First published online by Stuart Jeffries.
Ever since His Excellency Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen, self-styled beloved oppressor and chief ophthalmologist of the People’s Republic of Wadiya, inadvertently spilled Kim Jong-il’s ashes over Ryan Seacrest’s tux outside the Oscars, the world has had to deal with some pretty awkward questions.
What is it with our obsession with satirising dictators? Was Aristotle correct when he suggested that the right genre for dramatising bad men is comedy not tragedy, or should it be beneath us to find power-crazed nutjobs funny? Why can’t Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays Aladeen (slogan: “Death To The West!”) in the upcoming movie The Dictator, find some tougher targets? If it was wrong of the Sun to mock Roy Hodgson for his inability to pronounce rs, surely it’s unethical to have laughed at Team America‘s portrayal of Kim Jong-il complaining in song that he feels “so ronery”? How do you get a North Korean dictator’s ashes out of your tux? And who, ultimately, is Ryan Seacrest?
Let’s answer the least interesting one first. Ryan Seacrest is a radio personality and American Idol host. He can probably afford the dry cleaning.
As for Baron Cohen, many have been queasy about his shtick for a good while. His character Ali G, a vainglorious wannabe rapper and titular dictator of the West Staines Massive, perturbed some British comedians who found the character an alibi for white middle-class racism. “I feel that a lot of the humour is laughing at black street culture and it is being celebrated because it allows the liberal middle classes to laugh at that culture in a safe context where they can retain their sense of political correctness,” said comedian Felix Dexter.
And in his 2006 mockumentary Borat, he played an antisemitic TV anchor from Kazakhstan who visits the United States only to elicit the worst in American culture. Unsuspecting patrons of a country and western bar joined him in a sing-along version of his song Throw the Jew Down the Well. In the US, the Anti-Defamation League worried that “Borat” might enhance, rather than dash, antisemitism in some quarters. In Brüno (2009), his fashionista character confused the word “hummus” with “Hamas” while trying to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“What Sacha always tries to do, with Borat, Brüno and even The Dictator, is to make sure your victims are worthy, so that there’s a satirical aspect to the comedy,” says Jeff Schaffer, co-screenwriter of The Dictator. “These aren’t innocent victims.” Well, Noam Chomsky was, but Ali G’s “interview” with him was funny nonetheless. “Booyakasha! I’m here with my main man Professor Norman [sic] Chomsky,” said Ali G at the start of a free-form interview that explored why the MIT linguist knew so many words and whether his cousin being bilingual would help his sex life.
In The Dictator, the fascistic, misogynistic, Zionist-hating North African despot is visiting New York to give a speech at the UN but is kidnapped and stripped of his identity (including his precious beard) and left to wander the city until he is rescued by an elfin grocery manager played by Anna Faris. As the equal-opportunities offender Aladeen rides on the back of her motorbike, she asks him to stop clutching her breasts. “Those are breasts? But I thought you were a man,” the scandalised ex-despot retorts.
In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Aladeen and an Arab-speaking friend take a tourist flight over Manhattan in a helicopter. On the opposite seats are two mid-western tourists, increasingly terrified about their fellow travellers who are talking in an alien tongue. The only words the American tourists understand are “Empire State Building” but the Arab speakers’ accompanying exploding gestures are misconstrued as a plot to blow up the skyscraper – even though we in the audience know from subtitles that Aladeen and his friend are eulogising all the wonderful things New York has to offer and talking innocently about fireworks.
Some critics, though, fear that such scenes in the film could encourage rather than skewer Islamophobia. The film’s writers point out that Aladeen is nowhere described as Muslim. “Let’s be as clear as humanly possible,” co-writer David Mandel said. “Technically speaking, the dictator is North African. But he is not Muslim. There is no mention of Muslims, or Muslim humour.”
Schaffer and Mandel say they were inspired in the creation of Aladeen by real-life dictators Kim Jong-il, Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, and Serdar Turkmenbashi of Turkmenistan. It was Jong-il who, according to North Korean propaganda, hit nine holes-in-one the first time he played golf. Turkmenbashi passed a law changing the words for two days of the week to his own name. Gaddafi travelled with an all-female security force, insisting they take an oath to remain virgins while protecting the Libyan leader’s person and, when they weren’t steeling themselves to take a bullet, did the cleaning.
