The two comedians from Armenia write and perform their own satirical news show, called “ArmComedy,” three times a week on the ArmNews TV channel.
They have had many prominent guests on their show, including Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, various Armenian ministers and politicians, including opposition figures, filmmakers, singers and even American comedian Conan O’Brien during his 2015 visit to Armenia.
Like many political satirists, their intellectual and fresh approach to news attracts a wider audience than straight political academic analysis. Their straight-faced, suited presentation of the news, has won over many fans.
They both do have academic backgrounds, but these are in ostensibly unrelated fields. Margaryan has a doctorate in English while Sargsyan has one in philology, and both have been lecturers in Armenian universities. Their unusual path to the professional world of comedy was a long one.
After finishing their studies, they used their linguistic skills to find jobs in international development organizations and developed new specialties. For example, Sargsyan worked for various US government-funded development projects in Armenia concerning elections, political party programs, and corruption for seven years.
Margaryan said this line of work taught them a lot about politics, as “we could see a lot of things from the inside — how politics works or doesn’t work. We found a lot of inconsistencies and ironies.” Sargsyan added, “Anti-corruption is an area you don’t study in the university.” During this period, they tried to write some satiric articles, and found that though the reports and serious language prepared by the political organizations in which they worked got little attention, they, in Margaryan’s words, “could bring focus to issues of interest through satire, and it worked.”
The two had become friends at the university, when they found they had a common sense of humor. Sargsyan exclaimed that they were the only “Simpsons” fans in Armenia. While studying at the university they performed at some functions and tried to make people laugh. Even as young children, they both were class clowns or cut-ups, and would get yelled at by their parents for joking too much.
They eventually began to do standup comedy in a Yerevan club in 2007. Margaryan said it all started out as a fun side activity, a hobby on the side, until it began to be noticed. By 2009 they had turned their energies to preparing a satiric news site. They discovered George Carlin and then the Onion.com online, which gave them inspiration. The website turned into a web series on CivilNet’s internet TV channel, and after two years, in 2012, they began airing on a regular network television.
The switch from international development jobs to fulltime comedy was not taken well by their parents. Sargsyan said that his mother said, “You mean to say you are quitting your international development job, a real job, for joking!…It took a lot of convincing and explaining that this is fine.” On the other hand, the international organizations and especially the expatriates working there supported this career change. They shared the English-language articles written by the duo with others, and expected that they would move in this direction, though they were doing well in their development jobs too. He jokingly said that he was doing so well in his job that he basically eliminated corruption while he worked in that field. Of course, after he left, it picked up again.
In addition to writing and performing their show, which they do three times a week, they also have written four movie scripts, of which two have been produced (they only starred in one of them). As the television season in Armenia is from September to July, they only get one month off. They usually write one movie a year, so they have a full schedule.
Sargsyan noted, “One of the most frustrating experiences and moments in my life was when I googled the script writing staff of the “Daily Show” and I saw 14 people working on each show. They have the same amount of time and same amount of shows as us. We realized that we should have demanded a writing staff in the very beginning.”
Despite the tight schedule, they enjoy their lives. As Margaryan said, “We are in that happy spot where your hobby is your job,” and what they do comes easily to them. His colleague said, “We just watch the news and the script is already forming in our brains. We already know what this guy has said, and how many controversial things are in this or that political moment, so it comes very naturally and quickly.” They file away in their minds all kinds of information about whose uncle works where, and what statements people made in the past, in order to bring it up when inconsistencies arise.
When asked about whether their satirical treatment of institutions or people in power in Armenia has led to any dangerous repercussions for them, Sargsyan responded that “There is a certain balance, and you keep pushing the line further and further. … There is usually some kind of physical risk. But people who would have been offended three years ago have now learned to laugh at themselves, hopefully also through us pushing them toward that understanding that it is okay to be self-ironic, to laugh at your own mistakes. We try not to have personal insults, but mock the situation and lead the person to understand that he is funny.” Margaryan said that a major difference with American shows is that in Armenia they cannot directly call someone an idiot.
