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Meet the Comedians Around the World Who Challenge Government Orthodoxy

Jon Stewart may be the premier political satirist of his generation, but these gadflies from around the world give him a run for his money.

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Italy

An Italian organization known as the Five Star Movement is leading the fight against the European austerity and hyper-democracy movements. At the head of the party, which recently won the Parma mayoral elections, is the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo.

He’s been called the Italian Michael Moore, and he’s been the subject of a 2008 documentary The Beppe Grillo Story from Al Jazeera. His Five Star Movement blog, started in 2005, was an honoree at the 14th annual Webby Awards. Grillo’s comedy carries an anti-political message, but his politics have been gaining momentum. Indeed, although Grillo insists he is more interested in good government than politics, his anti-consumerist, web-based campaign —deemed too radical by more traditional Italian politicians — is starting to hit home with voters, with 18 percent of the population currently supporting the Five Star Movement.

Despite all the hullabaloo, there is still some mystery surrounding this profane politician and comedian with a bear-like stage presence. Grillo himself cannot seek office, due to an incident in the 1980s in which he was convicted of manslaughter.

Japan

Japanese television, while full of social satire, offers little in the way of political humor. Most performers, even the widely popular stand-up comedians, avoid political topics. Breaking the mold is the weekly prime-time comedy Hikari Ota: If I Became Prime Minister, starring Hikari Ota.

In the show, Ota presents a bill in the form of an impassioned speech to Parliament. The bill is often radical, even ridiculous. Ota then presides as prime minister over the proceedings as guests, including actual politicians and entertainers, debate the merits of the bill, however silly it may be. Bills that are approved by the assembly are actually proposed to the Diet of Japan.

Ota’s approach may seem mild by American standards, but in Japan, the show sends strong messages about controversial topics – like one skit featuring a parody of the Japanese prime minister saying “no” to an American president. Many of Ota’s speeches deal with controversial national and international issues, and though the tone of the show may be light, the discussions are often profound. Ultimately, though Ota’s job requires perhaps more finesse than that of the average American comedian, he manages to make people laugh while subtly pushing a reexamination of widely held political views. 

Nigeria

Ikenna Azuike is a very funny member of the Nigerian diaspora. Azuike’s “What’s Up Africa” video blog has been growing in popularity since its inception in early 2011. Broadcast from the Netherlands, WUA covers what’s hip, outrageous, and politically important in sub-Saharan Africa.

Azuike’s program combines the flashiness of Ray William Johnson’s  video blogsand the cheeky satire of The Daily Show, his top two inspirations. Although he speaks about Africa from afar, this bold comedian proves his savvy for policy and African pop culture in every episode. “WUA is not just about pointing out good stuff,”  he says. “I use my show to be critical about serious issues, and comedy is undoubtedly a powerful tool to change people’s attitudes.”

Pakistan

Umer Shareef is a Pakistani stand-up comedian as well as a stage, film, and television actor. Shareef rose to fame due to his dynamic stage presence and spirited sense of humor. His stage shows are considered among the most popular in Pakistan.

Shareef is a master of improvisation, to the consternation of many of his directors. But his improv chops have proven useful for hosting his own program, The Shareef Show, where he interviews a variety of celebrity guests from the worlds of film, television, music, fashion, sports, and politics. The Shareef Show stands out not just because of its impressive guests but also for Shareef's willingness to challenge Pakistan's rich and famous with the most audacious questions. Shareef does not censor himself and jokes about anything and anyone. Here is one example of an old joke that is considered  still hilarious: “Why do women die less? They wear so much make-up that when they take it off at night, the angel of death fails to recognize them.”