Laughing All the Way to the Polls: Satirical TV show seen as first-of-its-kind approach to Armenian presidential campaign

The active usage of information and communication technologies has distinguished this presidential campaign from the previous ones, with most of the candidates actively using the social networks, particularly Facebook, for conveying political messages.

But the current presidential election campaign is notable also for another novelty, which has become a unique and welcome addition to the general coverage provided by local TV channels as well as print and online media.

The ArmComedy project launched last March has become a special newsmaker of the presidential race in 2013. The first media project in Armenia which in fact is a comic show is dripped in political satire and wit, reporting the real news with a different perspective.

Maneuvering on the fine line of witty banter and scathing sarcasm, ArmComedy (aired twice a week on the ArmNews TV channel) quickly gained its own audience, most of whom are young adults; though, perhaps it is not so much liked by the politicians, who are frequent targets of criticism in the program.

The show anchormen and screenwriters, Narek Markarian and Sergey Sargsyan, tell the audience about the main political events, highlighting the most comical and funny episodes of the election campaign and political life in general, along with the most controversial and odd remarks from the presidential candidates.

Since the start of the campaign, all shows of ArmComedy (which has a political segment in its regular programs) are devoted to the presidential elections, which will be held in Armenia next Monday.

The commentaries of authors are followed with video material of the latest political developments. Thus, the candidate Raffi Hovannisian’s campaign outings and his endless handshakes with passersby, messages on victory from the cosmos sent to candidate Vardan Sedrakyan, president Serzh Sargsyan’s improbable promises of not using the state resources for his campaign, Paruyr Hayrikyan’s divested conspiracy theory, the sophisticated economic prospects by Hrant Bagratyan - all this news and more is reported and presented in an entertaining way for the audience.

Many people asked by ArmeniaNow said they appreciate that the program shows the same approaches to all candidates, thus, making them equally get a portion of banter.

"The only censorship that exists is the one made by us,” says Markarian, 29. “If we are subjected to censorship, it will immediately become false, and the original idea of satire will be devaluated. On the other hand, we never would say on the air something that we wouldn’t say to someone’s face. If we allow ourselves foul language, maybe it will be funny to some people, but most probably we will lose a large share of our audiences.”

Markarian says that during their short TV career they managed to be called “an ordered project” and the more so of all three Armenian presidents, depending on a particular program, were accused of advocating in favor of Hayrikyan and for a few more candidates.

ArmComedy, which lasts 25 minutes, has featured characters in each program – such as the “People”, who is sometimes very determined and willing to stand up for his vote, and sometimes willing to sell the vote because he does not believe in changes. Another character the “Diaspora” complains that his interests are represented nowhere in Armenia and the attention to Diaspora is only during fund-raisings. The program also invites “guests” - which usually is performed by one of the actors. Among the recent guests were the “image-maker”, who for example provided tips for the candidate Arman Melikyan on how to improve charisma, other recent guests have included a “political consultant” who told the “truth” on how the election mottoes were created for the 2013 campaign, candidates, a philologist, a sociologist and others.

The idea of doing something between politics and humor appeared in 2006, when Markarian and Sargsyan, both graduates of the Brusov Yerevan State Linguistic Institute began their first steps in stand-up comedy - then a brand new genre for Armenia.

“Stage has always attracted us; we even formed a rock group, which existed for a very short period of time,” says Markarian, who during his study at the university was known as an Elvis impersonator. “Sometimes we performed for our friends at home, just for fun, and then began performing in clubs. We both were very interested in politics and eventually set up a website, began to prepare small programs. We offered them to various channels, but no one was interested. Some were not particularly happy about our humor on politics, others about politics in humor.”

The next step towards recognition was when their show “News Hub,” appeared on CivilNet TV, an online channel launched by Civilitas Foundation. About 60 programs were created and aired by CivilNet, then the program got an invitation from the ArmNews TV channel, and as the creators say, television gave them a lot of opportunities and advantages.

“Surely, there are people who do not like what and how we do,” says Sargsyan, 30. “But it is always so. There is always a certain percentages of people who don’t like what the others do, be it in journalism or in any other sphere.”

“We never got any threats from any of the politicians we make fun of, perhaps because we are public persons. What usually happens is that our Facebook account is flooded with negative comments from anonymous or fake users. Our politicians just have to get used to the idea of criticism, have to learn to look at themselves from the side,” says Sargsyan, adding that Raffi Hovannisian is a great example of how a politician should react to healthy criticism.

“I believe that the best thing about our program is that we touch the topical problems, but it does not show it in a way to make people depressed,” he adds.

Ani Kaghinyan’s family are ArmCodemy fans. She says her parents are great enthusiasts of the show.

“My mom is a fan of the program, which means that ArmComedy is a very successful project,” says the 29-year-old woman. “Because my mom is quite a serious person and is not into humor and all sorts of entertaining programs,” she explains.

“Political satire is not just about jokes, but also is a kind of free speech. I think ArmComedy is a great way to criticize the current political situation through jokes. Probably nowadays it is the only way to tell the truth,” she adds.