POSTED: 4:52 a.m. HST, Feb 9, 2014
BANGKOK » For their newscast last week, the hosts of "Shallow News in Depth" invited three dancers dressed in the style of the ancient Thai royal court to offer a musical tribute to the head of Thailand's army: a gesture of appreciation for his apparent refusal to launch a coup.
Gyrating to an incongruous Thai country song, the cast blew kisses to the camera and shouted in unison: "We love you, army chief! Kiss kiss!"
Founded by two Thai-Americans, "Shallow News in Depth" is a low-budget weekly program posted to YouTube that employs a type of Western humor not common in Thailand - acid-laced sarcasm - and draws on the deep well of paradoxes, absurdities and mangled logic of Thailand's otherwise deadly serious political crisis.
The show has been running for five years but has seen its viewership soar into the hundreds of thousands in recent months as the crisis has escalated.
"If you take seriously everything happening in Thai society, you will go mad," said Winyu Wongsurawat, the co-host of the show.
Irony is in plentiful supply in Thailand today: A billionaire tycoon is praised as the champion of the poor. A scandal-tainted politician leads a mass movement against corruption. Protesters declare that they need to block elections to save democracy.
The show has drawn inevitable comparisons to "The Daily Show," the satirical American news show anchored by Jon Stewart.
"Shallow News in Depth" follows a similar format of celebrity interviews, commentary on news and humorous dispatches by reporters on the streets of Bangkok.
But with its ultrafast, chaotic pacing and its silly antics, "Shallow News in Depth" is "Jon Stewart on crack," in the words of The Bangkok Post, an English-language newspaper.
Winyu, whose nickname is John, founded the show with his sister, Janya Wongsurawat, the lead writer. Both say doing the show is a type of comedic therapy for a crisis that is wrecking friendships, splitting apart families and raising blood pressure in a land once known for gentle smiles and a knack for compromise.
Winyu spends hours flipping through Thai news broadcasts to glean material for the show. He says he is rarely disappointed.
"I was watching television two nights ago, and someone was saying that an election was the equivalent of overthrowing democracy," Winyu said in an interview in the small, threadbare office that serves as the show's recording studio. "I was thinking, 'What? How have we reached this stage?'"
Thai politics have become such a circus that reality can be hard to trump.
Protesters in Bangkok are vowing to overthrow the government and banish from Thai politics the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her billionaire brother, the still-influential former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose populist policies have made him a hero to many of Thailand's poor. They are indeed opposing the current election and doing all they can to thwart it.
They have taken over major intersections in Bangkok and blocked people from voting in a number of districts in the city and southern Thailand, enough disruption to delay the election process for weeks, if not months.
In the meantime, Thailand is deadlocked and lacks a fully functioning government.
The cast of "Shallow News in Depth," which is also hosted by Nattapong Tiendee, an electrical engineer by training, say they are equal-opportunity insulters. The show has ridiculed protesters for calling themselves the "great mass of the people" while blocking elections they knew they would lose. It mocks the protesters' ceaseless habit of taking "selfies" while protesting.
It portrays Thaksin, who is in self-exile after being overthrown in a 2006 military coup that helped kick off the present cycle of turmoil, as a satellite orbiting the country.
And it constantly pokes fun at the country's color wars. Thaksin's supporters are known as red shirts, while the movement to oust him was led by so-called yellow shirts. (The crisis has also spawned groups known as black shirts, white shirts and multicolored shirts.) Winyu recently conducted an interview bare-chested to drive home the point that he was not taking sides.
"We are not to be taken seriously," he said. "We are just clowns."
Yet underlying the show's relentless satire and sarcasm are strong doses of social criticism and civics lessons.
Winyu and Janya's father is an American-trained political scientist who met his American wife, also a university professor, while studying in Illinois.
They are not afraid to pursue potentially bone-dry topics, like recent decisions by the country's Constitutional Court that have left many legal scholars flummoxed.
In November, the court ruled that a constitutional amendment to transform the Senate from a partly appointed body into a fully elected one was an attempt to "overthrow" democracy. That week, the show delved into a lecture about the separation of powers among the judicial, legislative and executive branches. Winyu pointed out that three of the judges were on the panel that revised the relevant sections of the constitution in 2007, and thus would have been expected to recuse themselves.
"There's a conflict of interest? No way!" Winyu said, with mock horror and disbelief.
Nattapong, the co-host, says the show has a message. "But it must be a sugarcoated pill."
The show turned profitable three years ago, said Nattapong, who manages the business side. Other Internet endeavors the trio have begun make more money, including their most lucrative show, "Beauty Guru," which offers tips on how to apply makeup.
Running the show on YouTube gives them freedom from the corporate pressures and self-censorship of Thai television networks, Janya said.
"We would have to tone it down a lot to make it acceptable for TV," she said.
But there are still taboos. Janya says the show does not touch the subject of the monarchy; laws protecting the royal family have been broadly interpreted by courts in recent years, and penalties can be severe.
The political crisis has been comedic gold, she says, but some Thais are so weary of the crisis that they are eager to disengage from politics altogether.
"How many times can you feature people saying these ridiculous things?" she said. "Nobody is shocked anymore."
Thomas Fuller, New York Times