Friday, December 13, 2013

Jon Stewart pokes fun at Slovakia... and some Slovaks aren't amused!

I'm a massive fan of the nightly shows of both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. These are the only two TV shows I watch religiously, and I love their insightful, scathing, and spot-on brand of political satire.

Jon Stewart recently did a bit on his show on the latest OECD test scores, which rank how 15-year-olds in 65 countries all over the world perform in subjects like math, reading, and science. The US placed at a lowly 36th - just one spot behind Slovakia.

He then went into a bit which involved subjecting Slovakia to a bunch of vomit and fart jokes. Watch the clip here.

Of course, this piece managed to go viral in Slovakia pretty quickly, and a lot of Slovaks were pissed! Many failed to get the sarcasm and were incensed at what they saw as some bitter American hurling insults at them out of jealousy for scoring one point higher than the US. The sarcasm went over the heads of some media outlets as well, and they did their part to fan the flames. 

But the Slovaks who got their knickers in a knot over this totally misunderstood the point Stewart was trying to make. They took Stewart's jokes at face value and had a knee-jerk reaction to them. 

The point is, he wasn't actually making fun of Slovakia. He was mocking the American media's reaction to the news of any small, poorer, and lesser known (to Americans) countries that invariably seem to score higher than the US in these rankings. It could've been any country. Had it been Bulgaria, Belarus, or Bolivia that landed one spot higher than the US, he'd have said the exact same things about them. 

See, when rankings like these emerge, many media pundits convey an attitude of "Oh my god, look at how far the US has fallen - we've scored worse than [fill in the blank]!" And whatever country that happens to be is then spoken of as if it's some kind of leper colony, to underscore just how bad the US is doing. And it's exactly this kind of sensationalist and alarmist attitude that he was sarcastically mocking. 

Here's how Stewart set his bit up:

"I always feel bad for whatever country is just above America on these lists, because invariably that country is used as a standard for just how far we have fallen as a people.

He then goes into a goofy, fake voice (which means, cue sarcasm) to deliver his stream of amusingly juvenile invective. 

So obviously, Stewart didn't actually mean all of the clearly absurd and silly things he said about Slovakia.

But apparently for some in Slovakia that got lost in translation - both linguistically and culturally. 

It seems many Slovaks took Stewart's piece to be the kind of bitter, inflammatory, uber-jingoistic, and irrational rant you'd hear from your typical Fox News pundit. They saw it as big, bad, egotistical America acting like a sore loser. 

If you look at comments on the web, you'll see countless people taking deep offense to this, calling Stewart a cretin and much worse, and passionately defending Slovakia as if it were actually under some kind of serious attack. You can find some of it here in this article (and the user comments below it) on the popular Slovak site

The article's author clearly didn't seem to get it either, saying Stewart was "so disillusioned by us doing better than Americans that he began vulgarly insulting Slovaks."

Below that in the user comments there are thankfully numerous Slovaks who did get it, but far more who were offended and said some pretty appalling things. Which is sad because it means an awful lot of Slovaks failed to understand Stewart's bit, and got riled up over nothing.

Part of the problem here is that there is a bit of nuance in Stewart's delivery that could be difficult to pick up on if you're less familiar with the language and the culture. These jokes were not meant to be taken at face value; you have to peel back the layers to get to the broader point he was trying to make. 

Stewart's material frequently relies on a fairly sophisticated level of irony and sarcasm. And I think for a non-native English speaker from a totally different country and culture, it could be hard to pick up on that, hence misunderstandings like the one that unfolded over this bit. 

Moreover, the insults that Stewart used were absolutely not things you would say in the US if you were really trying to offend someone. These fart and vomit jokes were the kind of things that 6-year-old boys would say to amuse themselves or to get a rise out of their parents. If you were in a serious altercation with someone and you told that person that he eats his own vomit, he'd probably burst out laughing. Serious insults in American culture are far, far more offensive and degrading than any of the silly, juvenile things that Stewart said. Just the sheer outlandishness of his jokes made it clear that they weren't meant to be taken seriously. 

As for getting butthurt over Stewart calling Slovakia's president a cow? To that, I say - grow some skin! You should hear the utterly horrific and appalling things that buffoons in America call Obama on a daily basis.

