Let’s be fair about this. Just because someone objects to something that other people consider genuinely funny, doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she doesn’t have a healthy sense of humor. Take me for example. I laugh at a lot of stuff. I laugh at Woody Allen, Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, the late Richard Pryor, Sarah Silverman, and dozens of other comedians. In fact, I recall even having laughed at something Dane Cook once said.
I love comedy. Believing that American politics needs to be “goosed up,” I suggested, only half-jokingly, that whenever President Obama stands at the podium and makes an important speech to the nation, some of the guys on his cabinet (maybe John Kerry and Eric Holder) should run up behind him and dump a celebratory bucket of Gatorade on his head. Now that’s comedy.
But what didn’t strike me as particularly funny was reading in the Los Angeles Times, many weeks ago, that Sony was about to release a Seth Rogan film, The Interview, where it actually named names—where it used the real-life North Korean dictator, Kim Jung-un, as a target of an attempted assassination. In fact, when I first heard that, I thought they were kidding.
Besides being recklessly and pointlessly provocative (Kim Jong-un isn’t widely known for his expansive sense of humor), it stuck me as a lazy and unequivocal cheap shot, little more than a schoolyard bully move. You want to do a clever satire or parody, fine, go for it. Be clever; be droll. But using a real-life character as part of the gag is too easy.
When Charlie Chaplin presented his famous satire, The Great Dictator (1940), he didn’t name the Hitleresque tyrant “Adolf Hitler.” Doing that not only would have diminished the wit, it would have made the film too pedestrian. Chaplin clearly realized he didn’t need to identify the tyrant in order for his movie to work, and Sony should have realized they didn’t need to identify this preposterous Asian dictator.
Just as we all knew who the Hitler character represented, we would all know who Sony’s depiction of the Kim character represented. He’s Asian, he’s weird, he’s baby-faced, he’s a totalitarian screwball. Just give the actor who plays this guy a bad haircut, and the audience would have happily taken it from there.
Using specific names also raises another question, one a bit closer to home. Would those same First Amendment fanatics be howling with laughter if a foreign movie studio were to release a film called, How We Brutally Murdered Hillary Clinton, or The Day We Kidnapped Sasha and Malia Obama? Is anyone laughing? Is anyone digging how unconventional and in-your-face the humor is?
Seriously, other than the sheer audacity and shock value that those titles carry, what’s the point? Where’s the “art”? And would a person who admitted to being offended by those themes automatically be relegated to the category of philistine or “square”?
And speaking of the First Amendment, it’s amazing how many people still get that wrong. The First Amendment has nothing to do with a boss censoring an employee, or a movie studio censoring a screenwriter, or a gallery owner censoring an artist. The First Amendment specifically addresses the government’s censorship of private citizens.
Consider: If Sony Pictures had told Seth Rogen he was forbidden to use Kim Jung-un’s real name in “The Interview,” that would have been their prerogative, a boss’s instruction to an employee. But had Barack Obama forbid Sony Pictures from doing it, it would have been a violation of the First Amendment. There’s a profound difference between the two.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), is a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org