Saturday 16 February 2019

The Zarbun and the Potato – A viral fairytale

By Matt Bonanno

Over the past week, Internet addicts like myself have been treated to not one, but two viral videos, in the form of Chiara’s song Zarbun, and the potato video. The fact that both these videos originated in Malta is an added bonus. Vajral ta’ Malta, if you will.

At the time of writing, both videos have gotten over 100,000 views on Youtube, a number very rarely achieved by local creations.

As normally happens on our little crumb of an island, the humour police swiftly appeared, telling us all off for laughing at these unintentionally hilarious videos.

In a desperate attempt to educate the unenlightened in the art of silliness, I’ll explain in pointless detail why the two videos are funny.

Let’s start with the simpler one. Former Eurovision darling Chiara released an admittedly catchy club song on Youtube entitled Zarbun (no dot on the ‘Z’, thank you very much). Nothing wrong so far, except that the way that the word ‘zarbun’ is used in the song is so out of place that it ends up sounding absurd:

“In my zarbun, I’m a soldier in heels, the queen of it all…”

“…You can see me walk away in my zarbun.”

Despite having already listened to the song more times than is healthy, I just listened to it again to double check the lyrics, and I still found myself laughing. The fact that, zarbun aside, the rest of the song is in English is just too incongruous, and incongruity, that is seeing or hearing two or more things together that don’t make sense, is naturally funny.

It doesn’t help that the person singing the song is Chiara, who was already a target of jokes because of her weight (cruel, yes) and her recent transformation from gifted singer to pink-haired Rihanna wannabe and queen of the Maltese ghetto.

Next, the trickier of the two. In a nutshell, this video is an advert for Maltese potatoes that shows a family of local farmers in their fields picking spuds in the shadow of Imdina, featuring the obligatory shots of idyllic countryside scenery, and accompanied by a soothing guitar and piano instrumental. During the video, one of the younger farmers talks to the camera about the process of potato harvesting, and this is where the fun begins.

His English is admittedly not the best, but the real reason why so many people found it so funny is what he actually said. Chief among these gems are:

“I have potato blood in my veins.”

“My life is potato.”

“I dream of potatoes.”

He even says that it hurts knowing he’ll never see his potatoes again after they’re exported. Awwh!

Any attempt to take the video seriously is further hampered by the dodgy subtitles, which someone decided should contain everything our potato-loving hero says, word for word, no matter how broken his sentences. They even misspell a few words (e.g. “My live is potato”), just to add to the shabbiness of it all.

Despite being uploaded in March, the video was only shared on Facebook a few days ago, and within a few hours it had spread like wildfire. By the following evening, it had gone viral on international content sharing sites like Reddit and Imgur. I wasn’t surprised; it had every single ingredient needed for something to go viral, but more about that in a minute.

The potato video is more complex than the Zarbun one, because it comes with more cultural and sociological baggage. Moreover, not everyone found it funny for the same reasons.

There were a few who sneered at Potato Man’s accent, his poor English and his supposed ignorance. These are the kind of twits who give good-natured educated people a bad name. The funny thing is that some of the people I saw mocking the farmer have terrible English accents and limited vocabulary themselves, despite thinking they’re more English than Queen Liz. Between a hard-working farmer and a moronic snob who can’t speak either language correctly, I know who I’d prefer to be exiled on Filfla.

Then there was the majority, who like me, found it amusing because it’s a funny-looking man with a funny accent talking about having potato blood in his veins and dreaming about potatoes. It’s a surrealist’s playground, and a great example of something the global young online community pounces on like a grumpy cat.

I don’t blame the people who don’t understand why us Internet folk find a farmer talking about potatoes so funny, because it’s a particular way of seeing things that is the result of being raised on a steady diet of memes, viral videos, gifs and doing things for the lulz.

Nevertheless, it seems you don’t have to be fluent in the ways of the interwebz to find the video amusing. My Dad is a born and bred Imġarri, and as Maltese as they come. He even grows a few Derby potatoes himself in his spare time, and despite being more at home working in a field than on a computer, and to my surprise, he still found the video hilarious.

The people I really have a problem with are the self-styled champions of the ‘weak’, the defenders of the moral high ground and the ones who get offended on behalf of other people. They think they’re protecting the more vulnerable members in society from mean bastards like me who view everything as fair game for comedy, but in actual fact they’re being incredibly patronising. By assuming people like the Potato Man wouldn’t find the video funny themselves, while possibly loving the attention, they dehumanise them, all so they can feel good about themselves.

For humour to be effective, everyone should be a potential target, without discrimination . Just because someone is poor and uneducated (not that the potato farmer is either) doesn’t mean they should be exempt from having the piss taken out of them. Let’s face it,  some of the poor do some pretty stupid stuff. Honey Boo Boo anyone?

In the case of Chiara it’s a bit different because she’s a well-known public person so it’s expected and more accepted she’ll get flak, but nonetheless you still see comments like these on Youtube:

“Ħalluha miskina, x’qatt għamlitilkom?

“Aħjar tħares lejk innifsek qabel ma tgħaddi ż-żmien b’ħaddiehor sieħbi.”

Personally I’ve never understood this Maltese obsession with trying your best not to offend people and never telling them to their face what you think of them, while at the same time engaging in so much behind-the-scenes tongue-wagging ,as well as enough undermining and backstabbing to make a medieval Italian assassin feel uncomfortable.

You could argue that it’s cruel to make fun of these people, but humour more often than contains an element of cruelty. A century ago, when according to some we were nicer human beings, there were such slapstick acts as Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. They may seem quaint by today’s standards, but at the end of the day you’re still laughing at people hurting themselves and other people.

And if you find yourself saying, “but that’s fiction, not real life,” then clearly you’ve never slipped and fallen onto your backside while teaching English to a class of kids, who in my experience find the discomfort of others funnier than any other age group. The little brats.

The truth is that humour is the most subjective thing in the world. There’s space in the world for crude, intelligent, and like Zarbun and Potato, unintentional humour, and if something doesn’t tickle you then that’s fine, but don’t tell me I shouldn’t laugh either.

Matt is a writer and aspiring stand-up comedian.


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