Before we go any further, let's be clear: Just because someone (me) objects to certain things that other people consider genuinely funny, doesn't necessarily mean that they (I) don't have a healthy sense of humor. I laugh at a lot of stuff. I laugh at Woody Allen movies, Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Jon Stewart and Sarah Silverman, among dozens of others. In fact, unless I'm mistaken, I vaguely recall laughing at something Dane Cook once said.
I love comedy. Believing that American politics desperately need to be "goosed up," I suggested, only half-jokingly, that whenever President Obama stands at the podium and announces to the nation a piece of momentously important news (e.g., the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, normalizing relations with Cuba, et al), some of the guys on his cabinet should run up behind him and dump a celebratory bucket of Gatorade on his head. Now that would be funny.
But what didn't strike me as funny, however, was reading in the newspaper, many weeks ago, that Sony was about to release a Seth Rogan film, The Interview, where it actually named names -- where it actually used the real-life North Korean dictator, Kim Jung-un, as a target of an attempted assassination. In fact, when I first heard that, I thought they were kidding.
Besides being recklessly and unnecessarily provocative (Kim Jong-un isn't widely known for his generous sense of humor), it stuck me not only as a lazy and unequivocal cheap shot, but as a schoolyard bully move. You want to do a clever satire or parody, fine, go for it. But using a real-life character as part of the gag is too aggressive.
When Charlie Chaplin presented his famous satire, The Great Dictator (1940), he didn't name the Hitleresque tyrant "Adolf Hitler." Doing that not only would have diminished the inherent wit by making the gag too explicit, but Chaplin clearly realized he didn't need to identify the tyrant, just as Sony should have realized they didn't need to identify this preposterous Asian dictator.
Just as we all knew who the Hitler character represented, we would all know who the Kim character represented. He's Asian, he's baby-faced, he's a totalitarian screwball. Just give the actor the same bad haircut as the real dictator, and the audience will happily take it from there.
Using specific names also raises another question, one a bit closer to home. Would those same First Amendment fanatics howl with laughter if a Pakistani movie studio were to release a film called, How We Brutally Murdered Hillary Clinton.
Honestly, other than the sheer notoriety and shock value of that title, what would the point be? And would a person who admitted to being offended by them automatically be relegated to the category of philistine or "square"?
And speaking of the First Amendment, everybody still gets that part wrong. The First Amendment has nothing to do with a boss censoring an employee, or a movie studio censoring a screenwriter, or a gallery owner censoring an artist. The First Amendment specifically addresses the government's censorship of private citizens.
Consider: If Sony Pictures had told Seth Rogen that he was forbidden to use Kim Jung Un's real name in The Interview, that would have been their prerogative, a boss's instruction to an employee. Had Barack Obama tried to forbid Sony Pictures from doing it, it would have been a violation of the First Amendment. There's a profound difference between the two.
David Macaray is a playwright and author (It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor). He can be reached at email@example.com