By Charlie Campbell
November 13, 2014

The cast and crew of Shallow News in Depth, Thailand’s leading online satirical news show, are relishing the fruits of their success: a roomy new studio. The cameraman no longer has to use plastic water bottles as counterweights. The news desk doesn’t look like it was borrowed from a school.

“This is only the second time we’ve filmed here,” says host Winyu Wongsurawat, from behind his trademark wraparound sunglasses. “Before we just used to shoot in a whitewashed corner of a room.”

Winyu founded Shallow News in Depth as a pet project with his sister Janya in 2008. The show’s audience has grown steadily. Each episode now attracts about 250,000 views on YouTube and generates enough advertising revenue to help fund a full-time team of 40 and, since October, the new studio. The show, with its zany animations and pre-recorded jingles, provides a madcap voice of reason amid Thailand’s fractious political scene. “We want young people to understand the news,” says the 29-year-old Winyu, who before stardom flipped from studying performing arts to political science. “So we thought to have a show that is easy and fun.”

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It is also courageous. Following six months of deadly pro- and anti-government demonstrations, Thailand’s military staged a coup on May 22. The junta has since detained more than 200 journalists, academics and activists. Nevertheless, Shallow News in Depth refuses to pull its punches, recently mocking specific government officials who have accrued enormous personal wealth despite their modest wages. So far, Winyu has somehow escaped the generals’ ire. “We just don’t know if the military get our jokes,” he says.

The Bangkok Post dubbed Winyu’s frenetic style “Jon Stewart on crack,” after the host of American satirical news program The Daily Show. “Winyu’s not shouting at the screen, as Stewart often does, and his criticism of individuals is less direct,“ says Dan Waites, author of CultureShock! Bangkok, a book on Thai etiquette and sensibilities. “But if you understand the context, and read between the lines, it’s hilarious and damning stuff.”

John Winyu Wongsurawat, host of online TV political satire show, Shallow News in Depth.
Cedric Arnold for TIME

Although Winyu draws inspiration from Stewart and other late-night American hosts including Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon, the spur to merge politics and humor first came from his academic parents. While Winyu’s mother, an Illinois-born arts teacher, would become incensed during the family’s weekend political discussions, their father, a Thai political science professor, would preach calm. “So we tried to do the same and not get angry but treat it as a joke,” says Winyu.

He also learned to challenge the status quo from outspoken Thai social commentators like the eminent pacifist professor of political science Chaiwat Satha-Anand. Chaiwat, in turn, praises how Winyu uniquely “infuses a wonderful sense of humor — some very deadpan, some rather dark — to stimulate Thai political discourse in this difficult time.”

Winyu and his staff explain sensitive political topics — like the billions of dollars squandered in an ill-conceived rice-pricing scheme — through tart infographics that spell out what they see as the flaws in government and opposition policies. By going after all of Thailand’s political factions equally, Winyu demonstrates that blind dogma is his real quarry. “We are like a piece of candy which is covered in sugar, but inside are the vitamins,” he says.

Winyu has inspired scores of other young Thais to take to YouTube with their own homespun satirical news shows, a hopeful indication of political engagement in a nation where critical evaluation is largely missing from mainstream education. “Shallow News is a massive influence,” says Jukapong Elmsaard, 26, a Thai pop-culture blogger and aspiring novelist. “I learned that by making my work funny, people find knowledge easier to absorb.”

While the junta remains in power and political dysfunction continues, Winyu and the young satirists he has emboldened are unlikely to run out of critiques to share with their audiences. Or, for that matter, jokes.

Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com.

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