March 06, 2014 00:00 By William Davies
Amid the bitterness of political war, "Jow Kow Tuen" is keeping people sane with jokes that puncture the pomposity and lies of both sides
The duo in dark sunglasses rattle off scathing, witty barbs at breakneck speed: all sides of Thailand’s political crisis are fair game on “Jow Kow Tuen” (Shallow News In Depth), a satirical show taking the Kingdom by storm.
But the presenters – one of whom has already been likened by the 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 “Jow Kow Tuen” 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 programme 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 colour-coded polarisation of Thai politics.
“‘Jow Kow Tuen’ is a great show,” said political commentator Verapat Pariyawong, who holds no grudge against the quick-fire 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 added, 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 programmes 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 strict lese majeste law.
“It is very, very different,” said Winyu, 28, whom the Bangkok Post likened to a crack-addled Jon Stewart.
In the last show, available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.
com/watch?v=AtZvx0LvXBw), 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 Yingluck defending her government’s 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.
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 Post saying it struck a “sublime balance between lunacy and intelligence”.
The country has been riven by political divisions since 2006 when Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a bloodless military coup, sparking years of political turmoil punctuated by deadly street protests.
The comic team scrutinises policy statements made by both sides over the years, pointing out their contradictions.
Thailand is ranked 130th out of 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, primarily due to the lese majeste law – otherwise, the 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.