It seems that their show has had a concrete effect on politicians’ behavior. Margaryan noted that there was such a case in parliament. He said, “When they had a ridiculous lull in discussion they said, ‘oh come on now, ‘ArmComedy’ is going to show this’ — and yes, we did. So maybe there is a little mind shift in that way.”
Furthermore, when the show focused public attention on specific issues, it had the most success in engendering change. Sargsyan said that cases of great excess in government spending were good examples. The government spent $300,000 on a bio-toilet that does not work. For a few months, the show focused its attention on this, and the government ended up declaring it to be a mistake. It never again bought such a toilet that does not work at such a great price. Ministers buying luxury cars paid for by the public are another example. Sargsyan said they used exaggeration, like saying government officials might as well buy Jacuzzis too, to get a greater reaction.
Margaryan mentioned another difference with American shows. Jon Stewart, formerly of “The Daily Show” can call US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a turtle on his show, and would never run into McConnell’s grandmother in the supermarket. On the other hand, he and Sargsyan run into people’s uncles and grandmothers all the time, and it is very real. Sargsyan said, “Sometimes they just stop talking to us forever.” Luckily, Margaryan said, they also have large numbers of people who support the show loyally.
Last year, after the April War in Artsakh, “ArmComedy” produced four English-language episodes on the situation in Karabakh through sarcasm. Sargsyan noted that they got a big viewership. People from America watched it, including people from the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian Tree Project (ATP). This led the two organizations to decide to host the first US tour of “ArmComedy.”
Arpi Vartanian, regional director of the Assembly, declared, “Anytime you watch their show or talk to Narek and Sergey, you realize the depth of their comprehension of current issues in Armenia, the US, and elsewhere, especially by their amazing capacity to present these issues through non-partisan comedy. By sharing these young talents with America, we are able to bring our nations closer, perhaps bridge some gaps, and strengthen US-Armenia ties. We are bringing a piece of Armenia home to Armenian Americans.”
Sargsyan joked: “I am a big fan of trees. Some of my best friends are trees.”
Margaryan declared, “We have been dying to have a chance to write and do standup in English because almost all of the comedy we watch is in English, and the way of our thinking is basically in English. When we write our Armenian shows, we would write first in English and see if it were translatable into Armenian. So, this is a chance for us to really go ahead and do the jokes we always wanted to do. English has such a great structure — it is really convenient for comedy.” Sargsyan then interjected, “But to be clear, when it comes to sad stuff, we always think in Armenian.”
The two noted that the idea of mockumentaries and standup, especially standup based on personal problems, itself comes from the US and the West. Nearly all American television series are watched in Armenia and have great influence.
At their forthcoming American shows, they explained, there will be a general introduction of Armenia and America through satire, some paradoxes, and some things which will seem unusual or ironic from a foreign perspective about Armenia. They plan to draw cultural and political parallels. They said they would not avoid the orange elephant in the room and would talk about current affairs internationally.
Another topic they will tackle at the show will be the Armenian sense of humor. They said that Armenian humor is primarily Armenocentric, with everything having to be about Armenians as the center of the universe.
Margaryan said that as comedy and tragedy are really close, the difficult Armenian historical experience may be why Armenians have similarities with the Jews culturally. Perhaps comedy is a coping mechanism for both peoples.
Sargsyan said it is important to note that Armenians have taken over the comedy scene in Russia, “so we have taken over one of the great powers.” Margaryan interjected that actually both superpowers are run by Armenians and China will be next.
Margaryan went to school in Russia and both he and Sargsyan speak fluent Russian, and therefore, in addition to performing in Armenian, they also have some episodes of their television show in Russian. In other words, they joked, they are ready no matter what the result of the next world war will be.
“ArmComedy” English-language performances will take place in Winchester Town Hall, in Massachusetts, on April 28 (armeniatree.org/armcomedy); Glendale at Stars on Brand on May 4 (itsmyseat.com/ArmComedy) and the San Francisco Bay area at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts on May 6 (armeniatree.org/MVCPA).