If this is a progressive TV channel, what is an oppressive one?
The Hungarian subsidiary of German RTL has issued a statement yesterday about the evil of the government’s proposed anti-LGBT law and how it would send movies like Harry Potter into the late-night, 18+ time range to protect children from the information that homosexuality exists. It was heartwarming and I almost felt grateful for RTL for a moment – until I remembered that they, too, have eagerly tried to stay in Orbán’s good books for years, despite the very obvious messages that Orbán is not planning to peacefully cohabit with civilization in this country. For one thing, he has been plotting to buy the channel for as long as he was in power (he allegedly hoped that Russia’s Rosatom would buy RTL for him) because it is the last countrywide commercial channel that has not been Orbanized and turned into a hate-spewing propaganda machine. After a few years of appeasing him and selling him assets like origo.hu, the Germans appeared to have drawn a line somewhere and at least refused to sell RTL.
Last night I switched to RTL Klub to see what they serve up in the name of their revolutionary resistance to oppressive fundamentalism. There was a stand-up comedy on, the 100th anniversary episode of a long-running stand-up show. It was a re-run from 2014 so it must have been on quite often to fill broadcasting time during the last seven years.
I remember the show from a decade ago when I last watched. It was the same dozen men doing the same, flat routines – only they had beer bellies now. I expected to be bored and feel secondary shame for their bad jokes, but the shock was still unexpected.
It is one thing that literally all their gags were based on mocking political correctness and riffing on stale stereotypes. After all, what is a bad comedian without falling back on stereotypes and without kicking-down humor, am I right?
Stories about annoying females alternated with stories about gold-digging females and females who refuse sex. No matter how woke the channel, females are still fair game to keep society together. But sure, there was only minor bullying of gay people in the hour-long episode I watched.
The most horroristic episode came early in the show when one of the comedians with the more gut-level sense of humor came to the stage and started relating a (hopefully fake) story that happened to him at a show he gave in Miskolc, a town in northwest Hungary.
The joke goes like this: He was just minding his own business, making a female member of the audience perform mock oral sex on him for a hilarious joke, when the anecdotal female grabbed his ass and wanted to perform oral sex on him IRL. And the poor, innocent comedian was therefore harassed.
If that sounds like a great joke, it is because I forgot to tell you what the comedian did to an actual member of the audience while he told this story. (Remember, it was a live recorded episode of the famous show, with live audience, slated to be run on national TV.)
Our comedian stepped to the nearest woman in the audience lightning fast with the words “I always pick the dumbest faced woman for this joke, it will be you now” and started arranging her in the right position to illustrate what allegedly happened in Miskolc.
In quick succession, before she could even say a word, he touched her hair, her face, her shoulder, her legs, her inner thighs, and told her to spread your legs, wider. She was obediently complying – or just let her legs be spread as far as her skirt allowed as the comedian was physically doing it for her – and politely laughed, red with shame.
Then he stood up and shoved his crotch in her face, letting her smell his balls as he made moves illustrating forcing oral sex on a woman. That’s how he told the joke about that other woman, who loved the smell of his balls so much, she wanted to harass him and perform real oral sex on him, in front of the whole audience. Horny bitches, am I right? What a funny joke!
And even if the original story about the horny bitch of Miskolc wasn’t true, the on-TV harassment of the audience member in Budapest most certainly was.
And that was the first minute and half of the show – and it never got better. They accused two guests of being gay then told to everyone’s relief that they were not, and there was a string of jokes about women that were not funny but just plain insulting. In the end of the two-hour running time of the show they broadcast two episodes of Tom & Jerry at 10pm because they must have run out of jokes. I was speechless.
I attended a few stand-up shows in other parts of the world, especially Chicago and New York, and I am always singled out by comedians to heckle me due to my height and hair. But shitty comedians always fall flat on their face if they can only riff on national stereotypes. They invariably ask where I am from, expecting a US state to make fun of, but they freeze when they hear ‘Hungary’. Sometimes they freeze so hard, they can’t even make the hungry-Hungary “joke” to save their face. And when they are abusive and insult their audience (which bad comedians often do) I am not even sorry for them and I am certainly not helping them get out of the ditch they dug for themselves by heckling me.
I can’t imagine the horror of the poor woman who bought tickets to a live recording of a nationwide TV show, dressed up and had her hair done for the evening, and then got harassed on camera for all the country to see, for years and years to come. Because all her friends and family have seen this episode in the last seven years and laughed some more at her expense, that can be safely assumed. Maybe she was obediently game with that laughter, too, because good girls are conditioned to change how they feel when they feel bad about something. Is she still watching RTL when this clip might spring at her any time?
I would have punched the comedian the moment he touched me unannounced, let alone shoving his crotch in my face, joke or not. And there would have been a lawsuit for public harassment on live TV, for the whole country to see. No such thing happened here.