Baron Cohen’s Dictator, then, is a mashup of buffoonish megalomaniacs. But is that enough? Jerusalem Post columnist and occasional standup comedian Ray Hanania argued recently that Baron Cohen focuses on easy stereotypes. “I just think,” wrote Hanania, an Arab-American Palestinian Christian, “he could be a far more effective comedian if he did do more humour about his Jewishness, his Israeli heritage and the often conflicting relationships between Jews and Arabs.” Love, incidentally, the comedic understatement of “often conflicting”. Hanania adds: “It would have been far funnier and more appropriate than the dictator “Aladeen” walking down the red carpet in front of the former Kodak Theatre and then dumping “ashes” on the tuxedo of Ryan Seacrest.” Would it? Hanania doesn’t explain how.
Hanania did have another suggestion: “I think Baron Cohen could be far more effective if he turned his comedic talents inwards and portrayed someone like [Israeli] prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu or even rightwing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.”
That’s quite a comedy gauntlet: could Baron Cohen – could anyone? – make Israeli politics funny? Hanania’s idea sounds as hopeless as the one in Mel Brooks’s sublime stage show and film that plunders Hitler for laughs. In The Producers, Broadway producer Max Bialystock concocts a sure-fire flop – a musical about the rise of Nazism, featuring such stinkers as Der Guten Tag Hop Clop and a number in which Hitler sings about how he’s “the German Ethel Merman”. The production is an insurance scam, but disastrously for Bialystock, audiences love its satire of fascistic kitsch and his money-making disaster becomes a ruinous hit. Perhaps that’s a precedent: if Baron Cohen does follow up The Dictator with The Funny Side of Binyamin Netanhayu, it might slay them from Damascus to Des Moines and become box-office gold. Maybe.
But Hanania’s point goes to the heart of popular culture’s obsession with buffoonish, pantomimic dictators at the expense of satirising grey-suited technocratic leaders (even though the latter, arguably, deserve our attention more). True, Cohen does have a dig at besuited Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (he, like Aladeen, was an optician), but he’s the exception to the comedy rule: sober suits are less attractive to sartorial satirists than dictators who wear their psychic wounds if not on their sleeves then on their chests (think, in this regard, of Amin’s absurd array of dubious medals, satirised in The Dictator by Baron Cohen). We need to find the most evil men of modern politics laughable. We need to repress what is most disgusting about them even as we purport to shamelessly go into the heart of their intolerable psyches.
Consider two leading depictions of Hitler. In Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), we see him lying on his desk bouncing an inflated globe on his backside to the strains of Wagner’s Lohengrin. Or think, if you can bear it, of Freddie Starr as the goose-stepping Führer in shorts bawling daftly in an absurd approximation of German. In both cases evil has been domesticated, the tyrannical tamed. We need to transmute evil into comedy because we cannot bear to consider it as it is, gag free, for very long.
Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of the Führer at bay in his Berlin bunker in the 2004 film Untergang (Downfall) was no satire, but it was made so when footage from the film of Hitler ranting against the failings of his generals was transformed by clever subtitles into the Manchester United owner excoriating his team and manager’s shortcomings. The satirical device then went viral: everyone with a grudge subtitled the footage to settle dreary scores. The downfall of arguably the most evil man in history was thus transmuted through satire into everyday yip-yap. Hitler’s crazed reaction to the realisation of his looming doom thanks to the Soviet advance on the eastern front mutated into nothing more fraught than a particularly tasty Five Live phone-in.
In The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, detective Frank Drebin was working undercover in Beirut to foil a plot against America by the world’s supposedly baddest men circa 1988 – Amin, Ayatollah Khomeini, Mikhail Gorbachev, Yasser Arafat, Gaddafi and Fidel Castro. Disguised as a waiter, Drebbin discloses his true identity only when Khomeini rants to his evil conclave that America has become weak and ripe for the toppling. Drebin then burns the Ayatollah’s hand with a kettle and punches the Iranian so hard in the face that his headscarf flies off to reveal a pink mohican hairdo beneath. Then Drebin takes out the world’s trash – throwing Amin through a window, thumping Gaddafi and holding Gorbachev in a headlock while he examines the Soviet leader’s birthmark. It comes off when he rubs at it with a cloth. “I knew it,” mugs Drebin to camera. Then, all evil subdued in a marvellous piece of satirical and yet patriotic wish fulfilment, he attempts to leave by the window shouting, “I’m Frank Drebbin, police squad. And don’t ever let me ever catch you guys in America.” Then the shutters swing back and smack him in the face.
In Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Monsieur Jourdain sees himself differently from everyone else, not realising that his pretensions are laughable, that his grip on reality is not all that it should be. This venerable comedy formula of mismatched perceptions crosses readily into satirical depictions of dictators. They are funny because they lack self-knowledge. That was why Team America’s depiction of Kim Jong-il was so pathetic: not because it was racist (but it was that), but because it made him merely funny – effectively symbolically castrating the North Korean by depicting him as a vainglorious twit who can’t understand why the world thinks he’s a jerk. It was nonetheless a depiction that made him palatable to multiplex audiences.
