15. 7. 2021

English Version | Quo Vadis, Humor?

by Nuno Miguel Dias


I find it funny (I apologize in advance for the employed expression but anyways “interestingly enough” is not exactly the most assertive of phrases either) that the duration of my life thus far has been long enough to see Humor go from absolutely liberal to a bunch of eggshells trying to not hurt anyone’s susceptibilities. People who are, curiously, deprived of humor. Is it sad? No. It’s only symptomatic. 

In 2018, Nuno Markl, Francisco Martiniano Palma and Frederico Pombares took to the stages of Porto and Lisbon a show called Lusitânia Comedy ClubO Porquê das Coisas, that made a parody out of various episodes of the history of Portugal. Following a very Monty Python path (which is, in fact, to this day, the narrow stream of inspiration from where so many comedians around the world come to drink), there was a Adamastor that was, after all, the most current Monster of Bureaucracy, embodied by an employee of customs that forced Vasco da Gama to fill out countless forms so he could resume his quest on the Cabo das Tormentas, an enraged Napoleon because the Portuguese were mocking his height and Marquês do Pombal, a ventricle thinking he was funny. Though there was, above all, the fight between Old Spice and Ach Brito, two of the most emblematic Portuguese cologne brands. During the times of… the Colonial War. There were tons of offended people because the topic was too serious for this type of joke. I know. My father was there. What saved it was that the “scandal” (in quotation marks because a non-issue doesn’t qualify for a scandal) didn’t go beyond the frontiers of social media. What is already something, given that social media are more and more fertile grounds for all and any scandals, precisely because they are, for many people, the only world they are familiar with. Or that they wish to be familiar with. Which makes it all quite worse. There’s no going around these facts: humor is the mirror of progression. Or its contrary, when it is conservative and carried out by people who are easily scared off by social conventions. Those who run from sensitive topics like a bat out of hell. Humor is the barometer for society’s state of mind. What it encompasses is outlined by frontiers that are much more than territorial. To overcome them is only reachable to liberals. Yes, humor is liberty itself. And what here follows is not so much of a short story of it, but its contextualization in different periods, so that it becomes clear how necessary it is that we save it while we still have time. Also, because “mood lifter” is one of its synonyms. Wasn’t sure you got that. 

When I was little, I was deeply annoyed every time my grandma would laugh at Camilo’s jokes. “How?”, I thought, incapable of showing even the palest of smiles with all those “tá-se, tá-se, tááááássseee” (the equivalent to ‘sup, in English), which was the punchline of every sketch in every episode, meaning, it was the same joke every week. It was the heritage of Revista à Portuguesa. A style very typically ours. Some sort of beginner’s Broadway. But that undeniably fulfilled, for many years, its purpose. To mock the Estado Novo without getting caught by censors, in the vast majority petty little men from the countryside of Portugal, where attending first grade meant you were practically an engineer. They dominated the written Portuguese language, but they were lacking in some cultural baggage that allowed them to identify irony and sarcasm when they’re as patent as an albatross in the open sea, a bad omen for some, a sign of proximity to land for others. This “style” endured, however, more than it should have. Which means, when Portugal should have already become a progressive country, European, with fire in the blood pumping through its veins, it still “fed culture to the Portuguese” through the Malucos do Riso (1995) and its scripted phrases “Ó Costa, a Vida Costa” and “Isto é que vai aqui uma Açorda”, with Os Batanetes (2004) and their encyclopedia of dry anecdotes that we stopped listening to when we were six and also with the show Maré Alta (2004), with its awkward sketch “Pi pi pi pi parou, PAROU” when girls would go through the metal detector, which made her take their clothes off until they were left in lingerie, the highest point of so many people’s evening. Rascality and dirty jokes carry on untouched in Portugal, the legacy of dark times where any manifestation of sexuality was repressed (yes, even hetero). To escape the “mildness of habits” was in times a victory. And so, we carried on, to this day, still joyful and happy, with personalities such as Fernando Rocha, the heir of Canty – O Cantinflas Português, whose work became silent (he was on in every national road gas station), with the disappearance of tapes. From the radio, in 1997, the Parodiantes de Lisboa also vanished, who were on there since 1947, coming mostly from the weekly humoristic. The Bomba, which had just closed business. That one didn’t even include shenanigans. It was a vast flat desert where the Portuguese ideal dragged itself like the tumbleweeds we see swirling in westerns with characters such as Jack Taxas and his horse Pretty Face, the Catatua Sisters, the Alentejano comrade (seriously?), the Arnestinho boy and the double Patilhas and Ventoinha. Those were dark times, of unconcealed prejudice, whether towards Alentejanos, the main characters of pretty much all anecdotes said during family gatherings, or with Samora Machel, that served as a stereotype the metropolis say as the “stupidity” of the people of color population of the colonies, the “natives”. Nice, isn’t it? 

