January 30, 2015
This winter has been hard on comedy. In December, computer hackers linked to the government of North Korea broke into the computers of Sony Pictures and posted confidential emails online, all apparently in retaliation for the planned release of The Interview, a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco about the host of a TV interview show recruited by the CIA to assassinate the North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un. When threats appeared online promising violent attacks against any theaters that went ahead with the planned Christmas day release of the movie, Sony bowed to pressure from several large theater chains and pulled the movie. After critics ranging from newspaper columnists to President Obama accused Sony of abandoning the principle of free speech and acceding to the demands of terrorists, the studio allowed independent theaters to screen the movie and made it available online and as a download.
Two weeks later, gunmen broke into the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered twelve people, this time in response to the 2012 publication of satirical cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. While the Charlie Hebdo massacre brought even greater international attention to questions of free speech and democracy raised by The Interview controversy, the brutality of the attacks made the flap over the movie seem less dire in comparison. But both The Interview and Charlie Hebdo share another similarity in terms of our cultural attitudes towards free speech and the role of entertainment: they are both examples of comic speech, of responses to and commentaries on politics, religion, and society that employ humor and laughter.
For those of us interested in the history of American cinema, one striking aspect of the debate over Sony’s handling of The Interview controversy is the consensus opinion, at least in much of mainstream media, that The Interview is a “stupid” movie. Just Google “The Interview” and the term, “stupid,” and “the interview stupid movie” pops right up as a common search term. Link after link will take you to reviews, editorials, and blogs that all agree that, whether the writer likes the movie or not, the movie is definitely “stupid.” For many, the “stupidity” of the movie only points out how ridiculously paranoid and out of touch the North Korean regime really is for taking it so seriously (see, for example, Mike Hale’s review, “Memo to Kim Jong-un: Dying Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard,” in The New York Times).
And it’s not just The Interview, of course. Terms like “stupid,” “silly,” and “idiotic” are often attached to comedies, especially comedies like The Interview that involve physical humor, references to basic bodily functions, and language that violates rules of social decorum. But why do we assume that such comedies are therefore “stupid”? It’s not as if comedy is easy to do. On the contrary, comedy depends on split-second timing as well as verbal and physical dexterity. Comedies also face a high bar in terms of audience reaction. While dramas and even action adventure movies need only provoke some level of interest in an audience to achieve at least a small amount of success, the audience verdict on a comedy is more definitive and unforgiving: people either laugh or they don’t.
Perhaps the charge of stupidity has to do with some of the characters who populate movie comedies. In The Interview, for example, Rogen and Franco portray a television producer and tabloid news magazine host who are at times vain, selfish, fearful, and ignorant. Or consider the title character of Ron Burgundy in the hit comedy Anchorman (Adam McKay 2004), a clueless egomaniac who is nevertheless the “hero” of the movie. It can be easy to equate the “stupidity” of Ron Burgundy, anchorman, with Anchorman, the movie.
My use of scare quotes around the term “hero” is deliberate, because Ron Burgundy in Anchorman as well as Aaron Rapoport and Dave Skylark (the characters played by Seth Rogen and James Franco) are also clearly targets of satire. We understand as viewers of these movies that we are supposed to see them as foolish, that part of the humor of these comedies involves making fun of characters who are at the same time the heroes of these movies. We are supposed to both laugh at and sympathize with them, see ourselves as superior to them while still rooting for them to succeed. Maybe part of why we have a hard time figuring out the importance of “stupid” comedies like The Interview stems from this inherent ambiguity about comic movies.
In my discussion of silent-era slapstick comedy Chapter Two of Screen Ages, I point out that “[c]comedy thrives on violating the rules of proper social behavior, on making fun of what is considered serious, important, and at times even sacred,” and for those reasons comedies—especially comedies that challenge our cultural distinctions between the mind and the body, between the polite and the rude—have always had an ambiguous social status (page 53). This ambiguity was as true for the “classic” silent-era comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd as it is for more recent examples of “stupid” comedies such as The Interview.
So am I arguing that The Interview is the equivalent artistic achievement of, say, The General (Buster Keaton 1926) or even more to the point, Charlie Chaplin’s satire of Adolf Hitler The Great Dictator (1940)? I’m sure that neither Rogen nor Franco would make that claim, and the fact that we have historically had a difficult time discussing the social importance and artistic merit of comedy doesn’t mean comedies are therefore above criticism. Whatever the merits you might or might not find in The Interview, however, it remains significant that commentators arguing for the political importance of free speech have seemed so uncomfortable with defending a “stupid” comedy. A historical perspective can help us understand that this discomfort is nothing new.
PS: For a thoughtful discussion of why we have a hard time seeing comedians as “heroes” and how modern consumer societies such as the United States use neglect rather than outright censorship as a means of defusing potentially subversive art, see the political cartoonist Tim Kreider’s essay, “When Art is Dangerous (or Not).”