On YouTube, Comedy Troupe Tickles Brazil and Ruffles Feathers
By Simon Romero, NY Times, August 31, 2013
RIO DE JANEIRO—As Brazil’s largest cities were being rocked by huge antigovernment protests, the president, visibly exasperated, summoned top legislators to an emergency meeting and put forward a last-gasp concession to ease the fury on the streets.
"Things have gotten to a level where we must act, so I think we just have to slow the embezzlement down," she told a conference table of men in suits as cameras rolled.
Dumbfounded, the men explained that purloining less from public coffers—even a little less—was simply not possible given the important constituencies to please, like banks and construction giants building stadiums for the 2014 World Cup. One congressman responded that once the government actually started building schools, hospitals and roads with public money, it would be forced to continue indefinitely.
"I’ve just bought a private jet," said a crestfallen top official, his head collapsed in his hand, lamenting the president’s demand to curb the thievery.
The video, called “Emergency Meeting” and viewed more than 5.4 million times since late June, is just one of dozens of wildly popular farcical skits staged over the past year by Porta dos Fundos, or Back Door, a Brazilian comedy troupe whose Internet channel on YouTube ranks among the fastest-growing in the world.
As in the United States and other countries, new Internet ventures are challenging established companies in various industries in Brazil, but few here have captured audiences and ruffled feathers like Porta dos Fundos, whose satirical videos are challenging—and influencing—how Brazilian society ponders thorny subjects like religion, drug use, politics, sexuality and, of course, corruption.
Antonio Tabet, 39, one of the five partners who created Porta dos Fundos in 2012, said many Brazilians, despite the enormous wave of street protests across the country this year, were still “sheep in the field,” with an ingrained tolerance for political corruption and even scandals involving the clergy. “Our work is about waking people up,” he said.
The venture’s founders, all in their 20s and 30s, had largely worked as comedic actors, scriptwriters and directors at Brazilian television networks, but they chafed at the industry’s creative limitations, viewing short Internet videos as a medium in which they could express themselves freely.
The results, often laced with expletives, explore themes that might offend some corporate advertisers and television executives. One hit video in August, “Oh, My God!,” depicts a woman undergoing a routine gynecological exam when her doctor and other medical staff members suddenly see the image of Jesus between her legs, prompting an extended, candlelit vigil by doctors, nurses and random devotees as she lies on the table before them, in stirrups.
Porta dos Fundos, whose name, its founders insist, comes from a game of charades among themselves and is not a reference to human anatomy, has explained that the video was simply meant to poke fun at sightings of religious images in random places.
Brazil certainly offers the kind of environment in which a venture like Porta dos Fundos can thrive. The nation recently ranked second after the United States in both Facebook users and Twitter accounts, reflecting its effervescent social media use. Independent satirists and writers also generally feel unhindered in pushing the limits of freedom of expression in Latin America’s largest democracy.
When they are not shooting a video, the partners in Porta dos Fundos are incongruously serious and earnest in explaining their work. Fábio Porchat, a stand-up comedian who may be the troupe’s most famous member, says they draw inspiration from an array of sources, including Monty Python; Luís Fernando Veríssimo, a Brazilian writer and cartoonist; the British playwright Harold Pinter; and “South Park,” the adult animated sitcom in the United States.
"Humor puts a light on a certain subject," said Mr. Porchat, 30, who has more Twitter followers than Romário de Souza Faria, the outspoken Brazilian soccer legend who is now a federal legislator. "You can understand a little bit more what’s happening about that subject laughing about it."
As Porta dos Fundos stirs controversy, it is also making money along the way. Working closely with YouTube, the venture leapt in its first year of existence to the No. 5 spot among the site’s comedy channels worldwide, and it is the most popular channel of any kind in Brazil with more than five million subscribers.
Some of the troupe’s most biting work focuses on everyday frustrations, like ordering at a restaurant or hailing a taxi, that make life in Brazil—and especially in the defiantly relaxed Rio de Janeiro, where the actors are based—a little maddening for anyone lacking a sense of humor.
One video, called “Bank,” depicts a customer perplexed about fees on his account. Reflecting how overpowering bureaucracy in Brazil can be, the client is stunned when told of a raft of inexplicable charges, suddenly producing an unpayable debt on an account that had shown a comfortable balance a day earlier.
A similar video explores the indignities suffered by a diner at Spoleto, an Italian fast-food chain based here, when an insanely impatient server explodes in rage and throws hearts of palm at her.
"I just wanna have lunch," she says, breaking into tears.
"Nobody told you to lunch in hell," he screams at her.
The video, viewed more than seven million times, clearly could have poisoned ties between Spoleto and Porta dos Fundos, but the chain evidently decided it was better to work with the troupe than against it. So it hired the group to do sequels as commercials for the chain in which the server, still in need of anger management counseling, loses his job, gets another at a call center, insults a new set of customers, loses that job and is rehired, amazingly enough, by Spoleto.
"We have to do it our way, in our humor," said Mr. Duvivier, the actor, of producing commercials. "It has to be funny before it has to sell something."