When the call came in from the head of the observer mission of the Organization of American States, the stars of Peru's "The Jokesters" satirical political program thought they were in for a dressing down. Instead, it was just another object of their fun-making, encouraging the ribald trio to keep up the good work.
"I called to congratulate them and express how I see them doing quite an important job," says Eduardo Stein, a Guatemalan diplomat who heads the high-profile OAS mission here.
"They bring to Peruvians a dosage of humor in such politically complex times, and that allows people to distance themselves from some of the harshness. It's the healing effect of humor that any society needs," he adds, "which seems that much more important in Peru."
In a country hard hit in its spirit by the downfall and departure of former President Alberto Fujimori, by months of revelations of high-level corruption, and most recently, by a presidential campaign sunk in accusations of sex, drug abuse, and yet more corruption, "The Jokesters" have ridden in to the rescue.
With three radio and television programs daily, the trio - part on-the-mark impersonators and part irreverent political humorists - is a point of reference for Peruvians wading through the daily muck of a country coming to terms with a fallen "democratic dictatorship."
Most Limenos seem to think of the three - Guillermo Rossini, a lifelong radio man and "uncle" of the group; Fernando Armas, who imitated Mr. Fujimori; and Hernan Vidaurre, a former Lima cabby - as personal friends.
Take a cab here at 3 p.m., and the car radio will more likely than not be tuned to "The Jokesters" afternoon laughfest. Peek into a family's TV room at 8 or 11 at night, and they're probably watching "The Jokesters" as they dub their own interpretation of the news over the day's top news clips.
"The thing about "The Jokesters" is that behind their joking is the truth," says Carlos Melo, a laid-off bank messenger who, like most people here, breaks into a wide smile at a mention of the trio.
Many Peruvians were amazed when "The Jokesters" ("Los Chistosos") - who are celebrating six years on radio and 18 months on TV - were allowed to make fun of former strongman president Fujimori night after night when he was still in power.
While Fujimori and his detested spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, now a fugitive from justice, were busy attacking Lima's nongovernment TV stations and the more independent press, they left "The Jokesters" untouched.
"They got away with things because they were telling jokes and Fuji didn't know how to deal with that," says Mr. Melo. "If they had said the same things in a serious way, they would have been shut up."
Mariano Querol, a Lima psychologist, says comedians like these are a classic response to a situation like Peru's. "The loss of honor of a nation leads to a raising of humor against the leadership."
This poking fun at the oppressor, he says, has deep roots in Latin America. He points to centuries-old festivals where Indians sang songs and danced dances mimicking the Spanish colonizers.
"We're in a similar situation today," says Mr. Querol. "In a painful national predicament like ours, corruption, the lack of leadership, the underdevelopment, all favor the creation of humor. There is catharsis for the person who laughs."
The most recent object of the funmaking has been Peru's presidential campaign. (Results from Sunday's runoff vote were not available at press time.)
Mr. Armas has portrayed the campaign's frontrunner, Alejandro Toledo, as "Choledo," a play on Mr. Toledo's cholo or Indian ancestry. Mr. Vidaurre has played former president and comeback candidate Alan Garcia as Galan (heart throb) Garcia, emphasizing Garcia's smooth tongue, Kennedy-esque hair, and Hollywood smile. And Mr. Rossini has taken on other campaign figures - including the candidates' wives.
Even the ridiculed are laughing
At a TV taping last week, the three reviewed the news videos selected for the night's show, then got to work. Work for them resembles something like three friends sitting around cracking jokes about the news of the day, each one striving to one-up his buddy.
His cadence and timing perfectly atuned to the object of his impersonation, Vidaurre dubs over a passionate Garcia speech, poking fun at his promises to slash everything from electricity to telephone rates. Armas - who used to sound so much like Fujimori that viewers or listeners thought it was truly the president talking - now sounds just like Toledo.
Using a newsclip showing the short-in-stature Toledo standing on a wooden riser to address a crowd, Armas intones, "I am every bit as big a man as Alan Garcia - oh please, cameramen, stop showing the stepstool!"
Then Rossini has fun with Garcia's wife, Pilar. In response to a fictitious journalist's question about a supposed "dirty war" against her husband, Rossini's Pilar says, "Who would have thought that after our 10 years out of the country the people would remember all the old dirt!"
The Garcias only returned from exile in Paris in January for the presidential campaign, with most analysts predicting Garcia would get nowhere because of his disastrous presidency from 1985 to 1990. "They promised us the Peruvians had no memory!" concludes Rossini's Pilar.
Day after day "The Jokesters" seize on the country's latest indignities - the congressional members' Swiss bank accounts, a new video showing more deals by top business people with Mr. Montesinos - and solicit a laugh doing it.
Peruvians note that their country has had political humorists before - as have many countries - but "The Jokesters" have won hearts by keeping their script free of spite, crassness, favoritism, or arrogance. "The key to the success of this trio is that they say a lot, but they do it without offending," says Alfredo Cato, media critic for the Lima daily El Comercio. "They're an escape valve for all the pressure built up in this society, but it's a family-rated one."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor