It’s a good thing the leaders of the North Korean government didn’t watch “30 Rock.”
If they had, they might have objected, in destructive fashion, to an episode of the NBC comedy from 2011: An American TV journalist is kidnapped by the North Korean government, married off to then-head-of-state Kim Jong Il, and forced to preside over a strange totalitarian newscast. Kim — played by comedienne Margaret Cho — appears on the news himself to offer his personal version of the weather: “Everything sunny all the time, always.”
It wasn’t an imaginary assassination, like in the movie “The Interview,” which caused this week’s disheartening story of massive hacks, questionable threats, and broad capitulation from the movie industry. But it was character assassination, via satire — a glorious example of one of our culture’s highest values and virtues.
When it comes to free expression, there’s arguably nothing more important. We can wring our hands over the death of civic discourse. We can debate the acceptable contours of public protests. But nearly everyone, regardless of politics, still holds dear the notion that anyone is free to poke fun at the people in power without fear of repercussion.
It’s more than a little ironic that the drama around “The Interview” took place this particular week, just as “The Colbert Report” — arguably the highest form of political satire on TV today — exits the airwaves, to a million laments. How much do we value satire as a society? Think back to 2006: During a Republican administration, a comedian who presents a cutting daily take-down of conservative messaging, gets invited to the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, where he mocks the president to his face.
The move was still bold, and the room was tense. In a piece in New York magazine this week, Allison Silverman, a former head writer for “The Colbert Report,” recalled that Colbert, reading anger in the crowd, held back on a joke or two. Comedians push boundaries, but they recognize them, too. If they overshoot, our culture self-polices. A joke goes too far and there’s often a collective counterattack, a public shaming, followed by public contrition.
But we tend to get angry at jokes that go too far at the expense of the powerless, not the powerful. Ill-conceived tweets that mock AIDS in Africa, or poke fun at rape, are generally verboten. But comedians still wield a potent weapon against the entrenched. Sometimes, it can feel like the only weapon. These days, Chris Rock feels like a national refuge for the way he talks about race. Bill Cosby’s current public troubles, and the subsequent conversation over rape and power, began with Hannibal Buress’s standup routine.
When it comes to Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un — frightening, dangerous, yet also deeply weird — it’s natural that Americans turn to satire, a bulwark against legitimate fears and a genuine sense of impotence. “The Interview” might have been the most literal of recent fictional attacks on the young dictator. But there’s more: He stars in a series of cheeky anime-style videos on the website College Humor. He turns up in an installment of the unofficial Internet video series “Draw My Life.” It’s all worth watching, though I almost hate to bring it up, for fear that skittish Hollywood lawyers will start pulling things off YouTube.
Yes, there’s a risk of loving this joke too much. As Twitter piles on with knee-jerk humor — requests for Kim to wield his power against other Hollywood products, such as Transformers movies — we risk losing sight of the very real horrors his regime perpetrates on his citizens every day. On the other hand, that horror gives the comedy its edge, and much of its power. As long as Kim stays in the public eye, as visible as possible, we’re reminded of what needs to change.
That’s what makes this week’s actions — the movie theaters that refused to show the film, the studio that pulled it altogether — feel so deeply unsettling, like a theft. Physical fear is a legitimate concern, but the threats here are hard to parse, and to separate from the question of money. And it all portends a disturbing direction for Hollywood executives who do have legitimate power: to put subjects on the table, drive the public conversation, support and distribute satire and risk.
If they’ve lost their courage this week, then we all have lost a lot.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.