Megalomaniacal despots are not known for their self-deprecating sense of humour. Perhaps they giggle their way through old Three Stooges videos; maybe they chuckle as hapless aides are fed to the crocodiles. But a good belly laugh at their own expense is not really in the repertoire.
So it should come as no surprise that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may not be amused that the new Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview revolves around a CIA plot to get a celebrity talk-show host to kill him – nor, given the global, digital moment, that his henchmen seem to have been kept well informed of its coming release. And so we have the weird and worrying spectacle of what we assume are North Korean hackers breaking into Sony Pictures' computers, leaking lots of embarrassing e-mails unrelated to The Interview and then making terrorist threats against the film so credible the movie chains simply backed out of the studio's planned Dec. 25 release.
If you go online and watch the trailer for The Interview, the ludicrousness of the situation quickly becomes apparent: the North Korean leader is portrayed as an approachable guy who admits to a fondness for Katy Perry songs while the CIA is depicted as an organization stupid enough to let the kind of characters played by Rogen and Franco act as its hired assassins. There are many targets here, and North Korean tyranny appears to be the least of them.
The few critics who have seen the film are unamused too; Variety suggests it is a "terror attack on comedy." But the artistic merit of the project is hardly the point now that it has been so successfully censored. Whether it's as lame as the latest Adam Sandler or as ambitious as The Satanic Verses, it has the right to be seen.
Yes, the situation is worryingly reminiscent of the cultural clash that lead to the infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Hollywood and North Korea are both large and determined forces, and who knows where this geopolitical confrontation is headed.
Yet if Hollywood represents the epitome of Western cultural power to those who resent it, political satire in any form is traditionally the weapon of the weak. We think of authoritarian states as utterly humourless but, when they aren't starved or brain-washed into submission, their citizens routinely indulge in deeply cynical jokes about the absurdity of the regime. Soviet Communism was always known as a particularly rich source of black humour. Perhaps the viewers who North Korea is really worried about are its own long-suffering citizens.
In societies that are permitted to publicly laugh at themselves, it is also the weaklings and outsiders who point the way; Jewish and black comedy are amongst the strongest strains of American humour. And it's no coincidence that so many "American" comics, including Rogen, began life in Canada, from where they could cast a particularly ironic gaze at the more powerful neighbour to the south. Today, Rogen is paid millions – reportedly $8.4-million (U.S.) for The Interview – making jokes at the expense of American institutions, which at the very least is a great testament to the power of capitalism.
Right now, it's Sony that looks like it should be the target of some well-pointed satire as the company that threatened legal action against media who published the leaks now fails to put any muscle behind its artists' freedom of expression. Still, the situation should not be irretrievable if Sony could turn the tables on the hackers. Bootleg files of the film are already circulating on the Internet. Sony is going to lose its investment on The Interview anyway, so why doesn't the studio offer the film free online and ask for a donation per download to a freedom-of-speech charity? What technology took away from Sony, it could yet give back, and humour might still conquer tyranny.