South American comics step out to break the barriers

Brazilian comedian Danilo Gentili knows that only a few years ago his jokes could have got him killed. Photo / Supplied
Brazilian comedian Danilo Gentili knows that only a few years ago his jokes could have got him killed. Photo / Supplied

One evening last October, Danilo Gentili took to a stage in Brazil's capital, Brasilia, and turned his satirical sights on the woman who weeks later would be elected Brazil's first female president, Dilma Rousseff.

He cracked a joke about how the former Marxist guerrilla was tortured during the country's repressive 21-year military dictatorship.

"Vote for Dilma because she was tortured?" he quipped. "Did I ask her to be?"

"Seriously," he went on, drawing nervous giggles from the packed audience, "a president has to be smart. If she was caught and tortured, it's because she was an idiot."

It was the edgiest moment in an 80-minute monologue - poking fun at a woman who was brutally tortured by the dictatorship.

But Gentili, 32, a controversial but also wildly popular comedian who is blazing a trail for stand-up comedy in South America's largest nation, is a man who enjoys living on the edge.

And in a country with a reputation for deference to celebrity and authority, he and the hundreds of fellow stand-ups filling bars and clubs across Brazil are an increasingly influential break with the past.

Brazil has a rich history of political satire and humour in literature, theatre, art and on television.

But never before has it enjoyed such a vibrant stand-up scene, with artists who feel so free to speak their minds.

Gentili has more than two million followers on Twitter.

His business partner and fellow comedian, Rafinha Bastos, was recently labelled the world's most influential Twitterer, ahead of Barack Obama, Lady Gaga and Oprah Winfrey. Last week, Bastos had more than 3.1 million followers.

Next year, the rise of Brazil's stand-up scene will be cemented by the launch of the US Comedy Central channel there. Local content will be led by a stand-up show hosted by Gentili.

"They realised that there is the public, there is the market and there are now enough comedians to sustain the genre," he said of the channel's arrival in Brazil.

Less than 30 years ago, under the military regime, Gentili's public swipes at politicians would have got him arrested or expelled. "Or dead," he says drily.

But the new, self-confident Brazil, one of the world's fastest emerging economic powers, is a different place. And a new generation is falling in love with stand-up performers.

"It could never have happened [during the dictatorship]," said Gentili.

"Probably in the first two minutes of the show, the army would have moved into the theatre and there would have been no more show."

More recently, he believes, such jokes would have meant career suicide in a country where comedians have traditionally made their livings from television shows controlled by a powerful elite.

Rio-born comedian Nigel Goodman says: "There is still resistance, people who think certain things shouldn't be joked about.

"But today we have career options that don't involve mainstream television."

The 25-year-old gave up a career in law to dedicate himself to stand-up.

"Stand-up is a totally independent movement," said Gentili, who counts Ricky Gervais and the Monty Python team among his comedy heroes.

"We earn money this way. If people get on TV, they'll earn more money, even better. But this will keep happening. So they don't owe allegiance to anyone."

Brazil's social media boom also gives the country's stand-up artists a considerable degree of protection - politicians might dislike their jokes, but they challenge them at their peril. Many trace the roots of Brazil's fledgling stand-up movement to Sao Paulo's Bar Beverly Hills, where a legion of young comedians cut their teeth during open-mike sessions that began in 2004.

"It's like a post-grad course in humour," said the 29-year-old comedian and actor Robson Nunes, one of the organisers.

"To get good you have to pass through the Beverly Hills stage. If a joke doesn't work, the audience is cruel."

"From the very first show there ... we said, 'Damn, there needs to be a comedy club in Brazil'," said Gentili, who last year realised his dream, opening the Comedians Comedy Club - a swanky 300-seater bar in Sao Paulo.

Brazil's stand-up boom is no longer restricted to Rio and Sao Paulo. Other cities have their own local scenes.

Nor is it all about politics.

"Everyone has their own line," said Ze Neves, a 31-year-old comedian from Campinas. "Some comedians talk about relationships, others politics, others football. That's the fun in stand-up. It's natural."

Gentili, too, isn't tied to talking about corrupt politicians and their peccadilloes. His next show explores the comic side of daily life in Brazil.

But don't expect it to be any less controversial. "Anywhere in the world people understand that the role of the comedian is to crack jokes," he said. "One day they'll understand it in Brazil, too, I hope."

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