premiere in Biliran province
    sometime in June] has yet to be shown in Metro Manila theatres. Reports say bookers decline to release the cheap flick for obvious reasons.
  6. She will only relinquish her post as soon as the Philippines has overtaken Indonesia in the Asian corruption index ranking. We’re still at number 2. Becoming number 1 would be a feat indeed!
  7. The concept of delicadeza is alien to her.
  8. GMA simply cannot imagine herself behind bars while the First Gentleman goes shopping in Hong Kong with Vicky Toh.
  9. GMA dreams of a royal wedding for her only daughter Luli in Malacañang. Not in Lubao Church, not at the Manila Cathedral. The plan is to invite heads of state, as well as former US President and GMA classmate Bill Clinton. The event will eclipse the
    profligacy of the Imee Marcos-Tommy Manotoc wedding.
  10. And finally, GMA won’t resign because she’s not the president. She’s just an overstaying palace visitor.

STRANGELY ENOUGH, while this list is funny in its “silliness,” all a reader can muster is a smile and maybe a snort. It hardly provokes laughter, most probably because it hits too close to home, but also because there’s nothing funny in the way Landicho has reworked his material. In fact, most of these could be true (although it has to be pointed out Landicho may have meant the lavish Sarrat wedding of Irene Marcos and Greggy Araneta, and not that of Imee and Tommy Manotoc, who had eloped). It is obvious enough that GMA has no delicadeza, and it is possible that she has believed her own propaganda about God being on her side. Even more painful is the possibility that she is just lucky—people aren’t in the mood for rallies, or for information that will lead them there. Number 10 in particular isn’t funny because it reminds us that we may have handled Erap and Edsa 2 all wrong. The funniest thing about this list really is the way it makes fun of GMA’s speech defect (see item 3), which is similar to the way we made fun of Erap’s grammar.

So why doesn’t this work? If Landicho’s blog entry for September 6 entitled “The Award Goes To” is any indication, the answer may have more to do with ideology than creativity. This entry pokes fun at the personalities involved in the impeachment case against GMA, with the “Cry Me a River” award, for example, being given to Dinky Soliman for crying three times after she resigned as the social welfare secretary, while still looking “fashionable with the highlights in her hair …Jolinaesque indeed!” There were also the “Mag-diet Ka Muna” award given to Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano (for obvious reasons), and the “Not Enough Vitamins, Not Enough Life” award that went to Sorsogon Rep. Francis Escudero, who was unable to participate in the pro-impeachment walkout in Congress because, he said, he had fallen ill.

Here one begins to see why Landicho’s humor blog isn’t always funny. On the one hand, it has the temerity to make fun of the current state of the nation (when it wants to). On the other, it isn’t very clear where the blog stands in all these issues. It finds it fit to lampoon both GMA and her opposition, i.e. Soliman, Cayetano, Escudero et al., but it’s fuzzy about who—or what—it’s for. Strong statements are also made against what Landicho calls the “obsolete Left,” without taking into consideration all the steps this Left has taken toward compromise over and above the rallies that it leads.

Over at another humor blog, the sides are even less clearly drawn. Created by graphic artist/blogger Retzwerx, www.retzwerx.com has become known for its “poop-to-graphs,” in which thought and speech balloons are added to photographs of the president and her gang. But what or who is being made fun of? GMA? For having done what, exactly? What is the humor grounded on? That Retzwerx recently shifted topic from politics to reality TV’s “Pinoy Big Brother” is indicative not of the freedom allowed the blogger, but the lack of a clear political agenda that must drive any site set on inspiring change through laughter. It’s also something www.retzwerx.com shares with other similarly positioned Pinoy blogs: Although they have the guts to make fun of our politics, they are in the end only reactionary. They don’t have a clear stand on things, much less a sense of what to aspire for.

That’s one of the reasons why they’re not funny. One cannot make fun of the state of the nation without being serious or truthful about where one stands. In the same vein, one can’t just simply hate everyone—the government, the opposition, the Church, the Communists—without having a sense of the different colors they carry, and what those colors mean. One also can’t simply be angry. That doesn’t achieve much, as proven by Edsas 2 and 3.

AT LEAST in Erap’s time, our enemies were clear, our allies and alliances even clearer. We didn’t criticize both sides, and we reveled in having more and more people on our side—the Left, the Right, the religious in all its denominations. Now there are no enemies or any allies, and so we are not laughing. We seem stuck in a humorless political limbo.

Beyond the blogs, though, there seems to be hope, albeit a very small one. The site www.pldt.com is still going strong, and is in fact one of very few that fill the gap between the anti-Erap parody sites and the anti-GMA angry/reactionary blogs. While serious in its thrust of being anti-Arroyo at this point, particularly after the impeachment complaint was junked in Congress (see http://www.pldt.com/tipping%20point.htm), the site itself remains a force to reckon with. Not only is it still among the Top 50 Google sites in the news/satire directory, it also continues to rightly claim that it cares for the state of the nation, beyond Erap Estrada and Edsa 2. Just the same, however, there is a lot less irreverence now that there was in the Erap era—and a lot more anger directed at GMA.

Probably the only site that more than makes up for the dismal lack in political humor in light of current events is journalist Alan C. Robles’s online tabloid Hot Manila (www.hotmanila.com). Created by someone who has been exposing the absurdity of our politics for nearly two decades, Hot Manila is clear in its stand and has a good grasp of issues. It is also well-researched and well-thought out, using graphics and photographs alongside anti-GMA articles that make fun of her and the way she runs the country. It creates lists as well, but only to point out the parallelism between, say, having GMA as your lavandera (laundrywoman) and having her as President of the
Republic. (Among the top 10 reasons you wouldn’t want her as lavandera, it says, is that something other than your clothes.”)

Hot Manila skewers other political personalities, such as missing elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, who stars in the article “Cooking with Garci” that contains, among others, Recipe 1: Malacanang Delight—take one ballot box, and that’s it! “The Arroyo Administration: Good and Bad,” meanwhile, is not only funny, it is also a reminder of how this government has wasted money, ignored public clamor for better governance, and helped big business in its continuing plunder of the economy.

Hot Manila has readers laughing while offering the enough information that can force them to make a stand. Unfortunately, it is only one in a sea of sites and blogs that offer little else beyond clever writing about nothing. It’s a situation that can only be detrimental to the country, and delightful only to the Arroyo administration.

Actually, this lack of online laughter is not only a measure of our stand on things, if any, but is also revealing of how the Net functions in this country. It is really a middle-class tool, one that we had used successfully against Erap because he wasn’t like us. A friend observes that it had been much easier to gather people, i.e. the middle class, against Erap because of the matapobre factor. We felt Erap wasn’t good enough for us, so we fought him at all levels, and particularly on the Internet, which is the educated’s turf. Now that we are faced with a president who is Erap’s opposite—a GMA who is well-educated and not (outwardly) crass—we have become uncertain on how to cast the Net.

We can’t quite see GMA as the enemy, since the enemy in this case is broadcaster-cum-vice president Noli de Castro. Although a college graduate, he is still perceived to be of the same educational and showbiz class as Erap. There is a matapobre factor at work once more, but this time it’s working for the incumbent because the pobre who does not quite measure up is de Castro.

With successful parodies and satires, laughter becomes the only defense against the truth presented. But what happens when those truths aren’t clear to us? Orunacceptable to us? Maybe that’s why blogs like professionalheckler’s fail at being funny. There are just no truths to pick on and laugh about so hard that it hurts.

Now we just hurt.

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