Last weekend, Almazbek Atambayev finally got a shout-out on Saturday Night Live, an American sketch comedy show experiencing a rebirth thanks to the absurdities of the Trump administration. I haven’t conducted a comprehensive assessment, but it’s a safe bet that Central Asian countries don’t merit a mention very often on American TV, particularly in American pop culture. There have been, however, several memorable comedic moments starring Central Asian countries — both intentional comedy and comedies of error. Why is Central Asia so funny?
The unfamiliarity of Central Asia’s “Stans” provides fertile ground to plant laughs. The names are difficult for the average English-speaker to pronounce and sound funny. (I say this as a person whose last name is very funny and possibly offensive in at least three languages). The line between comedy and offense is ill-defined; jokes that are sexist, racist, and rude still elicit laughs. Satire, which uses humor, irony, exaggeration, and ridicule to criticize, is at times intentionally offensive — it is the offense that points out the problem, policy, or issue the satirist is ridiculing.
To depict an administration as uninformed and unsophisticated, you put uninformed and unsophisticated words in their mouth.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
“I’d like to begin with the president’s schedule,” she says after a short intro to address that she is “calm now” and only eating one (huge) slice of gum per day.
“Three PM: President Trump is going to meet with the leader from Central Asia.” McCarthy/Spicer over-enunciates Central Asia, shouting it for added effect, then goes on:
“President, oh boy, umm, Almaz… Alzmabek Atamajabeybey to discuss the unrest in Kahaga, Kahagizstan… specifically in (oh jesus) Ota-otamana-otamanwanna-ota-otamanwanna-otamanwanna-abad… so write that”
Beyond getting an answer directly from whoever wrote the sketch, it’s not immediately clear why Atambayev was chosen. Kyrgyzstan has yet to come up in a press briefing (and indeed, isn’t mentioned anywhere on the White House website). There’s no present unrest, either. Furthermore, Atambayev is in his last year as president and unlike, say, the recent unsurprising victor of Turkmenistan’s recent election, Atambayev won’t be running again.
Perhaps the writers read this ridiculous Newsweek title from late January: “Kyrgyz President Signs New Constitution After Old One Vanished Mysteriously.” (Yes, Kyrgyzstan amended its constitution. Yes, the original copy of the 2010 one went missing. No, those two things are not related.)
Or maybe they wanted to add Kahagizstan to the long list of humorous ways Central Asian countries have been misspelled and mispronounced: the New York Time’s Kyrgyzbekistan, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Kyrzakhstan, and 2012 Republican presidential contender Herman Cain’s Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan.
Kyrgyzstan isn’t truly the butt of this joke; it is the vehicle by which the Trump administration (and perhaps also the American public) is critiqued. The country is one most Americans would not be familiar with, or care much about. I cannot count the number of well-meaning friends who, after my trip to Kyrgyzstan and three weeks of constant social media posts about the country, still asked me: “How was your trip to Kazakhstan?”
The real target of the joke is Spicer (and by association Trump) who are portrayed as uninformed, less-than-sophisticated, autocrats. Spicer (in the satire, which plays off reality) doesn’t want to take serious questions so tells the gathered journalists to write about the president’s meeting with the esteemed leader of Kahagizstan, where there has been unrest.
The bit piggybacks off the administration’s claims last week that the press wasn’t covering terrorist attacks comprehensively. In the sketch Spicer mentions unrest in an unpronounceable location to a room of flabbergasted journalists. Ironically, the White House’s list of terrorist attacks which the “dishonest press” did not cover adequately not only included very prominently covered attacks like those in Paris, Orlando, and San Bernardino, but neglected to include the August 2016 suicide bombing of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, the July 2016 shooting attack in Almaty, or the June 2016 attack in Aktobe, all of which were described by governments as terrorist attacks.
Kyrgyzstan may be a part of the SNL sketch, but the joke’s on the Trump administration.