That’s not the only move in the comedy sub-genre of satirising dictators. In an episode of Family Guy, Slobodan Milosevic turned up for a barbecue at the Griffins’. “I didn’t know what to bring so I brought coleslaw,’ he says, handing a bowl to Lois. “It’s made out of people. Hey, is Muammar here yet?” Meanwhile, Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were chilling in the Griffin’s hot tub sharing their love of old episodes of Seinfeld, just like ordinary Americans. Until, that is, Gaddafi discloses that he likes to kill his friends rather than hang with them at the coffee shop à la Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine. The gag here relies on the juxtaposition of the everyday with the psychopathically murderous, programatically soft pedalling the latter.
Giles Foden probably got nearer than anyone to self-consciously exploring our paradoxical attitude to dictators in his 1998 novel The Last King of Scotland. The Guardian’s former deputy literary editor depicted the Ugandan dictator as a buffoon, yes, but also as a man captivating enough to be able to woo not just his countrymen and women, but a Scottish doctor who becomes his personal physician. Like Molière’s Monsier Jourdain, argues Foden, “Amin had ideas above his station, seeing himself differently from the way others did. It was this veil between Amin and reality that made him entertaining. But Amin himself called the jokes sometimes. The hardest thing to understand about him is how he could be adroit and a buffoon at the same time.”
In Kevin Macdonald’s 2006 film adaptation of the novel, James McAvoy’s Dr Nicholas Garrigan attends a rally and, like the Ugandans around him, is captivated by Forest Whitaker’s Amin. This is generally intolerable in popular-culture depictions of dictators: we cannot allow ourselves to be so compromised as to even consider the possibility that the dictator has captivating allure for fear that we might imagine that we too might be seducible by the intolerable.
As Foden notes, Garrigan is a weak man, “the thin vessel whom Amin’s mythic power overwhelms”. In much popular culture, dictators’ mythic power has to be soft pedalled – for we (cinema goers, readers, TV viewers) are thin vessels, easily corrupted. There is something especially lamentable about Garrigan’s captivation by Amin for, as Foden points out, the Ugandan dictator was a pitiful third-rater next to the tyrants with whom he was compared, such as Bokassa, Pinochet, Stalin or Hitler. “He is also often compared to Saddam Hussein,” says Foden, “but it’s a fanciful comparison. Amin couldn’t even get his own cult of personality together, which Saddam did very efficiently. He was too simple and too brutal even to manage that ‘brutal simplicity’ which the historian Jacob Burckhardt has identified as a characteristic of the modern tyrant.”
There is another reason why dictators have to be made ridiculous. As Foden argues, Amin was like one of the adult psychopaths described by psychotherapist DW Winnicott. “A frozen child, he developed a warped attitude to the outside world into which his unstable beginnings and lack of education had jettisoned him ill-prepared,” explains Foden. “He merged with his environment, losing boundaries to the extent that he believed himself omnipotent, chosen by God, protected by spells. Unable to make proper object relations, he simply broke the object, ordering killed those who opposed him, or whom he thought opposed him.” Maybe, and it’s just a theory, we fear that we might lose our grasp on reality, just like Amin. We have to be protected from, rather than exposed to, that fear. Presenting Amin as Foden does reminds us intolerably of what we could have become or – worse – what we could become. Few dare to present dictators this way in popular culture.
Foden argues that wanting to be noticed is a natural enough urge – and one that dictators have to a pathological degree. “We find it all the time in families and at work. Philosophers have theorised our need for it. In the chapter of his Phenomenology entitled Lordship and Bondage, Hegel writes that human beings exist ‘only in being acknowledged’. All well and good if you are, sad if you are not. But how much more than sad if the fit of pique thrown when recognition is denied puts your country in turmoil for 20 years, causing (in the civil wars which followed his regime) the deaths of millions.”
Much more than sad. Is there anything more intolerable to imagine than that you were a frozen child incapable of empathy, temperamentally unable to grow up or restrain yourself from committing murder and worse? We can’t bear to contemplate the possibility that Amin, or any other dictator, resembles us only with more opportunities and less shame.
In one scene in the The Dictator, Aladeen is at the starting blocks of a 100m race. Not only is he a chief ophthalmologist but he’s also Wadiya’s leading sprinter. He fires his pistol to begin the race and then uses it to shoot competitors in neighbouring lanes in order to win. Even as we laugh, surely, we ought to be on our guard against the feebleness of the film’s project – how Baron Cohen has tamed dictators through this satirical mashup, made them merely laughable. We deserve better.