Are dictators really that funny? Well, obviously, they are. These are men who believe they’re gods, give themselves nicknames like Fearless Leader, award themselves medals for things they never did, and wear high heels because they’re too short to reach the podium. But how seriously should we take dictators in the movies and what does that mean for how we react to them in real life? As ridiculous as their personal habits can be, their actions are certainly not funny. So should we – and by we I mean Westerners, or those of us outside the nations in question – be permitted to laugh at them? Or must we take them incredibly seriously, as their actions demand? This question has been raised by Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest celebration of the extremely offensive The Dictator. Both The Guardian and The New York Times have weighed in on the issue, with A.O. Scott proving yet again that he’s turned into an old man demanding that the kids get off his lawn and go watch some Godard. Still, the argument is really an interesting one. What is OK to make fun of? Where do we draw the line at something being too offensive, or too horrific, or simply too serious to laugh at?
As South Park once put it: either everything is funny or nothing is funny. What they meant – or at least what I take them to mean – is not that you can make any kind of sexist, racist, or ethnocentrist jokes you want and then pass them off as ‘just joking’. Rather they meant that there is nothing ‘off limits’ in the world of humor. Making fun of Kim Jong Il in Team America was not, as some have said, making fun of Asians, or even of North Koreans. It was making fun of a vicious dictator. Within the structure of Team America, which takes shots at America, North Korea, the Taliban, celebrities, gay people, straight people, women, men and action films (among others), the Kim Jong Il character was perfectly acceptable. Everything was game because that was the paradigm created by the film.
Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is naturally the beginning point for most *ahem* dictatorial humor. Let’s think about it: this was a comedy about Hitler. Chaplin walks a fine line: his Hynkel character spouts propagandistic hatred, but to such a degree that it becomes ridiculous. He’s a man who rules a nation with an iron fist, who sends his army against Jews, who commits atrocities, oppression, violence … but who also gets into a food fight with one of his fellow dictators, dances with an inflatable globe, and falls down flights of stairs. Hynkel’s counterpart Napoloni is two parts Mussolini and one part Curly with a pinch of Chico Marx; he eats too much pasta and has a dreadful wife he’s mortally afraid of. Hynkel’s vitriol bends a microphone, but he still gets cream pie in the face. Chaplin later said that if he’d known of the true extent of the atrocities of the concentration camps, he would never have made the film. But the fact is that the film doesn’t make fun of the atrocities; it doesn’t lighten what the real Hitler did. It makes Hitler the center of satire; it turns him from a monster into an object of ridicule. It’s essentially going up and poking the little bastard between the eyes. And the ultimate joke? Hynkel’s doppelgänger is a Jewish barber. Could anything else have pissed off Hitler more than being compared to a people he violently hated?
Throughout World War II, the US seemed to have a policy of making fun of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse went to war; Bugs Bunny handed them dynamite. Times have changed, certainly, but the dictators haven’t. Men like Idi Amin, Qaddafi, Kim Jong Il, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein are cut from the same cloth as Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini. And they deserve the same treatment. South Park devoted an entire episode to Cartman chasing after Osama bin Laden, Looney Tunes style. The point they made, beyond a lot of other things, was that that’s really the only way to handle hateful people like bin Laden. Cartman knew just what to do. Don’t be scared of them. Laugh at them. There’s nothing they hate more.
Of course, we have the luxury of laughter. It isn’t our country being invaded, or oppressed, or destroyed. None of this is to say that we shouldn’t take the reality very, very seriously. But if ALL we do is take it seriously, we give these assholes precisely what they want. Dictators WANT to be taken seriously. They want people – not just their own people, ALL people – to be afraid of them. So by giving into that fear, by taking them seriously, we give them more power. I don’t know what The Dictator will ultimately accomplish, if anything. But it’s nice to see a comedian shoving a cream pie into megalomaniac faces again.
“Is everything a joke to you?” asks Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta.
“Only the important things,” replies Stephen Fry’s TV comedian.
A minute later, Fry is arrested (and finally executed) for making fun of the Chancellor on his show. Dictators don’t have a sense of humor; they’re incapable of seeing how ridiculous they are. Comedy does more than provide catharsis; at its best, it can show the pettiness of a man who styles himself more powerful than a god. It can prove to a country and to the world that this monster we’re so afraid of isn’t a monster at all. He’s just a ridiculous little man playing with an inflatable globe.