One day, I was set to interview the quartet that made up Gato Fedorento, when they moved from SIC to RTP. Even though I knew they were the authors of so many of the scripts that ended up becoming sketches on the O Maior Humorista Português, I dared to ask: “_How do you feel about dethroning Herman José?” only to see four hands (one from each one of them) held high: “Tabu topic! No one touches the king. Herman is Herman and the only reason we’re here is because of him.” They meant by that that, just like me, they were part of a generation that, coinciding their adolescence with the 80’s, was intoxicated with a sense of freedom that was given to them no strings attached, and of which they wanted to take full advantage. We didn’t wish to see our grandmothers laugh when Badaró and their Limpopó said “I explain, and you complicate”. We wanted the men who exuded the English nonsense in O Tal Canal (1983), that in Hermanias (1984) commented the current political situation with Doctor Pinocchio: “Young people can’t find employment? They can be sons of bitches, for example, that’s already a job”, and that tore apart all conventions in Humor de Perdição (1987), which was the reason why he got suspended by the Administration at RTP (supposedly because its more conservative wing thought the Entrevista Histórica à Rainha Santa Isabel an “assault to historic values”). Later on, we watched him build Portuguese humor patrimony with Casino Royal, from which we are left with lifetime expressions like “Re ne vá pliú” or “mais um cafezinho cooooom leite, mas com mais açúcar, que este, a bem d’zêre, estava insosso” (loosely translated to “another cup o’joe wiiiiiith milk, but with more sugar, because this one, to be fair, was sour”). The tradition started where we were presented to those that became actual institutions. Rita Blanco (Ivete Carina) should say it, along with José Pedro Gomes (Cachucho) and even Nuno Melo (Alverca), until then known only and poorly for the role he played as Caniço in the soap opera Chuva na Areia, wherein the finale he appears castrated on the beach of Tróia. Later on, in Herman SIC (2000), it was time for Maria Rueff and Nuno Lopes to win, forever, the heart of the Portuguese. Even Eduardo Madeira saw his career take off when he sent, resume style, the script of Monólogos Secretos, supposedly of Baptista Bastos (“Where were you on the 25th of April?”) to Fictional Production. Herman left us an endless legacy and patrimony. From Caixões Vilaças (“that are tough as hell”) to the Direitos de Antena, such as M.A.R.S.A.P.O. (Movimento Associativo Renovador dos Sofredores Anónimos de Pornolalia), going through “I’m more of a sweets guy” by José Severino (who was supposed to have played Perfeito Calhau, the radiotelegrapher, but there was an error in production), the “I am the Mayor”, by Lauro Dérmio that didn’t manage to contain the laughter while proclaiming the quote “Não pirilimpaparás a mulher do próximo, do not pirimpampalhate the alheie woman”, or Diácono Remédios, not forgetting Carlos Carrapiço, the poet who wrote the unavoidable work O Ovário: “Bate leve, levemente como quem chama por mim. Será chuva? Será gente? Gente não é certamente e a chuva não bate assim. Fui ver. Era um ovário”, proclaimed by Rosa Lobato de Faria. After all, he who had knocked was the author’s cousin, Otávio. An unfortunate typo.

We’ll always have the A Conversa da Treta (2006). Or the genius of Bruno Aleixo without whom we would have never gotten access to the Man of Bussaco. However, in the meantime, the advent of stand-up comedy began. We suffered a bit. Some of it was just awkward. But now we’ve reached 2021 with our eyes laid upon a new generation that has emerged from there. Bruno Nogueira (who also had his first worthy of mention public appearance on the show Herman SIC) eased our confinement with evenings where improvisation was the motto. He did it out of pure creative impetus. A very well dilated vein he had already shown in O Último a Sair (2011), the genius series Odisseia (2013), the surprising Fugiram de Casa de Seus Pais (2017) and the excellent mini-series Sara (2018). His companion in so many adventures, João Quadros, is the enfant terrible that no one dares to “tease” on Twitter. Except for Nuno Melo, the euro congressman from CDS-PP, who sued for “slander”. João Quadros painted over the document received via mail and cracked a joke that read “vai mamar” (loosely translated to “suck it”) and the case was filed (which proves this works, take note). Things such as “I hate living on the ground floor, I miss peeing from the balcony” or, how “shocked” so many people were regarding humorists’ posts on social media: “Out of a sudden, they figured out that the problem of this country is guys who like to joke around. Bunch of softies”, are a true walk in the park. As I’m writing this piece, he responded to André Ventura’s tweet, criticizing the fact that the National Football team kneeled as a statement against racism: “I only kneel to God”, with a photo of his penal appendix… with a bow on it (true story). João Quadros doesn’t crack jokes. He delivers a roast at every passing hour. What leads us to the devil himself. Reincarnated. Rui Sinel de Cordes. Who about three months after the passing of the pianist Bernardo Sassetti, went on a tour called Isto Era Para Ser Com O Sasseti (This was supposed to be with Sasseti). On a show called Memento Mori, he exhibited the cat he “rescued” (for 300€ from a pet shop) and exclaims: “Cats are like children, it’s better to pay and have one with pretty eyes than to take in a random abandoned one.” Or he recalls about the time he went to court to respond to a complaint of violence towards women, and the judge asked him: “There are women that think you have the eyes of a rapist”, confessing to having thought at the time “Go figure the things women notice when they’re being raped.” Or he defines as a highlight of his life, that night he made love to two women: “I mean, I think they were two women, because one of them was one of those pregnant ladies that didn’t want to know the baby’s sex.” Or he assumes that he stopped speaking to his grandfather because lately he had been hanging out with disgusting people: “Oh well, you know how nursing homes are.” To sum up, Sinel de Cordes puts no boundaries to his sense of humor. He makes fun of tetraplegic people. Of people who suffer from Down Syndrome. With children with oncological diseases. He has been sued a ton of times. Until the point he had to pay the price. Because there are still many people that impose limits to humor that, apparently, upsets them. And when we’re so bothered by what other people are doing with a clear conscience, it’s empty puritanism that wins. Freedom loses. 