The entire audience was laughing. The victim’s partner sitting next to her didn’t do anything. (If they said anything, it wasn’t audible.) The producers didn’t stop it and they chose to include it in the final cut (probably because no other “joke” has been spoken by the comedian in that mighty session). RTL’s lawyers deemed it clear to go – and then appropriate for countless re-runs. It went from prime time attraction to Monday night filler during the last seven years, and no one, not even the victim thought that she could do something about it – at least take it off the air.
The only thing worse than the actual comedy show was the recommendations during the commercial breaks. Apparently, there are scripted fake-reality shows now with amateurs acting out scripted life situations when someone is in trouble and an on-show psychologist and lawyer explain what to do in such a situation.
The selected life situation this week was that a poor, poor male was viciously accused of sexual harassment even though it did not happen. Well, we definitely need to know what to do when sexual harassment doesn’t happen. That is the most pressing issue indeed.
Another life situation involved a woman slapping her partner on the face because se was upset. And that wasn’t even the issue, she was upset about something else entirely, hitting someone on the face was just how she expressed it. The only way it could be more 50s if he punched her back and raped her while unconscious. And then she woke up and cooked dinner for him to apologize for her hysteria earlier. There, RTL, I just wrote a typical life situation for you that desperately needs to be shown to as many people as many times as possible. When do we learn that we don’t hit people. Period. We is not OK to hit people if they are weaker and it is not OK to hit them if they are stronger, and imagine hitting someone who is as strong as I am and may hit back. See? It is never OK.
There may be better examples on the show but in a seriously repressed, misogynistic country adding more fuel to the fire seems a bit irresponsible. Especially if you pride yourself as the inclusive channel that stands up for equality of dignity.
As of the mental state of stand-up comedy, I remember these comedians always steering clear from politics – that’s what gets you into trouble these days. Far from being the most accurate observers of society they refrain from mentioning anything that might trigger a political backlash. And as everything gets politicized, the list of those realms gets longer every day. You can’t crack a joke about a tomato without being menacingly reminded that one must only buy home-grown tomatoes. The only safe thing seems to be bashing women and gay people and pretending you are doing it because what else can a comedian do?
The only example of a political stand-up was a dude whose routine was telling borderline nazi and Jewish jokes, tasting and defiantly daring the audience to contradict him. He was also on the same show run by holy RTL, patron saint of inclusion. I wonder if that comedian is still on and whether his old routines are etched into the country’s collective subconscious the same way this seven-year-old oral rape segment is.
Some context about RTL
It is not surprising that RTL is a sore spot for Orbán. It is still broadcasting non-Orbanized news amongst an avalanche of brain-killing commercial trash. It is available countrywide, even in places where the printed press and radios have been completely taken over. Statements like the above are now not unusual from them – but these things are unusual in Orbanistan. Everyone else who has something to lose either shuts up or toes Orbán’s line. But RTL seems to have received a mandate to cautiously act as if civilization was still the norm in this country, allowing same-sex couples to appear on TV and generally doing something to show diversity.
It wasn’t like that. After 2010, when Fidesz came into power, RTL quickly fell into line and started making news without politics – to avoid a misstep and stay in the good books of the king. Outside observers may have been surprised by Orbán’s power grab, but those who lived here weren’t. And RTL was shrewd. But voluntary compliance didn’t save them.
In 2013, the government proposed a controversial, progressive advertising tax that critics charge was intended to deter TV2’s potential foreign buyers. The final version of the tax, adopted in 2014, disproportionately impacted TV2’s main competitor, the market leader RTL Klub. The station filed an official complaint with the European Commission, and the government eventually backed down and replaced the progressive tax with a flat tax of 5.3% in May 2015.
And then they started making actual news, giving their journalists permission to go after Orbán’s corruption, his family’s eye-watering enrichment, and produce infographics abut the state of the economy.
Orbán didn’t take it easily. According to an interview with his former top oligarch, Lajos Simicska, Orbán let it slip that the Russians (specifically Rosatom) could buy RTL for him. The interview describes Orbán’s appetite for more media control and thinning tolerance for dissent – as well as the nature of his collaboration with Russia. But the takeover hasn’t happened yet.
After a series of defeats in elections and abroad, after the Biden-election and the EU’s refusal to let go of the rule of law criteria, Orbán has returned to Hungary and dedicated his full attention to (no, not the pandemic) outsourcing as much money and state assets into crony hand as possible. Amount that make the estimated price of RTL pale in comparison has been flying around and going into Orbán’s infamous asset management foundations to ensure the lavish survival of his loyalists and his de facto power over the economy and politics for decades to come – even if he is forced to govern with a simple majority or ends up in opposition.
The purchase and Orbanization of RTL doesn’t seem like a matter of available funds anymore since all inhibitions have been removed from the spending of Hungarian and EU taxpayer money. With the elections less than a year from now, will Orbán buy and break in RTL the way he did index.hu in 2020 and origo.hu in 2015 (just to name the biggest ones)?