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Wednesday, April 3, 2024

April 3, 2024: Satire Studying: The Interview

[If ever a year both needed and yet resisted a heavy dose of satire, it would be 2024. So for this year’s April Fool’s series I’ll share a humorous handful of SatireStudying posts—please add your thoughts on these and any other satirical texts you’d highlight for a knee-slapping yet pointed crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On what’s problematic, and what’s important, about a hugely controversial comedy.

In the last post in my 2012 April Fools series, I highlighted five great, enduring works of American satire. Having had the chance to see the satirical film The Interview (2014) subsequent to drafting that post, I have to admit that I don’t see it ever landing on such a list. Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, based on a story by Rogen, Goldberg, and Dan Sterling, and starring Rogen and James Franco as the producer and star of a celebrity interview show who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the screwball comedy throws a ton of jokes and over-the-top sequences against the wall, many of them vulgar, graphically violent, or some combination of both. There are certainly funny moments, both of the silly and the pointed variety; but for the most part the film feels like it’s working way too hard for much too little payoff. And much of the problem lies in that attempt to combine the silly and screwball with the satirical—satire, it seems to me, requires us to use our brain; and too much of the time, The Interview is trying to hit us far lower than that.

The film became far better known for its controversy than its comedy, of course, and on that level too I would argue that it’s problematic. I don’t have any problem with a work of fiction satirizing (and even, SPOILER and graphic violence alert, brutally killing) a world leader like Kim, and certainly I don’t support the North Korean government’s attempts to suppress the film’s release. But as I wrote in this January 2015 piece for my Talking Points Memo column, I don’t believe we Americans have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to critiquing such blind, uncritical worship of our beloved leaders. Since many of the responses to my piece suggested I was equating the two nations overall, let me be clear: America is not North Korea, in any sense. But I would stand by my point that far too many Americans expressed, in response to Natalie Maines’ far less incendiary depiction of George W. Bush, a level of outrage and anger commensurate to the North Korean response to a film portraying their leader in far, far worse light (as well as, y’know, brutally killing him). Which is to say, if we want to make the case that North Korea should be able to handle satire and criticism more calmly, we’re going to have to turn that mirror on ourselves and our own histories as well.

I don’t think it entirely succeeded in doing so, but it is important to note that The Interview does, in fact, attempt to true that satirical and critical lens on America as well as North Korea. It does so partly through the easy targets of the media and our culture of celebrity, both embodied by James Franco’s thoroughly annoying and stupid character (although he is eventually supposed to be a hero, so I’m not sure how much the zingers ultimately connect). But it does so more subtly through the film’s true heroine, Sook, the North Korean officer who hopes to overthrow Kim and establish a democratic government in his place. When Sook reveals her true intentions, Franco and Rogen exclaim that Kim must be assassinated; she replies, “How many times is America going to make the same mistake?,” and Franco responds, “As many times as it takes, sister!” Again, such moments of thoughtful satire of American foreign policy and perspectives are both few and far between and often overshadowed by the silliness and vulgarities and so on; but they’re there, and perhaps they even registered with the millions of viewers who sought out the film after the controversy. For a silly, mediocre screwball comedy, that’d be a surprising and meaningful effect.

Next satire tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other satirical works you’d share?

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