Surrounded by Tragedy, Venezuelans Are Laughing Like Crazy

Patricia Laya
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Surrounded by Tragedy, Venezuelans Are Laughing Like Crazy

(Bloomberg) -- Editors Note: There are few places as chaotic or dangerous as Venezuela. “Life in Caracas” is a series of short stories that seeks to capture the surreal quality of living in a land in total disarray

He knew this one was going to get laughs. “Raise your hands if you’re only in here because the power is on.”

It was an easy lay-up for Oscar Martinez, one of the dozens of comedians drawing standing-room-only throngs in Venezuela’s mostly miserable capital. He had another sure hit when he picked a couple out of the audience, asked a few questions and discovered the woman had a Spanish passport.

“So you’re engaged and you’re migrating, or are you engaged because you’re migrating?” The crowd roared.

The crisis in the country is officially a laughing matter. Venezuelans have always been quick to turn catastrophe into jokes. It’s a long tradition here. We’re loud, irreverent, informal to a fault and wildly funny. (At least we think so.) But stand-up comedians are having a moment like never before, with shows almost every night of the week.

In a city with few pleasant diversions, “comedians are the new celebrities,” said Camila Mirabal, a 23-year-old who works in human resources. Going out for dinner or even to the movies is prohibitively expensive for most, and there isn’t much else to do for entertainment, unless your idea of fun is hanging out in a mall where the shops don’t have much in stock. A bonus when it comes to stand-up: There’s often no charge, beyond the cost of a beer or two.

Martinez, wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt, offered another explanation, along the lines of the old adage about laughter being the best medicine. “Going to therapy is too expensive,” the 31-year-old said after a recent gig at Cusica in an upper-class neighborhood in the hills. “And we have to talk about what’s going on.”

Considering what’s going on, “the jokes almost write themselves.”

The hardships—empty grocery store shelves, power blackouts, taps that run dry and the refusal of Nicolas Maduro to go away, to name a few—are punchlines. It's dark humor, made for desperate situations and hopeless times. That famous line between tragedy and comedy is getting thinner and thinner in Venezuela. 

Politics are definitely not off-limits, even though the autocrat does not appreciate witticisms at his expense: Two firefighters in Merida state were jailed for more than a month late last year after they posted a video of a donkey touring their fire house, referring to the animal in a voice-over as Maduro.

“Laughing is subversive when you know it puts you in danger,” said Ricardo del Bufalo, 27, who often sings during his routines about being forced to brush his teeth with knock-off Colgate and how fraudulent elections drove him to drink.

Alessio Vargas, at a recent show at La Intima, took a poke at Maduro by impersonating his mother, using a very thick Colombian accent, nudging at the long-held theory that the man running Venezuela into the ground was, in fact, born on the other side of the border—and the fervent wish that he had stayed there.

Martinez tends to focus on day-to-struggles, making fun of himself to soften up his fans and let them know, he said, that he’s a victim, too. He veers occasionally into politics: On stage at Cusica, he pushed out his stomach to mimic someone who’s been eating too well and said, “Listen, I know I have the body of a Chavista.” That, of course, got big guffaws.

Most of the comics perform in venues on the eastern, wealthier side of Caracas. And there don’t appear to be any Chavista jokesters on the circuit in any part of town.

Comedy in Caracas is in a bubble, said Alessandra Hamdan, 32, who directs the Improvisto theater company. “We’re all largely patting each others’ backs.”

Whatever. “We’re desperate to laugh.”

To contact the author of this story: Patricia Laya in Caracas at playa2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David Papadopoulos at papadopoulos@bloomberg.net, Anne Reifenberg

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