Herman José wasn’t always consensual. Which was an extremely good sign. I loved him to death. But my dad felt indifferent. My grandmother, on the other hand, naturally, hated him. This proved that the man managed to level Portugal’s good spirit and mood to what was coming from the Great Motherland of Humor, Great Britain. He quickly dropped the tired Teatro de Revista with Mr. Feliz and Mr. Contente (equivalent in English to Mr. Happy and Mr. Joyful), sharing the stage with Nicolau Breyner, to swiftly move on to a Benny Hill style. He was bulletproof to the humoristic trends of his time, that went from the terrible movies of Academia de Polícia (1984) to the South-African apartheid patent in Os Deuses Devem Estar Loucos (1980). It was not indifferent to the denominated “Jewish humor” that was born with Jerry Lewis and continued with Andy Kaufman, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks (and that would reach our day and age with the unqualified Sasha Baron Cohen, him who was also unaware – or purposedly challenging – of the boundaries of humor). Although it ended up time and time again with the inevitable Monty Python, the greatest of liberalists. The gods. The Pythons, if you’re a friend. Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin and Terry Jones were four boys when they premiered, on BBC, the series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, that aired for five years (from 1969 to 1974) and that immortalized sketches such as dead Parrot, How Not To Be Seen, Dirty Hungarian Phrase Book, the football match between philosophers and the Lumberjack Song. From TV they jumped to the silver screen with Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983). John Cleese was having a great solo run, with the series Faulty Towers (1975) and would eventually find Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda (1988). Terry Gilliam would go on to direct films like The Fisher King (1991) or 12 Monkeys (1995). But it was Monty Python that would become immortal with characteristic surrealism that, until then, was inadmissible to the genre. And just like that, Britcom was born, adapted from the term sitcom, in vogue since the 50s in the United States. Black Adder (1983), with Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) and the first television appearance of Hug Laurie (Doctor House), Allo Allo! (1982), The Day Today (1994), The League of Gentlemen (1999) and Little Britain (2003) are all but examples of a genre that was so successful it birthed shows like The Office (2005) the great, the unmatched, the genius Ricky Gervais. Fortunately, we are their contemporaries. And could witness, in their own time, series like Life’s too Short (2011), the delicious Derek (2013) and the great After Life (2019). As a presenter at the Golden Globes, he tested the limits of the elite of North American actors presenting himself as the bothersome English man who would make those five sessions particularly punishing to them while he sipped on his beer: “I call to the stage the dad of Ashton Kutcher, Bruce Willis” or “There are good films that are not nominated, such as I Love You Phillip Morris, with Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey, two heterosexual men pretending they’re gay, meaning, the contrary to a certain famous fan of scientology”, referring to, quite obviously, to Tom Cruise. Because to Gervais, who is a very sentimental person as it turns out, capable to bring out the most childishly good feelings in everyone, the line that separates humor from love is so blurred that the ones that aren’t capable of one will always be kept away from the other. 

The health of our humor is the humor of our health. And in today’s day and age, there are a lot of people who are a “nasty piece of work”, a popular expression that translates so well this time we live in where institutions as highly respected as a courthouse have nothing against the public trials that are carried out through the only form of socialization that the vast majority knows today: social media. Young, middle-aged and elderly people, everyone embarks on what, during the Middle Ages, also moved the masses: The Autos of Faith. People burning at the stake in the middle of Rossio square, in front of blood-thirsty spectators that screamed harsh words, corroborating the accusations of the convicted with a much less dense knowledge of the facts than the smell of burning human flesh the wind was pushing South. No, there’s no difference. If the disappearance of a child in a rural area, away from the urban reality that are children’s parks with more vigilant parents than happy children, then parental negligence is to blame. If humorists play their part, which is playing around with something that, most surely, will always bother someone, then his right to self-expression is at risk. Now take the word “expression” out of the equation. That’s it. Freedom. It was costly to earn. And there is no freedom in the world that could hurt anybody. Unless that somebody has been dead for ages. But let’s not drag everyone into this pit where perversity, evilness and the purest of savageries are the mottoes of each day. Because there are still people capable of a smile. Those that go from ear to ear. And those not even a mask can cover. 

Translated from the original, as part of Vogue Portugal's Nonsense Issue, published in july 2021.