At the BBC, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong recalls Saddam Hussein, Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin, and Muammar Gaddafi as she explores the history of comedy as not only a relief valve but also as a formidable resistance tactic against oppressive regimes.

Even in Iraq in 2003, with Saddam Hussein still in power, with US bombings about to begin, comedian Mahir Hassan could find a reason to laugh: Saddam Hussein himself. Hassan told his favorite Saddam joke to the Guardian in March 2003: “Saddam is addressing a convention of the blind in Baghdad on the eve of the American attack. He tells them: ‘God willing, you will see our victory.’”

Hassan was one of Iraq’s most famous comedians, but he could only dare to lob his political humour from Northern Iraq, which was under Kurdish control. Hassan had become infamous for producing a comedy film sending up Saddam in the 1990s after the Kurds had taken the north, relaxing restrictions on freedom of expression – at least a bit. Hassan recruited his Hussein lookalike friend, Goran Faili, to play the reviled leader. In the film, 50 Kurdish guerillas hired to play Iraqi soldiers marched around singing Long live Saddam in a parody of the TV propaganda Hussein’s regime regularly aired. Faili’s Saddam was a rambling madman, with an emphasis on the leader’s Tikrit accent and slow movements.

When the film aired on Kurdish television, it was a hit. Saddam ordered assassins to kill the entire cast.

Hassan and Faili’s willingness to take grave risks for a bit of satire shows how vital the right to political comedy is to freedom.

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