I also doubt that very many Slovaks have ever watched the Daily Show, so right from the get-go a lot of people were unfamiliar with the context and the tone, not to mention the progressive political angle the show takes. To someone unaware of all this, Stewart in this bit might not have seemed much different from, say, Bill O'Reilly. But anyone familiar with Stewart knows that he would never actually wish ill will on any people or country, and they would also know when he's got his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. 

And while I can concede that stumbling on this piece might elicit some confusion for someone totally unfamiliar with Jon Stewart's schtick and particular brand of humor, I don't think that comedians and satirists should have to dumb down or over explain their material just because a minority of people aren't getting it. 

Finally, I think that Slovakia, being a mere two decades old, is still grappling with a sense of inferiority over its cultural identity and its standing in the world. For centuries Slovaks were either dominated by or played second fiddle to some other nation or kingdom. Even though the fledgling country finally attained autonomy and is gradually (though often clumsily) finding its way, it's still quite a modest country with rampant poverty and unemployment, and myriad other problems. Slovaks are acutely aware that life in many western European countries is generally much easier. As a result, I think there is a kind of collective insecurity or touchiness on the part of some Slovaks, and that really came out in the response to Stewart's bit. 

To sum up - Slovakia, this wasn't about you. Please, don't take it personally. If anything, just be glad that perhaps this piece will compel a few lazy Americans to get off their asses and go find Slovakia on a map and realize that it's not, in fact, Slovenia. 


  1. Hi, I understand what you mean. But ...I do not think it is right to make fun of any country. It is really not a diplomatic thing to do. Sarcasm or not, he shouldn´t do that. Nice evening.

    1. Well, the thing is, Jon Stewart is not a politician or a diplomat. If he were, then I might agree with you. But as far as regular citizens are concerned - even comedians/political satirists who host TV shows - I don't believe we should limit their free speech. That can be a slippery slope. I certainly think that it is wise for media personalities to exercise some degree of responsibility so that their rantings don't devolve into hate speech, but I really don't think Stewart's jokes crossed that line into hate speech.

    2. I understand sarcasm and ironic meaning.. well.. this was not even on the edge, this was faar over.. no matter what country would be there just before usa.. the reaction would be definitely the same.. I understand he is shaming on usa and this education results.. but actually he said they fall to level of people (slovak people) who are cows and eats own vomits etc.. this is not ironic nor sarcasm, just bad joke to shame on usa by shaming on slovakia!!! I really think this kind of humour will never be accepted by majority of people the joke is about.

    3. Hi Tomas,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post. However, I would suggest that you re-read it because I'm not sure if you're really understanding what I've written. Those insults are so patently silly that no one familiar with the culture, and with any sense of sarcasm, would ever take them seriously.

  2. Jeff,

    I recall watching this live and thinking "Oh God, No...,'" most people don't even know where Slovakia is to begin with, and then when it is actually mentioned it's in this context?

    I understand the joke of course and I know Jon Stewart is one of the good guys but as an American with Slovak ancestry I kinda wished some other country would have been in that slot on the list.

    I think you did an excellent job breaking down the joke and trying to explain it. Different cultures have different senses of humor. What passes for funny in England and America differ a bit too, and they speak the same language! Some things will just always get lost in translation. So, don't beat yourself up if some people still don't get it. I also wonder for example how Stewart's joke would come across to an American audience in say the 1940s, if it was told at our expense? American humor has evolved a lot since Groucho Marx and the three stooges.

    I'm still pretty bothered about the fact that some people in Slovakia think that Americans are making fun of them.

    1. Oh, I know. I actually had the same "oh no" reaction you did when I first saw that piece.

      Some people may never really get the joke. Even though Stewart recently took a shot at his home state of New Jersey, saying its chief exports were Axe body spray and lit farts. Of course, I'm sure most of the state's inhabitants knew that he was being facetious!

  3. You do an excellent job of explaining the situation. I just watched the Stewart clip, and he is actually pretty kind about how he sets it up, how he super exaggerates his humor (fart exports), etc., just as you say. I would hope that the Slovakians who get it would make a point of enlightening their fellow citizens who don't--it's kind of sickening that the majority of people there who see that clip will forever after think a popular American show would diss their country so profoundly.