BANGKOK – The duo in dark sunglasses rattle off scathing, witty barbs at breakneck speed: all sides of Thailand’s political crisis are fair game on “Shallow News In Depth”, a satirical show taking the kingdom by storm.
But the presenters — one of whom has already been likened by the Thai press to “Jon Stewart on crack” — pause their banter for a moment to reflect on the severity of the divisions that have seized the country.
“How many more times do we have to offer condolences?” asked presenter Winyu Wongsurawat, referring to the growing death toll from violent protests aimed at chasing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office.
“When will you stop… hating one another and beating up one another… that is not funny,” said the other half of the duo, Nattapong Tiendee, who sports a white suit and hair gelled into a shark-like fin.
The two comics — Winyu more suave and sarcastic; Nattapong a self-styled shaman character and chaotic on-screen presence — then resume the playful tone which has helped propel Shallow News In Depth, known as “Jow Kow Tuen” in Thai, to success.
Broadcast only on the Internet, the show owes its mounting popularity to the political crisis which began some four months ago, and has helped push ratings to more than 200,000 views for each of its monthly episodes.
Its creators say the program is politically independent, a rare attribute made possible because it is broadcast only online.
Winyu, whose parents are academics, even highlighted its independence by conducting an interview while topless in order to deride the polarization of Thai politics — roughly cast between pro-government “red shirts” and the establishment-leaning “yellows”.
“Jow Kow Tuen is a great show,” said political commentator Verapat Pariyawong, who holds no grudge against the quickfire duo for mocking his rapid speaking style.
“We had seen political satire shows before but those focused on making jokes without much attention to substance. Jow Kow Tuen takes it to another level,” he told AFP, praising its efforts for keeping “people politically sane”.
The show’s humour may feel a little safe to those from countries with strong traditions of satire, but it packs a punch in Thailand, which has many political television programs but none as sharp as Jow Kow Tuen.
Coverage of the current political crisis is dominated by highly partisan channels, privately owned by supporters of the two opposing sides, while some experts say free speech is chilled by the nation’s strict royal defamation law.
“It is very, very different,” said Winyu, 28, described by the English-language daily The Bangkok Post as “like [The Daily Show’s] Jon Stewart on crack”.
– ‘Funny people are forgiven’ –
In the last show, available on Youtube, the head of the election commission — accused by some experts of hampering snap polls called by the premier to ease the crisis — was lambasted as “the one who does not want to vote”.
Then came images of a pallid-looking Prime Minister Yingluck defending a troubled rice subsidy from allegations of widespread corruption.
“Is it the ghost of Thaksin, possessing her from Dubai?” said Winyu, referring to Yingluck’s ex-premier brother, who lives in self-imposed exile to escape a jail term for a graft conviction and is said by the opposition to still run the country from afar.
Amid the bitter tumult of Thailand’s politics, Winyu says the low-cost, high-impact show tries to push beyond the “emotional stuff”.
It has won praise for its even-handed treatment of both sides of the debate, with a January piece in the Bangkok Post saying it struck a “sublime balance between lunacy and intelligence”.
Thailand has been riven by political divisions since 2006 when Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck’s older brother — was ousted in a bloodless military coup, sparking years of political turmoil punctuated by deadly street protests.
The comic team scrutinizes policy statements made by both sides over the years, pointing out their contradictions.
The show has not touched on Thailand’s Royal family, who are protected by a strict lese majeste law.
Thailand is classed 130th out of 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, primarily due to the lese majeste law — otherwise, its media enjoy freedom beyond that available in neighbouring countries.
“Our acting, our expressions and our smiles are a way to protect ourselves, because in our culture, smiling shows that we are nice people and are not dangerous. Funny people are forgiven more than serious people,” said Nattapong.
For those trying to make head or tail of the long-running political crisis, the show can both educate and amuse, says Nattapong.
It is “like candy stuffed with useful material like vegetable or vitamin,” he adds.