‘The Interview’ and precedence: On dictators in comedy movies, TV and online

The fate of comedy “The Interview” is looking grim, after Sony has canceled domestic and international theatrical release this week.

The James Franco and Seth Rogen-starrer had been in the works for half a decade. In it, a tabloid news show host and his producer are roped into an assassination attempt on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un via the urging of the FBI. While the plot sounds somewhat serious, it looped its way through plenty of weiner and butthole jokes, and also grounded its digs in North Korean propaganda, the criminal dehumanization of its people and the un-deifying of its Dear Leader (through dick and butt jokes, of course, plus violence).

But cutting down a tyrannical world leader is no new feat, of course. “South Park” and “Looney Tunes” took down Kim Jong-Il and Hitler in cartoons. “Arrested Development,” “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” brought abroad baddies to their knees for the small screen. Adept internetters have co-opted cinematic despot despair for meme-making. “Inglourious Basterds,” “The Dictator,” “Bananas” and “The Great Dictator” ripped into historical wrongdoing with caricatures, physical comedies, gaffes and gags to take the legs out (sometimes literally) from those who inflict torture and suffering on their own nations and others.

In this particular circumstance, Rogen and cohort Evan Goldberg wrote a live-action movie aimed at a current enemy of the United States who is lampooned simply by humanizing him, doing the opposite of the state-produced media feeds its citizens. And in this case, it seems the North Korean government has reacted by inflicting cyberwarfare on Sony. And now audiences, for now, won't see it.

Read below for an expansion on the precedence of comedy and dramadies taking on brutal dictators — how they were presented, cut down to size and what it says about approaching their atrocities before and after they're around.

“Springtime” for “The Producers”
Mel Brooks has a long-standing fascination with comic portrayals of Hitler, and while some might see it as a trivialization of someone who did very real evil in the world. Brooks has always used his humor to try to steal back the power from Hitler, making him small and ridiculous, and he did a great job of not only mocking Hitler with the musical-within-the-movie of “Springtime For Hitler,” but also mocking anyone who treated Hitler with any reverence at all. Imagine the look on the faces of that audience the first time Brooks cuts to them watching in shocked horror. Now keep in mind that when that film was made, it was less than a quarter-century after the end of WWII. Brooks proved with his film that humor can be found in even the darkest corners of our culture. – Drew McWeeny

North Korea kidnaps Elizabeth Banks on “30 Rock”
“The Interview” wasn't even the first time that Kim Jong-Un had been depicted in an unflattering comedic light in an American comedy.

“30 Rock” turned both the Korean dictator and his late father – whose death was announced in the midst of this story arc – into villains and figures of ridicule when they kidnapped Jack Donaghy's wife Avery and forced her to be co-anchor of state-sponsored propagandist news. Both played by Margaret Cho in drag, the father and the son came across as physically ineffectual, delusional men taking advantage of their political and military might to turn any ridiculous lie (say, that Kim Jong-Un is good at basketball) into a reality (by forcing the other players to stand around while he climbs a ladder to the basket). – Alan Sepinwall

The “Hitler reacts to…” Meme
The 2004 German film “Downfall,” or “Der Untergang,” is just about as serious a movie as you could imagine. It's roughly 2.5 hours of Hitler's last days, with Bruno Ganz giving an intense performance that has won awards the world over. Then the Internet got a hold of it, turning a scene of Hitler's outrage about impending German military defeat into the fuhrer's frustration at, among other things, Microsoft flight simulators, the cancellation of various TV shows and other sources of frivolity.

The release of “Downfall” was approached with interest and also trepidation because of the perception that it humanized Hitler, as if he were somehow less monstrous if he were treated as anything other than a one-dimensional caricature. The “Hitler reacts to…” meme, in turn, restores Hitler to the realm of caricature and absurdism, reappropriating the reappropriated image for comedy.

The meme has become subject to various copyright disputes, but director Oliver Hirschbiegel has given his approval, because honestly who's going to say, “Stop picking on Hitler”? Nobody. – Dan Fienberg

Fictionalized Hitler assassination: “Inglourious Basterds”
Quentin Tarantino's 2009 Oscar winner is, effectively, the “Hitler reacts to…” meme as a feature-length movie, taking the writer-director's obsession with revenge fantasies into a pseudo-historical realm. It's “Kill Adolph” or “Hitler Apparently Isn't Deathproof.”

Hitler's demise is a fusion of a World War II action film with a Looney Tunes cartoon, making it impossible to take seriously both because of the aesthetic depiction but also because — Spoilers here — Brad Pitt and his team of Jewish soldiers didn't actually kill Hitler in a movie theater. Like the “Hitler reacts to…” meme, it's essentially an undoing of “Downfall,” portraying Hitler's last days in the least nuanced and human way possible. It's a reclamation of Hitler as stock villain for people who thought “Downfall” was too realistic and therefore too sympathetic.

Because it's a thing that certifiably didn't occur, depicted with a heightened level of both violence and absurdity, it's also a commentary on the fallacy that Hollywood has a responsibility to depict true events as true just because the facts exist. It's not “What's accurate,” but rather “What satisfies our decades of blood-lust.” And with Hitler, nobody's going to protest. – Dan Fienberg

Chaplin and “The Great Dictator”
Charlie Chaplin has said that he might not have made this film if he had known the full truth about the concentration camps and the horror of Hitler's final solution, but thankfully, he did make the film, and it stands as an act of artistic courage in the face of rising fascism.

He may not have known just how deep the nightmare went in Germany, but Chaplin heard enough “racial purity” talk to realize that Hitler was a madman and worthy of scorn. The film was a giant middle finger in the face of one of of history's great monsters, made while he was still on the ascent, which just seems fair considering the way Hitler then proceeded to ruin the tiny mustache for everyone forever. – Drew McWeeny

The Bluth family gets in bed with Saddam Hussein on “Arrested Development”
“Arrested” debuted months after the invasion of Iraq, which meant that Saddam Hussein was technically a fugitive and not a dictator at the time the show went on the air. Still, creator Mitch Hurwitz and his writers took great pleasure in linking the Bluth family to Hussein, whether having a bearded, bedraggled George Bluth play Saddam stand-in in a recreation of the video of Hussein being examined after he was found in his spider-hole, or having George and other Bluths accused of treason for building houses in Iraq.

(This also caused problems when GOB decided that the company's new slogan would be “Solid as a rock,” needing Michael to explain to him what that sounded liked.) – Alan Sepinwall

“South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” and Satan's lover
Saddam Hussein wasn't just killed by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, he was sent to Hell, where he became Satan's lover in one of the most alarmingly dysfunctional sexual relationships in film history. Hussein was turned into such a preposterous cartoon that it would have been easy to forget he was a real person with a horrifying record of human rights abuses. Introduced originally on the show, Saddam really became a go-to character in the movie, and they so much fun with the character that they had to keep him around and continue to use him even after his relationship with Satan ended. – Drew McWeeny

Kim Jong-Il and “Team America: World Police”
Kim Jong-il was famous for being obsessed with film, and with Hollywood movies in particular, and there can be no doubt that he sat through Matt Stone and Trey Parker's lunatic puppet movie that roasted Gerry Anderson, Jerry Bruckheimer, Hollywood liberals and the seated dictator of North Korea with no mercy shown to anyone. One can only imagine what he thought of such remarkable moments as “I'm So Ronery” as he watched a deeply unflattering puppet version of himself sing about his emotions.

Whatever he thought, he took it on the chin and never threatened to destroy Comic-Con for showing early footage from the movie or destroy movie theaters when the film opened. Someone should tell his son that it's an honor to be called a creepy manipulative pseudo-Bond villain by Stone and Parker. No, really. – Drew McWeeny